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The day I nearly won the Pillsbury Bake-Off

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The Pillsbury people must have worked their way pretty far down the celebrity food chain before they got to me because the woman said, well, she could send me a recipe to practice beforehand.


This Labor Day weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the time I nearly won the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

And I can't even cook.

I couldn't cook 45 years ago and I can't cook now. Well, I must admit that I am a whiz at heating up canned soup (Helpful hint: For best results remove soup from can before heating. You're welcome). Also, there was a period in my life when I'd go out into the backyard with a glass of wine and throw some steaks on the grill; then I'd sip thoughtfully on the wine as the steaks got totally ruined. I don't do that anymore. I stopped drinking wine a while ago so I no longer have any need to go out into the backyard. Other than that, my record as a non-cook is unblemished.

One Friday in August 1976, when I was a commentator at WBZ-TV in Boston, I received a phone call from a woman who identified herself as a representative of the Pillsbury Baking Company. She said that what was then the annual bake-off sponsored by Pillsbury would be held that Labor Day in Boston as part of the nation's bicentennial celebration; further, to draw attention to the contest there would be a "celebrity bake-off" on the day preceding the big event and a contribution would be made in each celebrity's name to the charity of his or her choice. Would I be interested in participating as one of the 10 local celebrities?, the woman wanted to know.

I allowed that it certainly sounded interesting but there was one little problem. "I can't cook," I confessed.

The Pillsbury people must have worked their way pretty far down the celebrity food chain before they got to me because the woman said, well, she could send me a recipe to practice beforehand.

"In that case, I'm in," I boldly stated, and the woman said she'd send the recipe right along and by the way, what would I like to cook? She rattled off a list of recipes she had available; when she got to apple baked Alaska I stopped her. "That's it, apple baked Alaska," said I, and the deal was done.

The next day, I headed off with my family for a vacation in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, giving not one thought to apples, baking, or Alaska while I was away. We returned on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and, while going through the mail that had piled up since our absence, there it was, the recipe for apple baked Alaska. I had completely forgotten about it. And the celebrity bake-off was to be held on the very next day.

My wife Betsy sent me to the market to purchase the ingredients called for in the recipe and suggested that I line them up in the order they'd be used to avoid confusion (there would be no coaching or outside assistance allowed in the contest itself). I managed to assemble the ingredients but it was so late by then that I never got to cook them.

On Sunday, we were off to the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. Destiny awaited.

The ballroom had been filled with one hundred tiny kitchenettes, complete with stoves, counters, and refrigerators, for the main bake-off on the following day. Ten of the kitchenettes had been roped off for the celebrities, which included: TV personality Janet Langhart, later to become the wife of former United States senator and secretary of defense Bill Cohen; Carl DeSuze, long-time morning drive time host on WBZ radio; Robert Bergenheim, publisher of the then Boston Herald American; Anthony Spinazzola, food critic of the The Boston Globe; and Maria Tiant, wife of Red Sox ace Luis Tiant. A Dixieland jazz band entertained and we were all outfitted in aprons and chef hats with a bicentennial motif.

The rules were that we all had to start from scratch and finish preparing our recipes in an alloted period of time with no coaching from the side lines.

In the early going I fell behind the pace (when you don't know your way around the kitchen, peeling and coring apples can take a loooong time). While this was going on reporters from the food media were wandering among the contestants conducting interviews. "What," I was asked, "is the secret to making apple baked Alaska?"

"Line up your ingredients in the order they'll be used," I explained.

Time was running low, and my recipe required freezing. There was no way the little freezer that was part of my refrigerator could get the job done, so my apple baked Alaska had to be rushed to the hotel freezer for emergency treatment. My recipe was the last to be tasted by the judges, who were chefs from various hotels in town.

Then it was time to announce the winners. First the seven runners up would be announced in no particular order, then the third, second and first place winners.

The first of the also-rans was announced, "Anthony Spinazzola's Shrimp Pernod." He was madder than the dickens, convinced that the chefs/judges had conspired against him in retribution for past tepid reviews he'd written in the Globe. One by one other contestants fell by the wayside. Bob Bergenheim's Lobster Pizza was an early casualty. Janet Langhart's Pumpkin Soup was not far behind. After five eliminations I whispered to my wife, "I think I'm going to win, and I can't even cook."

Across the way, I noticed that the woman from Pillsbury who had sent me the recipe was getting extremely nervous. If I won it would surely get out that I had been aided and abetted by her.

Then, it was down to the three finalists, and I was still alive. My competition consisted of: Carl DeSuze, who had prepared some sort of chicken and peanut dish; and Maria Tiant, who had made a shrimp dip, which was delicious and quite spicy. I figured the shrimp dip was the biggest threat, after all, who could ever vote for chicken and peanuts? This was despite the fact that DeSuze had the reputation of a gourmet cook, a reputation greatly enhanced by the fact that he said so himself quite often on the radio.

"And the third place winner is ... (Fanfare by the Dixieland band) ... Maria Tiant's Spicy Shrimp Dip!" Now I was convinced that I would be crowned the winner of the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I began composing my acceptance remarks in my head (Be humble, but not excessively so, I told myself).

"The second place winner is ... (still another fanfare) ... Dick Flavin's Apple Baked Alaska!" Now I was the one who was upset. How, I thought, could anyone choose chicken and peanuts over my apple baked Alaska? I thought briefly about demanding a recount. Meanwhile I think the woman from Pillsbury had to be revived with smelling salts.

Well, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it. I haven't cooked or tried to since that day.

I quit while I was ahead.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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