Fair's Cooking Contests Attract Young Top Chef Wannabes

Matronly home cooks clutching recipe cards inherited from their kitchen-wise grannies are no longer shoo-ins to win culinary contests at the State Fair of Texas.

The number of young men competing in the various contests featuring Dr Pepper, Spam and Malt-o-Meal has been steadily increasing over the past decade, but this year may mark a tipping point for what longtime contest judge Marc Cassell characterizes as the "single man" contingent: Volunteers estimate as many as half of this year's competitors don't fit the stereotypical aproned housewife mold.

"We have more young ones than we've ever had," says Sharon Williams, a volunteer contest coordinator. "There are probably four men that come almost every day, and we have a teenager who beat out his mother."

Williams attributes the phenomenon partly to the Food Network, which has restored glamour and prestige to the agricultural tradition of outcooking one's neighbor.

"And once they see they're not the only man here, they come back," she says.

In the Hollywood version of this story, the old-timers would resent the newcomers, sabotaging their recipes and stealing their flour. But Williams says there's no hostility on the kitchen floor.

"Oh no, not at all," Williams says. "They're very welcoming."

The competitors' camaraderie extends even to under-prepared entrants, such as the man who showed up empty-handed for a contest in which competitors were required to bring their own ingredients. Other competitors equipped the newbie with what he needed and, Williams says, "he won first place."

"You see a lot of goodwill," says Cassell, executive chef at Park.

Williams hasn't yet calculated whether young cooks are winning more contests than the cooks who, as Cassell puts it, "still use Oleo in their recipes." But the results of the Red River Biscuit Shootout suggest the new class of cooks might have a slight edge: While Cassell wasn't wowed by biscuits submitted in the contest's non-traditional category, he says, "overall, they were better" than the traditional entries.

"The standard biscuits weren't that great," he says. "I figured, judging the biscuit contest at the State Fair of Texas, I'd taste some damn good biscuits."

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