Musings: The Day I Nearly Won the Pillsbury Bake-Off

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author


This Labor Day weekend marked the forty-first anniverary of the time I nearly won the
Pillsbury Bake-Off.
And I can’t cook.
I couldn’t cook forty-one years ago and I can’t cook now. Well, I have to 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 grille; 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 woud be held that Labor Day in Boston as part of the nation’s bicentennial
celebration; further, to draw attention to the contest there woud 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. Woud I be interested in participating as one of
the ten 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, in that case she could send me
a recipe to practice with 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 late by then and 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, including: 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 Boston Globe; and Maria Tiant, wife of Red Sox ace Luis. A Dixieland
jazz band entertained and we were all outfitted in aprons and chefs’ 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. The recipes, at least in the
celebrity contest, did not require either baking or using Pillsbury products.
In the early going I fell behind the pace (If you don’t know your way around the kitchen
peeling and coring apples can take a loooong time). While the this was going on reporters
from the food media were wandering among the contestants conducting interviews.
“What,” I was asked, “is the secret of 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 thn hell, 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
Betsy, “I think I’m going to win this thing, 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 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.