Poultry in Motion, Perhaps, But I Didn't Win Best Bird

Carolyn Feola de Rugamas's Salvadoran Chicken With Pupusitas, on the competition's display table.
Carolyn Feola de Rugamas's Salvadoran Chicken With Pupusitas, on the competition's display table. (By Larry Lettera -- Camera One / Wagner Photos Nyc)

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By Carolyn Feola de Rugamas
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I have good friends, a solid family and a charming husband. But most of the time I feel like an outsider. I'm an observer, not a joiner. That's the only way I know how to explain why I watched the same National Chicken Cooking Contest three times -- all the way through -- before I even thought of entering.

It was last summer, on Food Network. Fifty-one state (and District) finalists, red pageant sashes flying, were racing around mini-kitchens to complete their chicken dishes for the chance to win cash prizes. The contestants were not professional chefs, but many had been entering bake-offs and county fairs since they were young. Some were at their second or third NCCC.

This is one of America's biggest cooking contests, with a grand prize of $100,000. It is eclipsed only by the Pillsbury Bake-Off, where the winner takes $1 million. The NCCC does have one up on Pillsbury, though. The first chicken contest was held in June 1949, a couple of months before the first bake-off, making the NCCC the oldest continually operating cooking competition in the nation.

These cook-offs are a true American subculture, and watching the NCCC on TV, I was fascinated -- enough to watch it again a few weeks later. When I caught the broadcast a third time and saw Miss Indiana win her bonanza again, I finally tried on the idea of Miss Maryland. I can cook, I thought. I like chicken. I like bonanzas. Why couldn't I enter? I really should enter. I'm going to enter!

I spent the next two months working on recipes for the 47th contest in Birmingham, Ala. God bless my husband, Mario, who ate everything and didn't say a word about the mounting grocery bill. In the end, four table-tested dishes seemed good enough to enter. I e-mailed them in on Oct. 14, the last day for entries.

One of the recipes was for Salvadoran Chicken With Pupusitas, inspired by a pork-based stew that a Mexican friend had served me recently. I had tweaked the recipe to focus on chicken, and I included small pupusas, the traditional Salvadoran stuffed tortillas. Normally pupusas are made with cheese and beans or pork, but my pupusitas included chicken from the stew. I figured that two uses of chicken might go over well with the judges.

Something indeed went over well, because in late December the call came. Nancy Tringali Piho, the contest's director, told me that my recipe had won for the state of Maryland and that I'd be going to Birmingham. This outsider had made her way in.

My entries were among thousands received for the 2007 contest, according to Piho. The entries are given to an independent judging agency that evaluates them for taste, appearance, simplicity and overall appeal. The three top recipes for each state are then kitchen-tested, and if the top recipe performs well, it is named the state winner.

In my kitchen, pupusitas had not always performed well. They sometimes turned out like corn-flavored rubber. If my pupusitas were to be contenders, I realized, I'd need professional help. So in April, I flew to El Salvador.

Well, that's not really why I went. I went to meet my in-laws. But it was a serendipitous opportunity to learn from Mario's five sisters, who were more than happy to show me around a bowl of sticky masa dough. We practiced the whole time I was there. I even made a passable pupusa for my father-in-law, whose smile of approval was the boost I needed just before the contest.

Mario and I arrived at the Sheraton Birmingham the day before the cook-off. We'd spent the previous week driving all over chicken country: the Delmarva Peninsula, the Outer Banks, South Carolina's Low Country and the heart of Georgia. Despite the long drive and the chaos of check-in, I was done being stressed, and I was ready to get started.

We made our way to the hospitality suite for a snack and to meet everyone. I was looking forward to putting faces to the recipes and histories that I had seen in our contestant materials. I knew we were split almost evenly between experienced contestants and first-timers, but I was surprised to see insiders and outsiders in both factions. At the center tables of the suite were some veteran gals and the more excited newcomers, cackling and gossiping. Mario and I sat against the wall next to other folks who seemed content to take it all in.


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