"Chicken Chilinoff" did not win the $10,000 grand price.
It did not even win he $1,000 fifth prize.
Instead, my eight tender thighs awash in sour cream, wine, chili powder and caraway seeds finished somewhere deep in the culinary junkheap of also-rans at the 35th National Chicken Cooking Contest in Alabama week before last.
Truth be known, Chilinoff did well just to snag the District of Columbia title. I was too frantic around deadline time to actually cook it, and the judges at the National Broiler Council deemed to think the only way to deal with 10,000 entries nationwide was to sightread them, much the same way a soprano might scan a musical score and immediately begin warbling.
So I retyped my 1980 entry, tripled the garlic, doubled the chili powder, added Tabasco, substituted caraway seeds for taragon and dropped it in the mail. Then I left the country.
Imagine my shock when a month later, while dictating a story from a Shanghai hotel room, an editor in Florida broke the news: "Congratulations, kid. You have just been name Miss D.C. Chicken."
I let rip a great trans-Pacific victory cluck. After four long years of subjecting friends to poultry cooked with everything from anchovies to zucchini, I had finally earned a shot at the big time, an opportunity to win the coveted pullet surprise.
But I was hard pressed to explain adequately this good fortune to my Chinese hosts from the Peking Daily News. For although Miss Deng, the art and culture editor, spoke some English -- she was a great John Wayne fan and knew almost all the songs from "The Sound of Music" -- she was understandably puzzled by a national competition dedicated to the preparation of chickens. She seemed surprised that the comrade journalist with whom she had spent the past five days spent any time at all in the kitchen.
A number of fellow contestants in Brimingham said much the same thing: When does such a busy "career girl" find time to cook?
"About an hour before feeding time" I'd reply, not even correcting "girl" to "woman," adding that I learned to cook as a pre-teen and to love it as a grad student.
Now, as a political writer forced to consume my weight in undercooked chicken and overcooked pot roast every two years on the campaign trail, I viewed home cooking as a cross between stovetop therapy and edible art.
You can have your squash courts and your sailboats. Give me a pack of chicken parts and 60 minutes and I'll produce a plateful of poultry evoking France, Italy, the Far East, the Middle East or the Lower East Side. I have made deep-fried gizzards for Australian cousins, barbecued wings for the neighbors and sent chicken soup to an ailing Congressman.
In short, fowl play in the kitchen has made me the woman I am today. I had hoped, of course, that said woman might become the 1983 champion, and, between us, I'd already decided to blow my winnings on a mink coat. There I'd be, swathed in fur, purring "What becomes a newshen?"
Certainly being named Miss D.C. Chicken was not without rewards: An all expense paid trip to Birmingham, the blast furnace of the South, in August; a new set of pots; a knife so sharp that I and 11 other contestants drew blood during the cookoff; an engraved silverplate Revere bowl; a jar of 'Bama-made Superman peanut butter and the perfect excuse to send Nora Ephron my recipe for Key lime pie.
For a few self-deluded days, I actually thought I could win this contest. That was before I cooked Chilinoff exactly the way it was written. Unfortunately, once in the hands of the Broiler council, all ingredients and instructions were virtually set in concrete, not to mention type (See p. 14, The Chicken Cookbook, 1983, Bantam).
Who could have guessed that two tablespoons of chili powder, two teaspoons of caraway seeds and a cup each of wine and sour cream, given a scant 20 minutes to simmer, would taste faintly like creamed turpentine?
And who could have guessed that the blue ribbon would go to a cook who used only eight ingredients, including chicken, salt and pepper?
Not I, though I have been obsessed by this contest since 1980. That was the year the original Chilinoff was aced out in D.C. by Capital Chicken Casserole, which went on to win the grand nationals, undoubtedly for its key ingredient -- cream of chicken soup.
I was convinced this was a nationwide exercise in lowest common denominator cooking, in which every ingredient had to pass the Tulsa Seven-11 Test -- if it's not available in America's truck stops, it doesn't belong in the recipe. I viewed this contest as proof positive that such staples as California onion dip mix, Cheeze Whiz and Catalina red French dressing were gross national products that could never darken the pantries of my snooty pat,e and Pinot Grigio crowd.
What could you say about a cooking competition in which only 25 of a possible 100 points were for Taste, the other 75 being evenly divided among Simplicity, Appearance and Appeal?
But times change. "nouvelle" and "minceur" have made their way into supermarket-rack women's magazines, knockoff food processors now retail for $39.95 and the judges at the Broiler Council have recognized the existence of such heretofore exotics as lentils, sesame oil, endive and pine nuts. Moreover, Taste has climbed to 40 points, Appearance to 30 and Simplicity and Appeal are down to 15 each. That's progress.
It would be easy to dismiss this three-day, $300,000 extravaganza as high camp. In fact it was more like summer camp. From the moment we arrived till the moment we left, we were hosted by some of the leading lights of the nation's poultry establishment -- bird breeders, feed grain moguls and vaccine manufacturers who came to Birmingham at their own expense to run this show. My camp counselor was Stanley Appleton of Gainesville, Ga., Broiler Capital of the World, who was spotted by one contestant on cookoff morning roaming the Hyatt corridor in his skivvies and hairdryer trying to roust one of his nine charges.
We were not quite a demographer's dream: three men and 48 women ranging in age from 23 to 75 and in occupation from mental- health administrator to steel-cabinet assembler to jockey. We were 19 city dwellers, 10 suburbanites, 18 small- towners and four farm residents. There were 12 "just housewives" and 12 previous cookoff contenders.
To this second dozen, and several other contestants, chicken was just another ingredient required to enter, and Birmingham just another stop on the global food circuit. Louisiana's Carolyn Chaney had just come from the National Farm Raised Catfish cooking contest and North Carolina's Frances Anderson had once placed in a Hellman's competition using mayonnaise in her pie crust.
New York's Lentsy Carlson sported an impressive diamond ring from La Choy for stuffing a chicken with chow mein noodles and cranberries; won a trip to Hawaii and $10,000 for creating a salad of iceberg lettuce and Dole pineapple, and a set of pots for baking fish dredged in powdered lemon Jello.
In fact, only two of this year's five top chicken cooks, first place and fifth, were contest novices. Collectively, however, they represented an extraordinary cross-section of American womanhood.
Grand prize winner Karen Johnson of Wichita, married 27 years ago at the age of 14 or 15, a high school graduate who spends one day a week experimenting in her kitchen, entered the contest without the knowledge of husband Virgil. Her Chicken In Lime Butter used dried dill weed and chives because she hasn't gotten around to testing fresh herbs, and she's going to use the $10,000 to finish an addition to their house.
Second place went to the oh-so- voluble Betty Dunn of Nashville, whose husband Winfield was once Tennessee's governor. As for the $5,000 for her Pecan Chicken with Dijon Mustard, "My husband tells me I've already spent it."
Ah, third place. If Kansas' Karen Johnson was Betty Crocker, Colorado's Pamela Stross was Sally Ride -- bright, articulate, accomplished, a 25- year-old harpsichord-playing three- time national competitor who first cooked off at age 12. She'll use the $3,000 for Rainbow Chicken Salad to return to Vienna to finish her novel.
The losers, too, were a splendid microcosm of America. Sambhu Banik of Bethesda, via Calcutta, distinguished himself early on by jumping into the great garnish debate, a real-life row over the chances of disqualification for using ingredients not listed in the recipe to improve a dish's appearance. For almost a quarter hour, he and half a dozen other anxious cooks agonized aloud over whether to add carrot curls, parsley florets, rice and noodles, the upshot finally being "parsley, si, noodles, no."
Bahnik further distinguished himself by appearing for the cookoff in dazzling white trousers and an elaborately embroidered Mexican shirt. But he was no match for Hawaii's Ken Elder, who showed up each day in a different open-necked, brightly colored sport shirt that would have done the Maui Horticulture Society proud. "I don't have any problem being only one of three men here, but I'm not sure I can take being surrounded by 48 wahinis," he told a local TV crew, his dentures clacking excitedly.
I, too, succumbed to Chicken Fever, and wore a ceramic necklace of five spotted guinea hens. I even managed to muster a little dignity to march in the parade of cooks, all of us draped with crimson sashes bearing our state names and grinning majestically as if we had just won a beauty pageant.
Of course, it felt odd cooking in the middle of the cavernous Civic Center, 51 dueling stoves in 51 red and white curtained booths. But it was also touching and not at all embarrassing to hand one another our cookbooks and ask for autographs by each of our recipes. There was the usual array of "good luck" and "best wishes" and even a "Jesus loves you" scrawled by fellow competitors. There did not appear to be a single sorehead loser among us.
Though I wasn't devastated by the loss, I was curious enough to ask two of the 15 judges where I went wrong, as if I didn't know.
"Honey, throw out that bottle of chilli powder, it was overpowering," said Los Angeles Times food editor Betsy Balsley
"Too many caraway seeds," said television's Chef Tell. Then, eyeing my lowcut cocktail dress, he added consolingly, "You were number six. Yes, number six."
Right, Chef. And I'm Chicken Little, too.