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For Cooks, the Joy of Winning

WHEN the oven mitts came off and the knives came out at the 16th annual Build a Better Burger contest in St. Helena, Calif., this fall, a 35-year-old sociology professor named Camilla Saulsbury was the first to draw blood. Unfortunately, it was her own.

While mincing garlic for a hamburger she hoped would win her the $50,000 grand prize, Ms. Saulsbury, who lives in Nacogdoches, Tex., nicked the middle finger of her left hand. Though minor, the wound served, she said, as a big red warning sign not to let the pressure get to her.

Just last year, also in St. Helena, Ms. Saulsbury had sliced into her left index finger while competing in the Food Networks Super Seafood Grill-Off. Worried that the contests organizers would make her stop grilling her striped bass and send her to the hospital, she hid the seriousness of her wound by wrapping it in gauze and sealing the whole mess inside a rubber glove with duct tape.

I wanted to finish, so I didnt want the blood gushing out to alarm people, recalled Ms. Saulsbury, whose finger injury last year required stitches. I dont think of myself as being that competitive, but when I think back to that contest, I guess I am.

Although a cook-off isnt typically a blood sport, the adrenaline rush of high-level head-to-head cooking has been known to bring out the dogged competitor in even the most decorous heartland homemaker.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans test their culinary mettle by entering recipe or cooking contests each year, according to Betty Parham, the editor of Cooking Contest Central (www.recipecontests.com), a Web site popular with avid contesters, as they call themselves. And once the competitive fire is sparked within a casual cook, the compulsion to enter the next contest, and the one after that, often proves irresistible.

It becomes like an addiction, Ms. Parham said. The entering and the waiting. And then theyll get a win, and that spurs them on.

Like poker players, Scrabble addicts and fantasy baseball managers, competitive cooks sometimes fill every spare hour with their pastime.

You get to the point where everything you cook has to be creative; otherwise its a wasted meal, said Diane Sparrow, a finalist in this years Build a Better Burger contest, who went cold turkey on cook-offs last year after several years in which she averaged 150 entries. Its a hobby, she said. Theres no sense in it if it feels like work.

THE ranks of competitive cooks have swelled in recent years as the number of contests there are now thousands and the cash value of the prizes have surged. A decade ago, a typical national contest received 1,000 recipes from home cooks, Ms. Parham said; today, nearly 10 times that many enter.

But only the most talented cooks, celebrities of the circuit like Ms. Saulsbury, reach the rarefied heights of the hypercompetitive Big 5, a sort of culinary grand slam of contests that includes the $1 million Pillsbury Bake-Off, as well as the Build a Better Burger contest. Widely known as the B.B.B., it is held on the lawn of a Napa Valley inn owned by its sponsor, Sutter Home Family Vineyards.

In September, at the B.B.B., Ms. Saulsbury finished slicing her garlic without further incident. The grills were lined up like race cars at the starting line as the top contesters eight women and two men gathered for the start of the final. Kathi Jones, 47, a marketing sales representative from Rochester, was the first of the beefburger competitors to step to the controls of her machine and fire up the ignition.

O.K., lets cook some meat here, she declared, and the game was on.

The competitors five competing for the $50,000 Best Beef Burger prize and five for the $10,000 Best Alternative Burger prize, for patties using any other ground food had three hours to prepare their burgers. Their start times were staggered so that one finalist presented to the panel of five judges every 15 minutes.

Three grills down from Ms. Jones, Ms. Saulsbury, who last year took home the $100,000 grand prize at the National Chicken Cooking Contest in Charlotte, N.C., sliced fennel for her Born in Berkeley Burger. Her entry, a bacon cheeseburger, offered a complex blend of flavors including aged teleme cheese, arugula-fig topping, pepper bacon and lemon-grilled fennel that she described as a kind of autobiography on a bun.

For me, biting into these burgers tastes like home, she said. We had a lemon tree in our backyard, and wed get fresh figs from the neighbors.

Grilling away on Ms. Saulsburys right was Ms. Sparrow, 55, from Osage, Iowa. The pair had met at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2000, and even though Ms. Saulsbury beat her out for the prize that day, Ms. Sparrow later gave her a cheesecake recipe that Ms. Saulsbury used to make her own wedding cake.

People who enjoy cooking enjoy it because they like to share it with other people, Ms. Sparrow said. I think thats why you get a camaraderie you dont get in other sports.

To outsiders, the civility among the competitors can seem almost too wholesome to be believed, particularly with so much cash on the line. The killer instinct that so often separates the winner from the also-rans was left well hidden. As it happened, the salad spinner Ms. Jones was using to dry the spinach for her burgers had been lent to her by a rival, Ms. Saulsbury, who made the loan offer in the weeks before the contest so that Ms. Jones would not have to haul her own spinner cross-country.

My friends back in Rochester said, Kathi, bring your own shes probably doing that to trip you up, Ms. Jones said. There were big conspiracy theories.

Ms. Jones was not distracted by such suspicions, nor was she put off her game by the overpoweringly spicy scent now wafting across the lawn from the Masala Burgers of Daljeet Singh, 59, a red-turbaned engineer from Coral Springs, Fla.

With the utmost precision, Ms. Jones positioned her Mirin-Glazed Burgers on their buns. Then, hands shaking slightly as the clock ticked down, she placed a ring of sesame-ponzu spinach around the patties, picked up her serving plate and speed walked to the podium to deliver it to the judges.

When the head judge, James McNair, a folksy cookbook author, took a bite, a wave of wasabi-ginger mayonnaise surged out of the burger and onto his mustache. That superfluity of mayo, it turned out, spelled the end of Ms. Joness chances.

Wasabi face, he said, trying not to look too undignified.

Its just dripping with it, grumbled another judge.

Ms. Saulsburys afternoon went more smoothly, and the looks of undisguised pleasure on the judges faces when they bit into their Born in Berkeley Burgers told the whole story.

My husband might be really dismayed to hear me say this, Daisy Martinez, a judge, said to Ms. Saulsbury. But will you marry me?

The crowd cheered, and when Ms. Saulsbury was awarded the oversize check a little later, no one was surprised. On the podium, she received a collegial hug from the second-place finisher, Jenny Flake, 29, a part-time dental hygienist from Gilbert, Ariz., who made Feta Florentine Burgers with Frizzled Prosciutto, and Ms. Sparrow, who finished third.

As the $50,000 grand prize winner, Ms. Saulsbury was whisked away in a limousine for a dinner in San Francisco, to be followed by a flight to New York and an appearance on Today.

Developing recipes is part of who I am, said Ms. Saulsbury, who began entering contests as a hobby while a graduate student at Indiana University in 1999. Its my identity and an intellectual and creative challenge. Indeed, she even wound up writing her doctoral dissertation on home cooking and identity. And she has also written five cookbooks, including Puff Pastry Perfection, which is being published by Cumberland House this month.

The other finalists at the B.B.B., while disappointed, did not repair to their hotel rooms and lick their wounds. Instead, a group went to dinner with friends at a nearby restaurant. There they ordered just about everything on the menu that wasnt a burger and poked fun at one another for past culinary adventures, like putting a banana in a pot of soup.

In just a few days, Ms. Sparrow and an alternative burger finalist, Olga Esquivel-Holman (whose Paella Burgers used ground chicken), would be traveling to South Carolina as finalists in the Southern Living Cook-Off, another of the Big 5. (Each won $10,000 there.)

We also have a few deadlines coming up, said Ms. Flake., whose B.B.B. appearance was her second without a victory. Theres National Chicken. Im sure Ill enter that.

She stared into the middle distance for a moment, as if beginning to mix ingredients in her head. And Id like to start thinking about some more burger recipes, she said with a hopeful grin. Third times a charm.

The Big Five Contests

BUILD A BETTER BURGER The next contest is set for fall 2007 in St. Helena, Calif. buildabetterburger.sutterhome.com

NATIONAL BEEF COOK-OFF Next in Chicago, September 2007. www.beefcookoff.org

NATIONAL CHICKEN COOKING CONTEST Next in Birmingham, Ala., May 2007. www.chickencookingcontest.comPILLSBURY BAKE-OFF Next in 2008, site to be determined. www.pillsbury.com/bakeoff

SOUTHERN LIVING COOK-OFF Next in Birmingham, Ala., in October 2007. www.southernlivingcookoff.com

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