When the National Chicken Council’s board of directors decided, on September 18, to put the National Chicken Cooking Contest into indefinite suspension, the organization quietly canceled an institution that is older than many of its member companies. Dating its origins back to 1949, the Contest has over the years awarded millions of dollars in prizes and helped create an extensive library of chicken recipes. In its heyday, the Contest was the poultry industry’s biggest tool to generate publicity and goodwill with home cooks and food editors.
Initial reports of the suspension focused on the financial aspects of the decision. According to Richard Lobb, spokesman for the Council, the contest cost the industry hundreds of thousands of dollars each time it was held. The global economic recession has pinched cash flow in the industry, forcing the board to decide which chicken-promoting activities to keep and which to suspend or let go. But the contest may be as much a victim of other forces as it is of a depleted bank account.
In the past, the contest generated coverage in national as well as local newspaper food sections – but few such sections exist today, as newspapers themselves shrink or go out of business altogether. The Contest’s top prize, which was halved after 2007 from $100,000 to $50,000, hardly merits a notice in this age of $200 million lottery payouts. And the event’s reliance on upward of 100 volunteers, supplied by NCC member companies, necessitated that it be held in a state with a substantial poultry industry, further increasing costs due to transportation. The event’s organizers have made a variety of changes to control costs – it was made a biennial rather than annual event in 1983, for example – but it continued to be expensive.
"The winds of change are just roaring for this along with everything else," Lobb told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Maybe it all just got too big."
In the contest’s prime, the 1970s and ‘80s, a period coinciding with a rapid increase in U.S. per capita poultry consumption, a regional chicken-recipe winner from each state plus the District of Columbia, plus their spouse or another member of the family, was flown to the national competition’s city (which rotated from year to year) and ensconced in a nice hotel for three days. The cook-off itself was held in a convention center. Fifty-one electric stoves, one for each winner, were donated by General Electric (in the contest’s past few years, the stoves were supplied by Alabama Power & Light). The last competition to be held, on May 2 this year at the Culinary Institute of America campus in San Antonio, Texas, used a regional format, with one winner from each of the nine separate regions of the U.S. the Census Bureau has established. It was the 48th National Chicken Cooking Contest and quite possibly the last.
Lobb said the contest was popular among cooks because "the rules were very, very stable for a long time, which isn’t true for some other cooking contests. The contestants liked that because there was little restriction on their creativity. Recipes were judged on taste, simplicity and overall appeal – and each recipe had to be made twice in no more than three hours. "Sometimes you saw some of the cooks really scrambling as the clock was running out," remembered the NCC spokesman. Following the contest, NCC published a paperback cookbook of all 51 recipes featured in the final cook-off, plus a selection of recipes from past contests.
Poultry companies also seemed to like the contest. "Wherever we took it, we had fantastic support from the local companies," Lobb said. "I always heard good things about it from the top executives who would come. It gave them good access to local media."
In a statement announcing the contest’s suspension, NCC president George Watts said: "We appreciate the efforts of the state associations, companies and volunteers who have hosted and run the contest in past years. And we appreciate the creativity of the thousands of home cooks who have submitted recipes and those who have been selected to compete in the Cookoff itself. They have shown tremendous imagination and skill, and we hope they will keep on cooking."
Lobb said cooking contests overall have had to change according to the times and demands. He pointed out that Pillsbury, which hosts a huge baking and cooking contest, has upped its grand prize to $1 million to better generate publicity for the winner and the contest. He wouldn’t say the National Chicken Cooking Contest won’t ever come back, but that’s a possibility. "It’s still a good idea," he said. "Never say never."