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Originally published April 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 9, 2008 at 2:23 AM

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A memoir on getting lucky with Holy Grail of cook-offs

All around her kitchen sat the pieces that would solve Ellie Mathews' puzzle. Frozen chicken thighs. A jar of Old El Paso salsa. A sack of couscous...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Pillsbury Bake-Off

The 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest takes place April 12-15 in Dallas. The biennial cooking contest hails back to 1949. Of the tens of thousands of recipes entered, two Northwest women made it to the final 100 this time around: Elizabeth Bennett, of Mill Creek, and Sheilah Fiola, of Kent. View the finalists at pillsbury.com.

All around her kitchen sat the pieces that would solve Ellie Mathews' puzzle.

Frozen chicken thighs. A jar of Old El Paso salsa. A sack of couscous. Raisins. Cinnamon.

Combine and bake. Jot the details in recipe form. Send it all off to Pillsbury. And boom: Mathews, a local writer with a knack for making the most of what she finds in her pantry, was off to Florida. There, her Salsa Couscous Chicken would win the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off (and a million dollars). She became only the second Washingtonian to take the top prize (Pearl Hall bested all comers in 1971 with Pecan Surprise Bars).

Mathews' memoir about her cooking-contest adventures, "The Ungarnished Truth" (Berkeley Books, 276 pp., $23.95) came out last month and answers all those questions she's been asked the past 10 years while giving a behind-the-scenes look at a variety of contests. Mathews, 62, who divides her time between Seattle and Port Townsend, attributes her big Pillsbury win to good fortune rather than any particular strategy.

She got lucky, she says, doing what she likes best: being resourceful in the kitchen.

Q: So, how does one go about winning a cooking competition?

A: It's like doing a puzzle. Part of the whole effort is to try to puzzle out what they're looking for. Do they want elaborate? Do they want simple? Do they want you to use a mix and add one thing? It's very hard to know except in the long-standing contests like the Pillsbury. When I entered the Pillsbury I didn't know to look at past winners and what the trends had been in the history of the contest. I should have. That just points all the more to the fact that it was absolute luck what the outcome was for me.

Q: Has winning changed how people introduce you?

A: A classic situation is to be at a dinner party with people I haven't met before and halfway through the hostess says 'Oh, don't you know Ellie Mathews won?' It is a bit of a showstopper, and there are always questions.

Q: I hear there's a certain lingo among contestants?

A: It's "contesters." They put the emphasis on the first syllable. There is a network of sorts. If someone enters a lot of these things and goes to a lot of cook-offs, they're going to see some familiar faces ... most contest sponsors require an affidavit when they notify somebody they're going to be a finalist; they require that to prove the recipe is original. Those are referred to as "affies." "I got my affie." Which has almost become shorthand for saying "I'm a finalist."

Q: Do people expect extravagant meals from you now that you've won the biggest cooking contest in America?

A: There is some pressure that I think comes from two directions. With a certain age our peers have the resources to eat out and that raises an expectation. But food itself has become more elaborate. People go to more cooking stores and search out more specialized ingredients and read more food magazines with more fabulous photographs and I think that raises an expectation. It used to be I could stir up a pot of something and say "Why don't you come over for dinner?" Now I feel a little pressure where those friends have a high level of expectations.

Q: Your first cooking competition involved creating an outdoorsy meal. Do you still like creating meals for your hiking trips?

A: I still like the puzzle of it. Fitting it together. What do we have here, what's necessary, what can we cook, what kind of pots and pans do we have, what's going to be easy, what's going to be good? There, you really do have to think about how much fuel you're going to carry and what the cleanup situation is going to be and how you're going to serve it.

Q: What would be in your desert-island pantry?

A: My emergency pantry would include garlic, almonds, Herbs de Provence, lemons, olive oil, soy sauce, capers, olives, mirin — but not all to be used together! I'm leaving out bananas, since they'd already be on the island.

Q: Any advice for fellow contesters or first-timers?

A: Entering a recipe contest isn't as much about cooking as it is about having a good idea. A lot of people say "Oh I don't cook," or "I'm all thumbs in the kitchen." It's not about that. It's not about making a meal. It's not about feeding your family. It's about thinking of something that hasn't been thought of before.

Once in awhile you see something where you open a can of this or a can of that and chop up a green onion and you've invented something, and that's not cooking, that's thinking. Somebody was the first person to put dried onion soup into sour cream and stick a potato chip in it There's all this stuff we just kind of take for granted as part of the American gastronomic scene. Someone invented peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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