Not a Piece of Cake: The Pillsbury Bake-Off

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Image from HHM Collections

In December 1949, a contest was held in which 100 competitors fought for their honor as well as a $25,000 grand prize. The competition was held in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria, but it was the brainchild of the Pillsbury Company of Minneapolis. At the time, it was called the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest. It was soon renamed the Pillsbury Bake-Off and became such a success that it is still held seventy years later.  

The Bake-Off was a clever marketing strategy thought up by Pillsbury’s advertising agency. The competition commemorated the 80th birthday of Pillsbury and promoted Pillsbury’s Best flour. In fact, every contestant was required to include the flour in their recipe. Pillsbury reviewed recipe submissions from all over the country and invited the finalists to compete in New York. Additionally, if a contestant submitted the seal from the bag of Pillsbury’s Best flour they used along with their recipe, their cash prize would be doubled if they won. 

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Image from HHM Collections

Participants could compete in one of six categories: breads, cakes, pies, cookies, entrees, and desserts. The recipes were judged for creativity, appearance, taste, consumer appeal, and use of appropriate ingredients. One hundred miniature kitchens were assembled, and the ingredients were provided by Pillsbury. At the first Bake-Off the prizes were presented to winners by Phillip and John Pillsbury, grandson and son of Charles A. Pillsbury, the company’s founder. Some winners were given their awards by the guest of honor, Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Many other well-known figures participated in the competition over the years. Past hosts of the Bake-Off include Bob Barker, Alex Trebek, Dick Clark, Oprah Winfrey, and Martha Stewart. Past locations of the contest include cities from coast to coast. In 1971, they even hosted the Bake-Off in Hawaii. Surprisingly, the competition has never been held in Minneapolis.  

Given that the original Bake-Off was intended to be a one-time event, it is fascinating that it has become an American institution. Today, cooking competitions on television are a dime a dozen, but the Pillsbury Bake-Off has the honor of being one of the first and certainly has the most longevity. If you would like to compete in the Bake-Off, you can find all the rules and regulations for the competition on Pillsbury’s website.

Written by Alyssa Thiede

This publication was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee. 

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