Stay Tuned/Who Owns the Bake-Off

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Who Owns the Bake-Off?
11 March 2007

It may or may not have come to your attention that it is time for the 43rd annual Pillsbury Bake-Off - your entries, the official web site reminds you, must be received by 22 April. Grand prize is a million dollars, which goes a long way toward explaing why people still throng to enter this contest. Never underestimate the power of greed to get consumers to be their own shills.

How dare I pick on such a venerable institution? Well, here's the thing: I'm willing to believe that it was a respectable contest, once upon a time, when the only requirement was that your recipe use Pillsbury flour - in other words, when the recipes could still be made using anybody else's flour without changing them and thus it was just a regular old baking contest, albeit with relatively large stakes for such things.

But the Bake-Off hasn't been that contest for many years now. They have long since insisted that your recipe use at least two products from a large list of packaged and prepared foods within the various brand lines connected with the contest. Strangely (he says wryly), that list bears a number of key similarities to the list of sponsors. In other words, the baking/cooking competition aspect has long since been subsumed to the need to cram in as many branded products - but only the right brands, mind you - into your alleged foodstuff.

Under the circumstances - given that almost none of the products on the list are what I would call "raw ingredients," but are all processed, packaged foods of some kind - the wonder is not that so many Bake-Off recipes are horrible, but that so many of them are actually food you might want to eat. The Bake-Off, at its best, has become a sort of exercise in making a silk purse of a sow's ear - here, take this list of junk and see if you can make something edible from it.

OK, sure. Sugar, butter, and flour are still on the list. You can lie and say you made it with Pillsbury flour and Land O Lakes butter and C&H pure cane sugar (from Hawaii, growing in the sun ...). Nobody is going to be able to tell the difference. But those are not the recipes Pillsbury is interested in.

If you look at the recipes they choose to put in their advertisments, or feature on the Bake-Off website, they are invariably recipes containing brownie mix or canned biscuit dough or other such stuff. Please note that these recipes may not be the big prizewinners! The person who gets the million dollars may well get that for a recipe which is a standard recipe containing no convenience foods. It's happened before. Pillsbury doesn't care. They will write off the million. It's worth it to them, not just for the P.R. value of the contest itself (Pillsbury sells a myth of tradition), but to get their hands on all those recipes, those wonderful, wonderful recipes, which they will re-run in their advertisements for years to come, and which would cost them a far larger fortune to develop in-house. They especially want edible-looking recipes that use their junk, so they can then use those recipes to make their packaged products look like actual cooking.

The biggest triumph of the Bake-Off, from Pillsbury's point of view, is that they have convinced American consumers that premade biscuit dough is a legitimate cooking ingredient. Every time you look at a recipe containing premade dough of some kind and you don't flinch or think something is strange, Pillsbury has won another small victory.

Now. Do I always want to make my own dough? Hell no. Do I make, and enjoy, recipes that have shortcuts like this? Absolutely. But I am aware I am taking a shortcut every time I do it; I feel a little guilty. The little guilty is the big distinction there. Pillsbury wants to remove that twinge of guilt entirely, to anesthetize you. And the Bake-Off is one of their tools.

Here is an example of the kind of recipe that Pillsbury has wet dreams over. This recipe was a 2004 finalist, from one Deb McGowan of Louisville, Ohio. Ms. McGowan deserves a little namecheck here out of sympathy, because this recipe isn't hers anymore; it is clearly marked "© 2007 General Mills" (and is reproduced here under Fair Use, for purposes of criticism, of which I have plenty).

Actually, I'm not going to reproduce the whole recipe; the ingredient list suffices.

Peanut Butter Brownie Cookies

1 box (19.5-oz.) Pillsbury® Brownie Classics traditional fudge brownie mix
1/4 cup LAND O LAKES® Butter, melted
4 oz. cream cheese (from 8-oz. package), softened
1 Eggland's Best egg
1 cup Domino® or C&H® Powdered Sugar
1 cup Jif® Creamy Peanut Butter
1/2 container (1 lb. size) chocolate fudge ready-to-spread frosting (about 3/4 cup)

Normally I omit trademark signs, as I take them as implied and these pages would get too cluttered with all the brand names I mention (see the copyright statement). But here I have left them in, along with General Mills' peculiar capitalization, because there's a message or two - or six - here. No, really. Read closely.

First off, apparently Eggland's Best doesn't merit registered trademarks or has chosen not to obtain them. Second, although Land O'Lakes is the company, apparently they prefer (because it is the way that they have registered the product) that their product name be LAND O LAKES, all caps. (Have a look at their website's product list.) Since I was doing well to remember to omit the apostrophe on the O, it alarms me that I have still been getting it wrong, as does the thought that there's yet another product I have to spell in all caps(I already hate discussing JELL-O here for that reason). Third, you'll notice that "Butter" - part of the product name, as with "Powdered Sugar" and "Creamy Peanut Butter" - is capitalized. But "egg" is not. Fourth, notice that even the unbranded products are given in terms of commercial product sizes - i.e. why do we need to know that our 4 ounces of cream cheese come from an 8-ounce package (read: Philadelphia brick) as long as we have four ounces of it? Fifth, since Pillsbury once made ready-to-spread frostings, the brand name omission there is curious. Sixth, and most importantly, if you can read the words "traditional fudge brownie mix" without laughing or wincing, you clearly need remedial time with the archives of this column.

Oh, the actual recipe? Mix the first four ingredients to form something vaguely doughlike; treat as for drop cookies. Mix the peanut butter and sugar to make glop, press a rounded-teaspoon-size ball of glop into the middle of each cookie. Bake. Frost. Check insulin supply, or give to extremely non-discerning children instead. But not me; I wouldn't have been willing to eat these things even when I was six.

The biggest lie of the Bake-Off - which we have not yet discussed - is also its most subtle one. Throughout this, I have been referring to Pillsbury as if it's a real entity. It is not.

As I have already noted in updating a 1997 item, as of around 2000, Pillsbury essentially doesn't exist. It's a brand, sure, but it is not a company. Furthermore, the brand is not owned by one company. General Mills bought all of Pillsbury, but sold its baking goods to International Multifoods, which was bought in 2004 by Smucker's. (Yes, it's the J.M. Smucker Company, but it's Smucker's.) Pillsbury-branded frozen or refrigerated foods belong to General Mills; Pillsbury dry baking goods (flour, boxed mixes) went to the Smucker's people, as did ready-to-spread frostings.

So who controls the Bake-Off promotions? All the copyright statements say General Mills, and they claim copyright on the term "Bake-Off" itself. But the Bake-Off site is hosted from a neutral location - you will notice it is not actually part of either General Mills' or Smuckers' site. The boxed brownie mixes, which presumably belong to Smucker's, are still heavily touted and are some of the ingredients on the (at least one required) List A ... but the ready-to-spread frostings, which also belong to Smucker's, have been stricken from the record (note the recipe ingredient list above). Smucker's is listed as a "sponsor" of the Bake-Off.

My guess is that this is a somewhat uneasy alliance, but that General Mills is ultimately the one pulling the strings. Certainly the list of categories this year seems to slightly favor General Mills - "Entertaining Appetizers" and "Pizza Creations" imply non-sweet foodstuffs which are not a Smucker's specialty, and the "Old El Paso Mexican Favorites" category is a complete gimme for (General Mills') Old El Paso brand. (The other two categories are "Breakfast & Brunches" and "Sweet Treats.") Smucker's is probably okay with what they get; they know that General Mills can't leave them out entirely (a Bake-Off without brownie mix? Unthinkable!) and it behooves neither company to get nasty and thus kill the golden goose.

Besides, Smucker's is getting better treatment than some other sponsors. Although the site lists the full set, of those, only five are shown in the print ads: Pillsbury itself (we must keep up the fiction that this is a contest sponsored by a company called "Pillsbury"), Smucker's, Jif (owned by Smucker's), Old El Paso (owned by General Mills), and ... General Electric, whom we'll discuss in a moment. The "freelance" sponsors - i.e. brands not controlled by either Smucker's or General Mills, apart from GE - can only be seen on the website: Eggland's Best, Land O'Lakes, Fisher nuts, Domino sugar, and C&H. These are definitely the second fiddles - the products on the ingredient lists which are getting a little boost, but which General Mills and Smucker's don't really give a damn whether you use. (Green Giant is General Mills, and Crisco is Smucker's, so they don't count.)

As for the prominence of GE, our guess is that they are donating the ovens and cooktops used in the Bake-Off finals. We at Stay Tuned HQ can think of no other plausible explanation for their presence here.

I'm not saying "eradicate the Bake-Off" or anything like that. If people want to rise to the challenge of making edibles from this mess, that's their business, and if they win something and/or have a lot of fun doing it, great. That's wonderful. But be aware. Be aware that you are being used by the people masquerading as "Pillsbury." Be aware that you are doing a lot of promotional work for them, for free no less (unless you happen to win a prize). In fact, you are not only doing heavy lifting for them but you are selling yourself on their propaganda - you are voluntarily buying and attempting to cook with their convenience products, and thus voluntarily selling yourself on a few key lies. In other words, you are implicit; if you participate in the Bake-Off, you're a co-conspirator.

I have no complaint with that so long as you know that's what you're doing.

and now back to our program

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