HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The following is a news release from The University of Southern Mississippi:
Dr. Andrew Haley's discerning palate may help decide who wins the Pillsbury Bake-Off's $1 million grand prize.
Haley, an associate professor of American cultural history at The University of Southern Mississippi, recently participated as one of 11 recipe judges in the famed national culinary event, which narrowed a field of 100 finalists to four on Nov. 3 at the Omni Hotel in Nashville. The overall winner will be announced Dec. 3 on ABC-TV' s "The Chew."
"All of the entries were good, but some were especially creative," Haley said. "The judges' decisions were by consensus so after we rated each entry independently, we debated their various merits. Choosing finalists was not easy."
This year's contest is the 47th edition of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, with the first held in 1949. Among its four recipe categories are "Weekend Breakfast Wows," "Simply Sweet Treats," and "Amazing Doable Dinners." Contestant Jody Walker of Madison, Miss. served up her "Creamy Corn-filled Sweet Peppers" dish to take the top spot in the "Savory Snacks and Sides" category.
The panel of judges was charged with considering taste, appearance, creativity and crowd appeal of the recipes in deciding on the final four. Haley and two fellow judges conducted the preliminary tasting in the breakfast category.
"Ultimately, we chose a chocolate donut popper as the breakfast choice because it was clever," Haley said. "It seemed like a simple donut hole, but when you bit into it you got this splash of chocolate hazelnut that made you say 'Wow!'"
Once the entry fields were narrowed, the best recipes were brought before all 12 judges who then selected their favorite in each category. The dishes were then ranked and the judges' votes (55 percent of the total) will be averaged with the online voting to determine the $1 million dollar winner.
The three runners-up will receive $10,000 each, and eight contestants were awarded $5,000 each in special prizes for using brand products, such as Crisco or Reynold's Parchment Paper, to produce the entries.
Haley praised the Pillsbury staff managing the contest. "They gave us as much time as we needed and left the decisions entirely up to us," he said. "And, amazingly, they stayed up all night with the staff at the Omni Hotel preparing hundreds of the dishes for breakfast the next morning so everyone could try them."
Special care was also taken by Pillsbury to ensure the integrity of the event. "We could not communicate with the outside world during the judging, and I couldn't tell anyone I was going to be a judge before I left for the contest," Haley said. "In fact, we had to be escorted by their staff to leave the room or to use the restroom."
Haley's research expertise includes class and culture in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the history of American cuisine. He teaches courses on popular culture, labor, gender, food and nationalism. In 2012, he won the coveted James Beard Foundation Award for his most recent book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the Middle Class, 1880-1920. His current research includes a project focused on Mississippi community cookbooks and food history.
As the only historian among the judges, Haley brought a different perspective to the selection of the finalists. "I saw two trends at the contest that I think say something about American cooking today," he said. "First, there were a lot of ethnic entries, especially Central and South American dishes. The diverse flavors reflect the diversity of the nation and how that has reshaped its tastes.
"The dishes were also a bit sweeter than I would have expected, but America is just coming out of a recession and the entries seemed to reflect a desire to enjoy life."
Haley's selection as a judge for the event confirms his reputation as one of the country's foremost culinary historians, said Southern Miss Department of History Chairman Dr. Kyle Zelner.
"It's not every day that a food historian gets to participate in a competition that encapsulates American culinary culture, but Pillsbury obviously recognized Dr. Haley's expertise in the field. His department colleagues are delighted - and a bit jealous - about this, his most recent honor," Zelner said.