Australians were involved in competitive cooking long before MasterChef.
Australia’s first cooking competitions were held at agricultural shows. In 1910, the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW held its first competition for “perishable foods” at the Royal Easter Show.
In addition to pastries and pickles, contestants could also be judged on their calf’s foot jelly.
By the 1920s, the cuisine category of the Easter Salon was firmly established. It was purely the prerogative of women. Men were barred from entry and would not be allowed in until after World War II.
Women Living in New South Wales and the ACT have also brought their wares into the Country Women’s Association’s The local cooking competition. Beginning in 1949, the competition judged women on their ability to cook classics such as fruitcake, buttercake and lamingtons, offering modest prizes to the winners. It still works today.
These contests are rooted in a history of cooking that viewed women as “cooks” and men as “chefs.” The women were hobbyists working from home, while the men worked in professional kitchens. This phenomenon continues today.
Cooking competitions allowed women to be recognized for their hard work and often overlooked skills. Participants were encouraged to step out of their comfort zone, be creative, innovate and impress.
Read more: Be creative with less. Recipe lessons from the Australian Women’s Weekly in wartime
magazine cooking contest
With women being the main demographic, it’s no wonder that in the 1960s women’s magazines like the Australian Women’s Weekly began holding large-scale cooking contests open to readers across the country.
Perhaps the most extravagant of these competitions was the Butter-White Wings Bake-Off, which ran from 1963 to 1970. The competition pitted Australia’s top home bakers in a variety of categories, including cakes, desserts, main courses and lady’s recipes”.
By entering their written recipes, contestants competed at the state level for a chance to win a trip to the National Finals where they would cook for illustrious judges.
Thousands of people participated at the state level of these competitions, and one from each state and territory would go on to the finals. These took place in Sydney or Melbourne in front of a live audience, usually in the middle of a department store.
The 1970 finale was televised, with the weekly rating two million viewers would watch the proceedings.
It was Australia’s first televised cooking competition.
Marketing and celebrities
Just as MasterChef is sponsored by advertisers, cooking contests held in the Weekly have proven to be lucrative marketing opportunities for a variety of sponsors. The prizes, provided by sponsors such as Breville and QANTAS, included cash, fur coats, appliances, cars and vacations abroad.
The judges’ choice also offers us a glimpse of the glamor associated with the competitions as well as the lingering gendered expectations surrounding the kitchen. Many of the first “celebrity chefs” were flown in from exotic and international destinations to judge the competition – including the Galloping Gourmet itself, Graham Kerr.
These celebrity chefs judged the main course section; openly female pastry sections were judged primarily by women.
It was in the cake section that the contestants really went above and beyond, both in the recipes themselves and in their names. In 1968, award-winning recipes included “Golden Crown Dessert”, “Marshmallow Cherry Cake”, “Chocolate Chocolate Cake” and “Peach kitchen”.
Peach Kuchen, which won the “Busy Lady” section, was made with a packet of White Wings cake mix, a can of peaches and sour cream. The Bake-Off helped popularize (and sell!) boxed cake mixes: even the “busy woman” could create delicious, praise-worthy cakes.
A vertiginous progression
The last Butter-White Wings Bake-Off was in 1970, but the magazine continued to hold cooking contests. In 1980 Elizabeth Love was crowned Australia’s Best Cook.
In a recent interview, Love explained that his menu was inspired by the concepts of nouvelle cuisine, which was popular at the time. It was an ambitious menu for a home cook – however Love said she didn’t think it would go too well if she went on MasterChef today.
Its menu demonstrates the dizzying progression of Australian cuisine over the past 40 years.
Cooking contests like those held in the Weekly have gradually disappeared, replaced by competitions on television, which have grown in popularity over the past two decades.
Like magazine cooking competitions of the past, where competitors were inventive and used new and exciting ingredients, televised competitions have also proven important in introducing the Australian palate to innovative cooking techniques and exotic ingredients.
Our lifelong fascination with cooking competitions such as MasterChef reflects the prestige always afforded to ambitious contestants who enter them, as well as the cultural significance of food.
Read more: What MasterChef teaches us about food and the food industry