I packed up my apron, chef's coat, and knife bag the other day and headed off to a little hamlet just north of Birmingham, Alabama to attend a “Taste of Home Cooking School.” Here's what I learned.
It's not a cooking school.
Actually, I already knew that, having attended a similar event in Columbia, South Carolina a few years ago. And I didn't really bring my cooking duds and knives. There would have been no point.
If you've ever ventured into the magazine section at a bookstore or wandered past the magazines displayed in the grocery store, you've got to be familiar with “Taste of Home.” They only publish about a hundred titles. Besides plain old “Taste of Home,” there's “Taste of Home: Holiday,” “Taste of Home: Simple and Delicious,” “TOH: Healthy Cooking,” “TOH: Cooking for 2,” “TOH: Country Woman,” and probably several more that I just don't feel like typing out. They claim to be “America's #1 Cooking Magazine,” and if sheer volume counts for anything, I have no reason to doubt them.
But don't go to a “Taste of Home Cooking School” with any expectations of learning how to cook. Rather than being a hands-on school where you grab a knife and a spatula and go to town on some exotic dish, the TOH “school” is merely a cooking demonstration. A “Culinary Specialist” prepares a handful of recipes while you sit and watch. Kind of like turning on one of Paula Deen's TV shows and watching it with several hundred of your neighbors.
But it's fun, as long as you go with the knowledge that it is what it is.
As I said, I've been to two of them (coincidentally having the same “Culinary Specialist” at both shows) and I've had a blast each time. And on both occasions I've had at least one of those little “Hmm...never thought of that” epiphanies, so I guess there is some educational value, after all.
The shows have national sponsors like King Arthur Flour and Campbell's. But they are actually presented by local media outlets, mostly newspapers and radio stations. (Personal note: The Cullman (Alabama) Times is not exactly warm and fuzzy when it comes to sharing information with outside journalists. I'll remember that next time and go straight to the publishers of “Taste of Home” for my background information, like I had to do this time. I guess with their rockin' circulation of about 10,000 the “Times” feels a bit territorial.)
Anyway, tickets are reasonably priced, usually in the $10 to $15 range for general admission. VIP seating costs a little more and seems to be harder to come by. I called the Cullman paper on the morning of the day the tickets went on sale and the VIP seats were sold out. But, questa è la vita. (That's Italian for “c'est la vie.)
Most of the time, the only real advantage in VIP tickets comes in the form of extras in the “goodie bags.” Everybody gets one at the door and they're stuffed full of stuff. This time around, we folks in the cheap seats got samples of Kitchen Basics stock, dough scrapers from King Arthur, magnets from Campbell's, coupons from Morton's, pens, notepads, more coupons, recipe pamphlets, and tons of literature from local vendors and sponsors. The bags themselves were of the reusable canvas variety, which was a very “green” upgrade from the plastic bags handed out at the last show I attended. And, of course, there are copies of “Taste of Home,” including one that is a “Cooking School” special edition. Oh, and the all important door prize registration form is tucked in there, too.
If you're not among the elite, there's a seat saver card you can slap into your best available spot in the auditorium before you head over to the vendor area where the local merchants set up shop. Pampered Chef will invariably be there as will somebody selling cookware, jewelry, candles, and handmade crafts. (They try to keep distance between the Avon lady and the Mary Kay lady. Otherwise, things can get ugly.)
Then you settle into your seat while the local host warms up the audience. (Note to organizers: try to get somebody with a least a moderate level of public speaking talent. DJs are good. The newspaper guy at this show, not so much. Radio guys talk to themselves for a living. Reporters and editors talk to themselves, too, but for completely different reasons.)
Then the “Culinary Specialist” takes center stage. In both my experiences, this has been a perky redhead named Michelle “Red” Roberts. She fills the “Taste of Home” requirements for a “Culinary Specialist,” which include excellent communication and presentation skills and a resourceful, energetic personality. She also alludes to having attended culinary school.
The demonstrator – calling a spade a spade – is assisted by a team of local culinarians, often from area culinary programs, and the recipes are prepared television style. While you watch the ingredients being prepared on the big screen above the stage, the assistants are readying the presentation plates, or “beauty plates” in the prep kitchen backstage. The recipes are printed in the “Cooking School” edition of the magazine and you can follow along as the dish is being prepared.
In between recipes, informational video clips are run on the big screen while the demonstrator sets up for the next dish. Or she might give away a door prize.
The door prizes are almost worth the price of admission. There are dozens of them, some provided by the national sponsors and some coming from the local supporters. Among the coolest (or hottest) door prizes are the actual prepared dishes themselves, complete with the serving crockery. (My wife was jonesing for the Cookie Dough Truffles, but she was quite content with the humongous gift basket from one of the local sponsors.)
Now, Cullman County, Alabama is a “prohibition county,” or “dry” county. What this means is that they haven't caught on to the fact that the “Noble Experiment” failed and was repealed in 1933. So things got a little dicey when “Red” hauled out a bottle of wine from Gallo, a national sponsor, and used it in cooking. Dicier still when she gave away a nice Gallo wine bag as a door prize. The classless woman who won it publicly announced that she didn't like wine and accepted the prize as though it were something unclean. L'ignoranza è ignoranza. (Italian is so lyrical. Even insults sound pretty.)
Backward intolerance aside, the show was quite enjoyable. And fairly well attended. “Taste of Home” requires a venue that will accommodate at least seven hundred. This session was conducted in the auditorium of a community college and, while it was not SRO, the place was pretty well full of foodies all bent on having a good time.
The “Taste of Home Cooking School” demonstration runs about two to two-and-a-half hours – not counting pre-show activities -- and presents ten to twelve recipes, as well as some interesting cooking tips. They take place in cities all over the country, but are limited primarily to the Spring and Fall months, due to the fact that presenters travel by van from venue to venue.
Log on to http://www.tasteofhome.com/ and click on “Find a Show” to locate an upcoming presentation in your area.