The first clue that this cooking contest would be unusual was the name: Mystery Bag.

 

The first clue that this cooking contest would be unusual was the name: Mystery Bag.

It was Divernon (Ill.) High School’s homecoming recently and — in addition to a carnival, car show, corn-toss tournament, live music and food stands — the events included a Mystery Bag Cook-Off.   At most cook-offs, the cooks know what they’ll be preparing. They’re just not sure how well it will turn out. At this one, the participants didn’t know what the ingredients were until just before the competition started.   “It’s kind of a small town version of ‘Iron Chef,'” said Julie Rhodes, Divernon homecoming treasurer. The challenge was to make a palatable and attractive dish in 30 minutes using the mystery ingredients.   The six teams were allowed to bring three additional food items, which ranged from sour cream and barbecue sauce to grape jelly and chicken bouillon. Provided to the cooks were salt, pepper, butter and water. The entrants brought their own heat source to the cook-off, held outside in the village park. (Electric frying pans were de rigueur.)   At the appointed time, the two-person teams gathered to learn their fate. Each team’s mystery bag contained jumbo shrimp, cheddar cheese, a can of peas, a tortilla and fresh strawberries and blueberries. In the middle of the challenge, they were given yet another ingredient: peanut butter.   What would you make using those six ingredients?   The winning team, mother and daughter Kim and Avery Bourne of Pawnee, Ill., cut the tortilla into squares, crisped them in butter and topped the appetizers with sauteed shrimp and a peanut butter glaze. They made a dipping sauce with peas and the sour cream they brought. The fruit was served on the side, brushed with the apricot preserves they had with them.   One team made a wrap filled with shrimp, peas and cheese. Another chopped the shrimp, mixed it with cheese and barbecue sauce and served it on tortilla rounds.” Yet another made a soup out of water, bouillon, shrimp and peas.   In addition to the food, teams were judged by theme. Winners on that count were cousins Audra Fanning and 10-year-old Gannon Greene of Jacksonville, Ill. They carried out a Michael Jackson “Thriller” theme with their dish (“Moon-walking Tamale Shrimp on Man in the Mirror Crackers”) and apparel (they both wore black aprons with a hand-drawn sketch of Jackson and a single sequined oven mitt).   This is the contest’s second year. Last year, the ingredients included a can of chicken, a peach, an egg, a cucumber and muffin mix. Among the resulting dishes were cucumber soup, peach cobbler and pancakes.   Judging the cook-off with me was part-time Divernon resident Shelli Walker.   Like “Iron Chef” on the Food Network, the Mystery Bag Cook-Off required creativity, quick thinking and culinary know-how. But the tension obvious in the television program’s Kitchen Stadium was absent, replaced by a touch of silliness, laughter and good-natured cheering from the crowd.   Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached at kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.