S.C. cook has won 105 prizes in just 5 years

An S.C. woman has cracked the insular world of cooking contests – and she's taking home a lot more than blue ribbons and kitchen gadgets.

Candy McMenamin has won more than 105 prizes in the five years since she began competing around the country.

Her Wild Wild West Beef and Smoked Gouda Grits won her $10,000 at the National Beef Cook-off a few years back. Soon afterward, her sweet potato encrusted chicken earned her $10,000 in appliances at the first Simply Manischewitz kosher cooking contest. And nobody minded that she isn't Jewish.

Cooking contests have long been part of American culture; think blue ribbons for pies at county fairs. But TV shows and million dollar prizes have ramped up competition.

McMenamin, who tests her creations on her husband and two children in this Columbia suburb, isn't letting success go to her head.

“The boys had gotten older and I had more time, and it's something that I always enjoyed doing when I did have time,” she said. “It gave me something that's mine to do – maybe mine to be proud of.”

But she isn't taking herself or the cooking contests too seriously as she prepares for her next venture – a garlic cookoff in Gilroy, Calif.

Her advice?

“I'd say don't be afraid to try different things and put different things together,” said McMenamin, who hopes to wow judges with a stuffed quail recipe.

This year, her triumphs include first prize in a Wholesome Sweeteners contest for her Amazing Apricot Cookies and top honors in the side dish contest at an N.C. sweet potato showdown.

Her unexpected approach to recipes helps her stand out, said contest officials. In her first contest, she was a finalist for the $1million Pillsbury Bake-off with her Apple-Stuffing Mini Meat Loaves.

Then there's McMenamin's use of grits, a southern staple she spruces up with cheeses, even pumpkin.

Her pecan-encrusted oysters over asiago cheese grits was not only the judges' favorite entree in one Oyster cook-off. It's also a family favorite, said Reta Coffman, McMenamin's mother and No. 1 fan.

“She knows what flavors go with what flavors and that's almost a sense,” Coffman said.