A handmade quilt in the Beloit apartment of Mary Lou Berndt stitches together the initials of her six children — five sons and a daughter. Sewing is also a thread that happens to connect Berndt to cooking. The award-winning cook recalled that it was sewing, in fact, that got her started in the kitchen.
“I asked my mom to make me a dress for a dance that was coming up,” the Glasco native said. “Cooking was not really her thing — I learned to cook with my grandma. My mom was more of a seamstress. And she would tell me that I had to help cook if I wanted a new dress.”
So at 14, Berndt, the third of eight siblings, began making the family meals. When she was cooking and entertaining for her own growing family, Berndt learned she had a knack for creating her own recipes and putting a creative spin on others. And she also eventually discovered something else.
“I guess I just like to compete,” she said.
In a visit (pre-COVID-19), the youthful Berndt, now 92, reflected on some of the adventurous highlights in her life. Contained in scrapbooks keeping a lifetime of memories — including an article about Berndt and husband Bill’s meeting “Tarzan” actor and Olympic medalist Johnny Weissmuller while attending a Chicago pool-building seminar in the 1960s (they owned and ran Glasco Lumber Company); winning a weeklong fishing trip to Lake Powell in 1982; and being special guests and meeting Pope John Paul II in 1984 for an anniversary of the World War II Liberation of Rome (Bill Berndt was a member of the First Special Service Force) — are clippings of numerous articles highlighting Berndt’s prize-winning cooking.
A number of recipes she created either won or placed in local, regional or national contests in the 1980s and 1990s. Her winning recipes have ranged from a shrimp appetizer plate to a cherry-pineapple pie.
Her Sunshine Chicken Pie, a creamy chicken stew topped with biscuits made “sunny” with grated carrots (recipe shared here), was beloved by Berndt’s family (one son still requests it). Her daughter, the late JoLynn Keller, a school district and restaurant cook, even served the pie as a special every Wednesday at her Glasco restaurant, Keller’s Keg, for several years.
In 1980, Mary Lou sent the recipe in to the National Chicken Cooking Contest, sponsored by the National Broiler Council, and represented Kansas as one of the finalists who were awarded a trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to compete — and cook —their chicken dishes for a panel of judges that included cookbook authors, food editors and radio and television hosts. Berndt finished in the top five and won $1,000 … her winning recipe putting the Kansan on the map.
In a guest column she later wrote for The Salina Journal, Berndt recalled the event: “Fifty-one contestants took their places in the World Congress Center and grilled, fried, microwaved or baked their winning recipes before an audience of about 2,000 … Contestants prepared their dishes twice, the first went to the judges for tasting and the second for display,” Berndt wrote. “Between tastes, judges cleared their taste buds with celery sticks, unbuttered bread squares, soda crackers, water and coffee.” After four hours of tasting, the winners were chosen.
In 1989, Berndt took the top prize in the Holiday Cookbook Contest hosted by The Salina Journal for her Black Bean Taco Salad, which had already been a hit for those in Berndt’s circle who had eaten it.
“I first tried this out for a potluck” she said of the recipe. “That’s a good way to see a lot of good dishes and eat a lot of good ones.”
On a stormy day in Salina that included rain, wind and hail, Berndt assembled part of the salad in her car outside the building where the contest was held, since it was a dish that needed to come to the competition prepared. The salad, made up of cooked black beans, as well as avocado, cheese, salsa, corn and red-tipped lettuce arranged with yellow and blue tortilla chips caught the eye and tastebuds of the judges, and Berndt won first place out of more than 70 competitors.
That winning recipe affirmed what Berndt and other good cooks know — sometimes the simplest recipes are the best.
“Things like that salad aren’t hard to make,” she said. “But it looks like it is.”
She competed again with another recipe in 1995, winning The Great American Cherry Pie Contest with her Cherry Pine Pie, a recipe that includes raspberry gelatin, cherry pie filling, crushed canned pineapple, almond flavoring and walnuts in a graham cracker crust. Berndt said the recipe was partly inspired by Jell-O salads that included pineapple.
Reflecting on cooking and competing she offered advice to aspiring cooks: “You have to want to do it. And if you want to do it, you will.”
And even being creative in recipe development, Berndt advised on keeping detailed instructions.
“I really think you have to have a recipe to know your amounts,” she said.
Berndt still knows a good recipe and her still-competitive nature has her toying with the idea of entering competitions again. She considers a fudge recipe (winning to those who have tried it) that follows that simple-is-best motto —“Melting the chocolate is the longest part,” she laughed — as a possible future contender.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Sunshine Chicken Pie