Sunday, May 05, 2002

Bake-Off contestants resume life as normal

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Naturally, there's a little letdown after the big cooking contest is over — and you don't win. Three Tristate women — Rosemary Leicht of Bethel, Susan Runkle of Walton and Cindy Schmuelling of Independence — went to the cooking contest mountain in February, competing as finalists in the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando, Fla.

        None of the women won the $1 million grand prize (Ms. Runkle won $2,000 as a runner-up), but they all received the star treatment for a few days — fancy hotel rooms, free restaurant meals and trips to see the sights. Then they had to leave the Land of Mickey to come home to reality.

        This was most difficult for Ms. Schmuelling, who had to immediately turn her attention to her cancer. In December, just a few weeks after finding out her Milk Chocolate Butterscotch Cafe Cookie recipe had earned her a spot as one of the 100 Bake-Off finalists, Ms. Schmuelling, 41, discovered her ovarian cancer had returned as a tumor in her liver.

        At first, her doctor wanted to perform surgery to remove the tumor, but Ms. Schmuelling convinced him she needed to compete in the Bake-Off. This was the first time she had entered a cooking contest, and she wasn't sure she'd have the chance again.

        Unfortunately, tests in March showed chemotherapy had failed to shrink Ms. Schmuelling's tumor — in fact, the cancer had spread. Then, her doctor didn't think surgery would help.

        “It was a grim meeting,” Ms. Schmuelling says. “It was the first time we talked about death.”

        But her surgeon was more optimistic. He believed he could remove the tumors and give her a chance at recovery. On April 8, the surgeon removed parts of her liver, lungs and diaphragm.

        Ms. Schmuelling spent two weeks in the hospital before coming home to her new house April 23. She can walk on her own and expects to hear from her doctors soon about when she'll re-start chemotherapy.

        Life has been much less dramatic for Ms. Runkle, who returned from Orlando to dream up more recipes for cooking contests. She retired from her job at a shipping company in 1999 to compete on the cooking-contest circuit, and has since won or placed in several contests, including a $20,000 prize in a Campbell's Soup recipe contest.

        Placing as a runner-up with her Saucy Pork Medallions in the Bake-Off was encouraging. Now, Ms. Runkle is waiting to hear whether she qualified as a finalist in two other contests — one sponsored by a poultry producer and another by Southern Living magazine, which promises a $100,000 grand prize.

        “You wonder if it's going to be a dry spell,” Ms. Runkle says. “I just try not to dwell on it.”

        Although she enjoys creating the recipes, Ms. Leicht hasn't decided if she will enter any more contests. Pillsbury rules don't allow her to enter the Bake-Off again, since this was her third time as a finalist. (Ms. Leicht won $2,000 as a runner-up in the 2000 Bake-Off.) After her Zebra Brownie Doughnuts failed to win in February, Ms. Leicht quickly resumed her routine — working for her attorney husband, volunteering as a docent at the Taft Museum of Art and “getting back to cooking the things I want to.”

        Ms. Schmuelling was eager to cook her first meal — breakfast — at home after leaving the hospital nearly two weeks ago. She enjoyed her days in the limelight, but she's not sure she wants to cook competitively again. She can't really think about it.

        “Right now, I'm just focusing on getting well,” she says.


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