When she heard her name announced as the Grand Prize winner of the 30th annual cook-off, Billie Jo Schmechel of Meadville tried her hardest to contain her emotions. “I didn’t want to cry in front of anyone,” she said.

But when she sat down in one of the new chairs that was part of the table set she had won from Hovis Interiors of Meadville, Billie Jo couldn’t hide her emotions anymore. As she clutched a photo of the full table set, a few happy tears escaped. Her husband, Mark, rushed forward and hugged her proudly. “It’s just unbelievable,” said Billie Jo.

In hopes of winning, Billie Jo admitted that she entered a few more recipes than in previous years. It certainly paid off, as this was not the first time Billie Jo had entered the contest, but it was the first time she won the grand prize.

After swallowing the disappointment of not hearing her name called as a runner-up or winner in any categories, as in past years, Billie Jo thought she had lost out on her chance for the dining room set. “I looked up and thought ‘God, I just had a baby. I deserve it,’ ” she said, laughing.

Billie Jo’s recipe, chosen out of more than 280 entries, is an unusual one: Caesar Chicken Wraps with Grapes and Brownie, in the Creative Lunch Box category. “Her entry was an excellent choice,” said cook-off judge Adam Hogue. “It was very original.” He described her entry, a decorated Chinese take-out box filled with a Caesar chicken wrap, a homemade brownie, and fresh grapes, as “a nice, healthy lunch.”

Billie Jo, who calls herself a “domestic engineer,” said that she purposefully made the lunch healthy. With five children to care for, including an infant and until recently several foster children, Billie Jo is careful when making lunches for her husband and children. “My husband is very health-conscious, and it’s a way to get kids to eat from different food groups. I can’t send a bologna sandwich every day, and that gave me the idea of making a wrap. I never in a million years thought these lunch boxes were going to win.”

With her large family, just getting to the cook-off was no easy feat. “My (newborn) son usually sleeps all day long, but of all days he picked today to wake up,” Billie Jo said. During the day of the cook-off, the Schmechel’s kitchen was full with Billie Jo making her entries, her husband Mark fixing his own cook-off entry, Oven-Roasted Grilled Ribs, and eager children wanting to help their parents. “The house was a big mess when we left,” Mark said.

But her family was thrilled at the good news at the end of the night. “The kids were ecstatic,” said Billie Jo. “My daughter was proud because she had drawn on the box.”

While waiting for the delivery of the table, Billie Jo is already thinking of chair pads, table decorations, and how to arrange her dining room. “I’m so excited to have the table for Thanksgiving,” she said.

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