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updated: 11/2/2011 5:32 PM

Here's reality you can sink your teeth into

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What is reality?

I love that line. It takes me back to college, which takes me back to one of my favorite Firesign Theater scenes, which takes me back to high school gymnasiums and pep assemblies, which, by now, finds me far, far adrift from the thorny original question.

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And then I have today's Daily Herald to bring me back. Reality -- or the contemporary entertainment concept of it -- is a recurring theme this week and especially in today's edition: "Jersey Shore" may be damaging girls' psyches ... There's a chance to try out for "The Glee Project," a reality-show contest selecting singer-actors for the popular Prospect High School-inspired network television show "Glee." ... And, we present the highlight of them all: our own Cook of the Year winner, the culmination of a contest that officially began in September when Food Editor Deborah Pankey narrowed a field of about 100 Daily Herald Cooks of the Week and Cook of the Week hopefuls down to 16 contestants to face off in a series of elimination rounds.

The contest's final four -- two former Cooks of the Week and two hopefuls -- faced off Wednesday night at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg before a panel of judges and a couple hundred lucky epicures.

The contest built on the excitement and competition that fuel all of today's reality-themed events, but it offered a little something different, too. For, it wasn't just a way to build tension and curiosity, it was also a way to showcase the remarkable skill and devotion that suburbanites bring to various aspects of their lives -- in this case cooking -- and participate along with them.

"I was blown away by the creativity and how two people could take the same four ingredients and create something completely different with them," Pankey says of her experience with the contest. "Studies are showing that people are dining out less and eating at home more. With cooks like these in our midst, I'd say suburbanites are eating pretty well."

Like, um, actual reality, reality in the newspaper takes many forms. There is the surrealism of politics, the stark brutality of crime and disaster, the disputed truths on the opinion pages, the charm of prep sports and this week, a little weirdly when you think about it, the dreams of young entertainers auditioning for a chance to appear on a network reality television show that will select performers for a fictional television show based on a real show choir from the suburbs. Of course, we also have the bizarreness of so-called reality television itself, which contrasts in today's edition not only with the cooking challenge but also with the engaging ambition of our Suburban Standout.

Whatever the context, in much of the reality we present, we reporters and editors are observers sharing our memories, our notes and our interpretations. But thanks largely to Pankey's management of it, we were pleased and fortunate not just to report on the cooking contest but to be able to share in some of it.

You could say that projects like this help to better ground us in the daily lives and personalities of the people who live in the communities we serve. They bring us a little closer to reality.

And so, you may now ask again, what is reality?

And I will say again, I don't know.

But it is delicious.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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