The judges looked nervous. Baking is an art, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this blueberry the best or that peach the pleasing-est from a table of near pie-perfection.
Why are we passionate about pie? Is it the crust, the filling, the flavor; the combination of all three – or something harder to put into words?
For guidance, a few weeks earlier I’d met up with Gina Hyams, author and creator of Pie Contest in A Box: Everything You Need to Host a Pie Contest. Over cappuccinos in a busy New York café, she shared her wisdom.
“There’s a saying in the pie world: ‘Pie = love,’” said Hyams. Then she dispelled some of the myths associated with the gooey sweetness of pie. “People assume it’s ‘fuddy-duddy,’ mid-western. That’s not true, because of the renaissance of local foods.”
The popularity of TV cooking shows helps, too. When Hyams noticed pie contests springing up not solely at farmers’ markets but also in bars, she knew something was “percolating.” And it isn’t limited to rural areas. “Brooklyn, San Francisco and Portland are hotbeds of ‘pie culture.’”
Most people invited to judge a contest are flattered. Those I recruited certainly were, and several nearly drooled at the prospect.
So on a recent Carolina summer afternoon, I distributed the score sheets and started slicing. Blueberry. Blue-and-Blackberry. Chocolate Chess. Apple-Pecan. Strawberry-Rhubarb. Peach. Cheese-and-Asparagus.
The judging began. On a scale of 1 to 10: “How appetizing is this pie?” Individual questions about filling, flavor and texture followed. My favorite: “Do you want another slice?”
Like any contest, the prettiest entries were early favorites. But then some of the less pulchritudinous pies showed what they were made of. “How are we supposed to choose just one winner?” someone moaned.
Despite warnings to pace themselves, the judges devoured their samples hurriedly. Several swooned over the luscious offerings. During a challenging stretch of berry-themed pies, one or two of the tasters began to falter. But they all rallied to complete the job.
The blue-ribbon winner? The Cheese-and-Asparagus pie. Its impossibly flaky crust paired with a tangy filling to make it the favorite. Mere fractional points behind came the Blueberry, Peach and Chocolate Chess champions.
Now, a person could argue that in these turbulent times there are more important issues to ponder than pie. Several days later, like a metaphorical cartoon pie, it hit me: I had gathered, entertained and – through the generosity of my pie-baking friends – fed eighteen people. There had been no disagreements or unpleasantness all day.
I remembered what Hyams said. “People fight about politics and religion. But everyone can agree that pie is good.” And that’s exactly why pie matters: It’s completely egalitarian. Anyone can bake a pie, share a pie, or savor a portion of that pie love.
- Pie bakers and their pies
- Pie judges
- Pie helpers (to register the pies and tally the scores)
- Pie lovers to eat the pies after the judging
- Someone to host and manage the event
Then, place on the tables:
- Implements to slice and serve with
- Lots of small plates, napkins, forks and knives
- Water to drink between tastings
- A master sheet to list and assign numbers to the pies and their contributors
- Tags for the pies to maintain anonymity
- Score sheets and pens
- A calculator for scoring
- Prizes or ribbons to bestow
Gather everyone together and enjoy.
Yield: more servings of pleasure than you can measure