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A Dream Job - Judging a Pie Contest

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

The past few years, I have had the pleasure of being a guest pie contest judge at the Maker's Street Pie Social & Contest in Lindsborg, KS. Can you think of a better invitation? The picture above is the array of pie contestants for 2021. There are many delicious pie offerings in this table full of pie, but look for the hand pointing in the picture to see the 1st Place winner, Sour Apple Caramel Pie baked by an artist friend, Michael Bray.

Mr. Bray worked for the famous glassblowing artist, Dale Chihuly, for 25+ years and traveled the world installing his famous glass sculptures in gardens and at architectural landmarks. Mike has settled in Lindsborg and in his retirement he is looking for creative outlets. When we first met, I challenged him to bake a pie for the upcoming contest (he had never attempted to bake a pie before). He blew the judges away by making Mark Twain's favorite Huckleberry Pie, ordering the huckleberries from Oregon, shipped in frozen. His entry took first place in Fruit Pies.

People that enter this contest are serious about their pies, and we will all agree that pies do deserve great respect. Failing to bake a beautiful and delicious pie is quite a humbling experience. We all think... it should be so simple! Believe me, I know the feeling, having messed up on so many occasions. We are all human.

Here on the left is a picture of Michael weaving a very, teeny, tiny lattice top with pie crust (just for practice). Note the concentration. I had just offered a Blueberry Pie demonstration for a hungry group of people during my artist residency. I made the pie, baked it, and then we all had to taste test...

Let me describe to you a little bit of how the process works for judging a pie. My friend and the director of the Red Barn Studio in Lindsborg, KS, Marsha Howe and I put our heads together to design the contest. We wanted to make sure every pie was judged equally and fairly with a numbering system.

Each judge is given a slip of paper for each individual numbered pie to mark down their score. At the end of the pie judging/tasting, numbers are tabulated and winners are announced. An overall winner is presented, regardless of category, based on best taste and presentation. There are usually 2 other judges beside me at the tasting table, we play my Spotify playlist (songs about pies) and try our hardest to judge each pie by a bunch of categories numbered from 1-5 (5 being the highest). See a portion of the official score card for the pie baking contest below, with Marsha cutting and serving a slice of Strawberry Peach Pie to the pie contest judges.

Marsha cuts one slice out of each pie and the judges have to score it on presentation and if it holds together nicely on a plate, like this slice of Sweet Cherry Pie above. We also judge on the flavor of the crust, if it is nice and flaky, and is cooked properly. Of course we try the filling, as well as the crust and judge that for taste and if it is cooked properly. The fruit pies have an extra category of 'proper spill-over', which refers to the vents cut into the upper crust and how the fruit bubbles up through them, just before the pie is properly baked. That is a term that only pie-nerds, like myself, and home economics teachers know about.

Here is a photo of the pie judges for our very first contest, judging the winning entry by Merle Larson, a Key Lime Pie. It was deemed perfect by all the judges and won Merle some great notoriety in the town. He shared his recipe with me and I published it (with his permission) in my PIE AS ART, Volume 1 cookbook as Merle's Key Lime Pie. It is super easy and super tasty!

This is the panel of pie contest judges from the second contest, a retired home economics teacher, a pie artist/cookbook author, and a guy that really likes pies, Brad Howe. We are sporting new aprons made by a local pie enthusiast and seamstress, except for Brad who is holding up his consolation prize for helping to judge.

The next pie contest is coming up next month on Friday, July 8, 2022. I am so excited to see what shows up for us to sample. And, secretly, I want to enter one of my pies in the contest, but cannot because of conflict of interest. Darn.

I have a little bit of a sore spot when it comes to entering pie contests after failing miserably, the one time that I entered a 4th of July pie contest with a Rhubarb Pie. Silly me, I forgot to thaw out the rhubarb before adding to the pie to bake. My result was a very pretty pie soup with a lattice woven top. You can see an illustration of that pie in my cookbook, because I used it for the Rhubarb Pie recipe, after perfecting the recipe next time. Test-baking recipes takes time if you don't get it right the first time, but is a great way to make sure your recipe you publish in a cookbook is perfect.

It was definitely one of the most difficult perspective drawings that I have attempted so far. The pie was decorated with a lattice top, resting inside of a Longenberger pie basket. I determined after my failed pie soup that I did not need awards to enjoy pies, and if they come out as soup, I can enjoy them over a scoop of ice cream with delight. A failure is a great learning tool in the business of baking and writing cookbooks.

Now, here is a photo of a pretty perfect Rhubarb Pie. I have gotten the hang of it now after my pie contest failure. I absolutely love the color that rhubarb makes when baked and the spill-over on this pie is also picture perfect. See practice does make perfect.

Hope to see some of you in Lindsborg next month. And, I dare you to enter the pie contest! Come on, you know you want to...

Pie love you,


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