I’ve been a judge at pie contests over the years and taken part in a fair share of them, too. From big to little, pie contests can be a lot of fun as an entrant or judge. Contests like Evan Kleiman’s KCRW Good Food Pie Contest in Los Angeles each fall bring out hundreds of pie makers, thousands of pie aficionados, and a stellar group of judges. It’s a pie extravaganza that includes music, pie tasting, food trucks, kids activities, a cookbook swap, an artisan marketplace. It was one of the most fun afternoons I have had and someday maybe I’ll get to be a judge.
The very first contest I judged at a farmers market years ago was epic. There weren’t a huge amount of pies, only twenty or so as I recall, but the score sheets had over thirty criteria to judge for— way too much to do in an hour. It was dark and chilly before finishing. I resorted to borrowing a flashlight to finish rating the pies. My take away from that event was a nit-picking evaluation takes way too long, so keep the score card simple and reasonable.
I enjoy small contests that feature one specific regional fruit, like the Wild Blackberry Pie Contest at Joyce Daze and the Ollala Berry Pie Contest. In rural areas like these, it’s great to see how much variation on a theme entrants come up with. Traditional recipes are favorites, too.
On the east coast I was a judge at the multi-day National Pie Championship in Orlando. The first two days are for the commercial pie making folks. Representatives from industrial bakeries bring cream, fruit, meringue, and custard pies that are sold in grocery stores and served at chain restaurant franchises to be judged. The commercial pies are displayed on a multi-tiered table throughout the three-day fest. The amateur division’s highly organized judging is on the third day. I met veteran local judges who have been returning year after year to sample and rate slices. The Great American Pie Festival used to be part of this contest but was dropped in 2015, the year I judged. I was really disappointed since I was looking forward to going to the festival even more than the pie contest.
The pie contest at the Olympia Pie Fest, the 4th Saturday each February, has a devoted group of participants and followers. Those in the know come early to queue up for one of the 1500 slices of pie served up and the winners are announced with great fanfare between bites. Organizers ran out of pie slices in just three hours. Winning pies are auctioned off and the proceeds from the entire afternoon benefit the local food bank and senior nutrition program.
These are just a few of the hundreds, if not thousands of contests, across the country, and new ones keep popping up all the time. If there’s one in your town, be sure to go. You’ll meet pie makers who are passionate about the craft of pie making, and get to enjoy a slice of what Emily Post (1872-1960), in the 1937 edition of Etiquette, labeled “the great American dessert.”
P.S. My favorite book about pie contests is this one by Gina Hyams.