Saturday, April 17—Finally, pie. I arrive at the judging session 15 minutes early, sans breakfast. Cherry pie is one of my favorites, so I've picked the Fruit and Mixed Fruit category to judge. Unfortunately, two of the other three judges at this table are journalists, so I request a switch to Apple. What could be more reflective of "America's pie heritage"? Plus, I like apple pie.
I'm seated with royalty. Amanda Schweitzer is the reigning Michigan Apple Queen. Marie Rocheford runs TheRecipeExchange.com. Joel Harris is on the board of the Colborne Corp., a food automation company that developed the first pie machine. Stephanie Girardi is a member of the American Pie Council. Obviously, I'm with people who know their pie.
We begin by signing liability releases. This probably ensures that I can't sue if I choke on an apple or look fat on the Food Network. When I pull out my notebook, Joel asks, "Do you plagiarize or do you write your own stuff?" We all laugh.
Pleased with his success, Joel continues. "Did you read about that fellow at the New York Times who got away with that? Everybody afraid to challenge him 'cause he's a black guy."
The table falls silent. I give Joel a look usually reserved for people who fart loudly in public. A pall, it seems, has fallen upon the pie. And out comes A1, the first of 20 we'll taste.
We are rating the pies on appearance (the whole pie and the slice), crust, and taste, with 0 being poor and 4 being excellent. Taste comprises categories like balance, "mouth feel," and aftertaste. We then total our individual scores and put that at the bottom of each rating sheet. I worry that a deserving pie will be deprived of an award solely because I am very, very bad at math.
A volunteer walks around the table displaying the pie and comes back after one slice has been removed. We each take a disposable plate and fork from the pile in the center of the table and remove a bit from the slice. Following the lead of the other judges, I first smell the pie. Then I play with the crust to see if it's nice and flaky. And finally, finally, a taste of pie!
Old A1 is a tasty pie, nice and cinnamony with well-defined apples. I give it good marks, although it's not in the "blow me away and make me beg for the recipe" category by any means. A2 has a high, proud crust and lots of attractive little apple-shaped pastry cut-outs. Unfortunately, it's all looks and no substance ... pretty bland. The third pie is runny and oddly colored. I begin to wish I'd given A1 a higher score.
We all gasp at A6. This is the pie version of Charlie Brown's christmas tree, homely and ill-formed. It is a pie only a mother could love. "Surely," someone murmurs, "it must taste better than it looks."
We are all rooting for A6. A pie this ugly, in the National Pie Championships, must surely be an incredibly delicious pie. We want to love it. And then, the slice arrives. Apple pie is not supposed to be gray. I take a deep breath. I still want to like the Charlie Brown pie. And then I taste it. The Frankensteinian creator of A6 has grafted bananas—or, as one judge suggested, bananababy food—onto your basic apple pie. In case you were wondering, this is not a good combination.
I muse about what the baker might have been thinking. Stephanie answers. "It's like American Idol," she says. "I don't think people can judge how bad they are. Someone tells them they're good, and they're deluded." I suggest instituting playoffs, like the NCAA.
We watch enviously as a luscious chocolate cream number is escorted to the next table. "I wonder how much Cool Whip gave its life for that pie," sighs Marie.
Fortunately, the next pie is better. The judging continues, a steady stream of OK-to-pretty-good pies interrupted by the occasional horror. "What is that smell?" "Oh God, it's either cheese or rancid butter." The Food Network comes by and films about 4 inches from my face as I chew and grimace.
Amanda's parents grow apples, and she blames the varieties. "Most of these weren't made with baking apples," she says. "Some apples just aren't suited for pies." I decide I'm just not suited for judging and pass on an opportunity to sit in on the Best in Show category. Besides, I want to get over to the festival. I turn in my last judging sheet and flee the Radisson. (Although the judging was blind, I later discovered that A1, baked by Beverly Hari, took first place in the Apple category.)
At last, Celebration, Disney's brave new town. The houses are lovely—a rainbow of large, symmetrical pastel mini-manses, with impressively decorated (and uniformly empty) front porches. Market Street, the commercial area, is blocked off and filled with pie lovers of all shapes, sizes, and ages. The color of pie lovers is pretty consistent ... though it does vary from vanilla to peach.
I start at the Never Ending Pie Buffet, where for 6 bucks (less for kids and seniors) you can have all the pie, ice cream, and coffee you can handle. Is this a great country, or what? The commercial vendors are here in force. I start at Wick's tent, with pecan. It's hard to get a pecan pie right. If you bake it long enough to set up the filling, the crust gets tough. I'm usually a big chain-hating, homemade-is-best snob, but I have to say, this pie is better than any I tested in the amateur apple category. Humbled, I go for ice cream. Chicago's Oberweis Dairies is here, serving cinnamon and vanilla flavors. I try the former. I can't swear it's the "best ice cream in the world," as their banner proclaims, but it's pretty darned good. In a fit of journalistic responsibility, I also sample the vanilla.
It's a picture-perfect day in Celebration. Sunny, high 70s, lots of flags waving in the light breeze, plenty of shade from the Spanish-moss-draped live oaks in the brick-paved central plaza. Nearby, a vendor is selling guns made of PVC piping that shoot miniature marshmallows. The kids love them, running up and down the palm-lined streets. Perhaps because they are entering the first stages of sugar coma, the children are amazingly well-behaved.
I ask people about the festival. The answers are uniform. Yes, they love pie. (The overwhelming favorite is Edward's European Chocolate Truffle.) All the pies are delicious. They will come back to the festival. This is a lot of fun.
After the fifth identical interview, I can't take it any more. Maybe it's the flags. The surreal, pseudo, all-American perfection of Celebration. The marshmallow machine guns. I start asking a different question.
"What do you think about the war?"
This adds a different flavor. Barbara Olson is standing next to the marshmallow gun stand. "I was gonna vote for Bush until two months ago. But now ... not now." Her daughter Genevieve is 9. "I don't like it. It scares me. I'd like all the guns to shoot marshmallows." I encourage them not to miss the ice cream, which they haven't sampled.
Pat and Vince Biel drove 70 miles to check out the festival. "The war? That's quite a stretch from pie," Pat laughs. "If it's going to end up keeping us safe, we have to do it. But nobody wants it."
Martin Locey does. "I agree with Bush 100 percent. I'm just as surprised as he and everybody else is that so many people are dying." He scolds me for making him feel guilty about enjoying pie, so I switch gears and ask his daughter Taylor what she likes best about living in Celebration.
"The snow," she says quickly. In Celebration, between Thanksgiving and early January, the streetlights blanket the downtown with fake snow every night. Now my jaw drops. You've got to be kidding. "No, it's really neat," says Trish Locey, Taylor's mother. "And in the fall, they bring in colored crepe-paper leaves."
It's time to announce the amateur winners and people are starting to get mad at me, so I drift toward the stage. The numbers strategy has paid off. Phyllis Bartholomew wins big, taking home a slew of first- and second-place ribbons, along with Best in Show. She pumps her fist in the air in victory, giving a big Cornhusker whoop as she claims the oversized $5,000 check.
Tuesday morning, the 59-year-old grandmother will be back at the Nebraska factory where she drives a forklift. She'll be worrying about her son Jamie, who has just left for Kuwait. "He volunteered," Phyllis says. "His National Guard unit wasn't called up, so he transferred to one that was going." She tells me about how she taught Jamie to bake, and how he won a Pork Producers' pie contest at the age of 9. "His son beat me at the State Fair when he was 12," she laughs. "We're a pie family."
And tonight, among the flags and the Crisco, Phyllis is the queen.