When he entered the large, brightly lit room, Rob Ward stopped a moment to savor the heady scent of butter, apple, almonds, citrus, chocolate and cinnamon. Along the walls of the room were over 300 pies lined up like beads on a jeweled necklace. With a broad smile he nodded hello to fellow pie lovers as he threaded his way through 19 tables to table number six, where he would sit for the better part of three hours tasting over a dozen cherry pies. For the seventh year in a row, Ward would judge, along with 100 others, the amateur division of the American Pie Council’s National Pie Championship in Orlando, Fla.
Over two decades, the National Pie Championships has grown from a series of small regional pie competitions to a single large national event held every April. At the 2013 event, pies were judged in five divisions: commercial, independent/retail bakers, amateur bakers, professional chefs, and junior chefs. Competitors and judges came from over 40 states. Nearly 1,000 pies were judged by 200 volunteer judges over three days of competition. Gift baskets were awarded to the winners of various pie categories and the Best of Show winner in each division received a cash prize.
It is not difficult to understand what brings bakers to the competition. They love to create an original recipe they hope is worthy of recognition and prize money. Most competitors enter pies in many different categories and return every year hoping for fame within the pie community. Winning pie recipes are published on the American Pie Council’s website. A new cookbook, America’s Best Pies, edited by Linda Hoskins the executive director of the APC contains 200 of the best recipes from past competitions.
But what brings people like Rob Ward back year after year to judge those pies? There are no prizes or accolades for the judges. They pay for their own transportation and lodging. No one writes stories about them in the local paper. They give up a weekend to sit inside a windowless, air- conditioned convention center eating pie until their loose-fitting clothes aren’t so loose fitting anymore. So why do they do it? The answer is simple. It is their passion for pie.
Ward recently retired to Sarasota, an easy two-hour drive to Orlando. But for the first six years he judged at the National Pie Championships, he would close his lucrative orthodontic practice in Illinois for several days. He would fly at his own expense to Orlando from Chicago and judge pies for three days. He said his wife would often ask him why he wanted to make the effort to judge for free and without recognition. He said his answer was always, “Because I can”. He loves the camaraderie of the judges, seeing good friends year after year, and tasting many different pies.
His favorite pie is cherry, preferably a double crust, the category he judged at this year’s championship. But his earliest memory of pie was his grandmother’s apple pie. He would sit on a well-worn stool in her kitchen in a small house in upstate New York. “I was around eight or nine watching her work her magic … I still have that stool.”
His enthusiasm for the pie championship was so great that one year he took the idea home with him. He and his wife lived on a close-knit cul-de-sac north of Chicago. He hosted a friendly neighborhood pie competition where everyone brought their favorite pie, whether they baked it or bought it. With Johnny Cash’s song Pie in the Sky playing in the background they sampled pies, Ward “judged” each pie, and everyone got a prize. It was the talk of the neighborhood for years.
Across the table from Ward sat a trim, talkative woman who has driven from nearby Jupiter for a half dozen years to judge the amateur division. A red, white, and, blue “I Love Pie” sticker stood out on her bright red jacket. She is an avid baker who bakes pies, cakes, cookies, and breads almost every day. When her tablemates asked how she keeps so trim and fit, she replied “I give away most of what I bake, to the local fire and police stations and my neighbors.” She just loves to bake, especially pies. There were at least several people at her table who expressed the desire to be one of her neighbors.
Like several other judges around the table, she was disappointed there weren’t more classic, double-crusted cherry pies in the competition. She considers herself a purist. If it says it is a cherry pie, it should have lots of cherries. Her opinion of the cherry cream pie that got high marks from several other judges? Not enough cherries, too much cream cheese, she marked it down for that. But with six judges with different tastes and opinions, the pie still won third place. The winner? Mamma Mia’s Cherry Pie. It had lots of cherries and no cream cheese.
Judging at the pie championship requires more than just the love of pie. It also requires organization, attention to detail, and confidence. There were six judges at a table with each table judging an entire category of pie. There were typically 12 to 25 pies in a category. A score sheet was filled out by each judge giving points for appearance, overall taste, balance of taste, mouth feel, crust quality, creativity, after-taste, and more. During the tasting process for each piece, no communication between judges was allowed. But in between pie slices, conversation was often lively and varied. “Didn’t you think it tasted like lavender soap?” “What was that spice? Whatever it was, there was too much of it.” “What was that golden cherry? It was perfect.”
Judging attracts pie lovers of all ages. A frail, silver-haired woman with a whisper of a voice has judged at the pie championships for so long she couldn’t remember how many years, at least 11. She spoke of a sweet potato pie from her childhood in the backwoods of Louisiana during the 1940s. Her delicately, weathered hand tapped on the small round pin on her lapel that announced, pie judge. The family’s housekeeper would make the pie. She said, “I never saw her use a recipe and I have never been able to make that pie”. The closest she has come was from a recipe she found in a southern cookbook from 1764.
Sitting at the raisin pie table, Judy Hynes proudly wore her American Pie Council Pie Police t-shirt. She drives an hour from DeBary, Fla, all three days of the competition. In addition to judging, she volunteers at the American Pie Festival in Celebration, Fla, that runs concurrently with the National Pie Championship. The most demanding job? “The pie slicing tent at Celebration, hardest job ever.”
Her earliest memory of pie is her mother’s peach pie. She prides herself on her lemon meringue and chocolate pies. In past competitions, she has entered pies for judging, but never won. But, her days as a competitor will soon be over. Her son is marrying into pie royalty. This summer he will marry the daughter of Rich and Linda Hoskins the founders of the American Pie Council and the National Pie Championships. When asked whether there will be cake or pie at her son’s wedding reception, she said, “That is so funny. Pie of course!”