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Diary of a Rookie Pie Judge

I shamelessly admit that, despite being a man standing 6’4”, I was intimidated by the nice grandmothers waiting in the Elwell Family Food Center. The building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds houses, according to a sign outside, the largest food department of any state fair, with nearly 900 competitive classes. And in my mind, this was a kingdom that a gang of older ladies rules in roughly the same way Norse kings lorded over their mead halls.

Pies may seem all flaky pastry and sweet memories, but come August in Iowa, they turn into Olympic-grade serious business. An Iowan who scores a pie ribbon from the state fair—which draws more than 1 million visitors—gains the kind of immortality otherwise reserved for high school sports champions. And now I had recklessly accepted the job of deciding who would be wreathed in such glory.

I sat down at the judges’ table for the Ms. American Pie competition, hosted by Beth Howard, an author who lives and bakes pies in the American Gothic house in southeast Iowa. Beth adamantly preaches that pie should be shared. That it should bring people together. That it is not about perfection.

Beth Howard shows off this year's state fair T-shirt.

I wasn’t so sure that everyone in the Elwell Center shared Beth’s laissez-faire spirit. A serious-looking lady named Sharon sat down beside me to transcribe all of my judging observations. “Have you judged at the fair before?” she asked. “No,” I said, and added, “But I work at Midwest Living,” considering that all the credentials a pie guy needs. Apparently unimpressed, she said, “Do you eat pie?”

Thus bolstered by my culinary caddy, I set to work on three pies assigned to me in the preliminary round. I tried to guard my facial expressions like a poker player, knowing that the bakers were surely watching from somewhere in the standing-room crowd. The judges’ assistant to my right, Louise, whispered a tip before we started. “If you taste a pie that is awful—and sometimes they are—don’t make a face. Just raise a napkin to your mouth and wipe the bite away.” I nodded as seriously as a Tibetan monastery student. And just to drive the point home, she added, “Over in Beer and Wine, they spit. We don’t do that here.”

That's me reviewing the eligible recipes before things get started.

Leaning into my task, I was especially smitten with a lattice-top peach, but Louise zeroed in on some looming trouble. “Technically, that pie should be disqualified,” she whispered. “Why?” I asked. “That is a nonstandard size recipe card attached to the dish.” I hesitated, unsure of whether I was supposed to throw some kind of judges’ red flag onto the field to signal an infraction. I decided to keep eating and let Louise sound the alarm as needed.

I told my notetaker Sharon that I wanted to taste each of my pies, then go back and assign scores to them. This drew a stern look and eye roll from the lady who carried pies to and from and the judges. Again, Louise leaned into my ear. “One of our most respected pie judges scores them that way, so you should be OK.” I silently thanked the anonymous rebel who had paved the way, and judged on.

Beth congratulates a newly minted member of Iowa's pie elite.

Five pies reached the finals, among them the lattice-top peach, in which I now had a rooting interest, for the sake of both the baker and my own credibility. The five judges tasted each finalist, then huddled in the corner to agree on three prize winners and an honorable mention. The consensus winner was a black raspberry masterpiece that turned out to be the entry of Lana Ross, already a pie legend at the fair. The lattice-top peach—my lattice-top peach as far as I was now concerned—took third, illegal recipe card and all.

Validated in my taste and celebrating along with the winner, I watched her approach the table to pick up the leftovers of her pie. As the baker leaned over, Louise beckoned her closer with her finger and whispered, “Ma’am, can I give you some advice about next year? About that nonstandard recipe card…”

Photos courtesy of Allison Faith.

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