I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret. Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge. But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts. Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.
There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me. From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.” If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is. They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.
But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best. Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year. Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious. “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.” “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.” And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?
Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well. What the–?!! People actually do this? You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback? I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true. I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general. Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed. I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.
When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time. They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years. On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those. You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more. There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division. There is even a savory pot pie category! Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.
In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table. Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets. I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day. I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner. I still remember this one fondly, over a year later:
This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out. And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.
The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state. Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out. Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste. Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies. That would be ill-advised. Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number. There is even math involved!
We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:
The first of many coconut cream pies:
The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:
A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:
Another coconut cream:
This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.
I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it. However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:
I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie. I know it was my friend’s favorite.
WHO DAT? This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie. It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie. I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.
I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be? Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?
This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.
Another coconut cream:
This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to. It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.
I forget what this one was:
And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.
We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person. We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.
The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze. I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.
The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories! Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.
When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category. Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.
I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are. The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri. “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.” I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.
On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie. It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.
Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets. I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game. I’m just glad it only happens once a year!
EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.