A day in the life of a pie-tasting contestant is like sugar and apple spice. Or is it? Comparing pies against a family tradition can get a little crumby.

Pie Amour

Since I was little, I have pushed aside all dinner entrees and fruit platters to feast on my aunt’s homemade apple pies. Family events and holidays began with a warm embrace, followed by a hand-off of “the pie,” a tin of her moist, soft baked apple deliciousness. When I was in college, she would even bake a separate pie just for me to bring back to my college dorm room as a late-night snack.

So when I was selected as a pie judge for the 2008 APC Crisco National Pie Championship by the American Pie Council, Lake Forest, Ill., I was secretly looking for the one pie that could step up to the podium and outdo a family tradition.

It was a warm, sunny Kissimmee, Fla. day, and at 9:15a.m., I was mentally preparing myself for what could be the longest sugar high ever. As I registered my name, I met George, a quiet older man from Washington, D.C., with an avid taste for food competition. Although this is his first time judging in this particular contest, he travels the nation to participate in various food challenges advertised on The Food Network. Then I received my judge number and joined my randomly selected group of other rookie judges to begin filling my belly with pie.

At my table was Ray “Zippity” Day, a professional clown full of life and a knack for sweets (his wife, Carole, AKA: Doo Dah, was at the table behind us), Cheryl Parker, a marketing executive for the local marketing firm working the APC and Christopher Hesse, a professional chef at a local resort and convention center with a zest for cooking wonderfully tasting food. As we talked about our jobs, reality TV shows and what we like to do for fun, we began the judging process.

Pie No. 1 arrived. In the center of each pie was a code taped on a stick with an American flag. Each code corresponded with the type of pie, the baker and the category (i.e., gourmet vs. premium). We began by inspecting the appearance of the pie. Were the apples neat and organized? Were the crumbs evenly layered? Did it look appetizing to the eye? Then it was time to dig in. Crust, filling, then both. Did it taste good? Was there a gnarly aftertaste? Was it too sweet or too sour? We repeated this on 17 apple crumb pies. Good thing I wore my Thanksgiving Day pants.

I looked around to absorb the hustle and bustle of the runners, the slicers and the other 100 or so judges following the same process with more than 400 alternative flavors of pies. I also felt the sugar literally dancing in my veins.

Karen, our runner, brought the pies over one by one, meanwhile, filling our glasses with water, restocking the oyster cracker bowls and making sure we had enough paper plates, plastic forks and napkins. This was Karen’s first time volunteering for the event as well, and she explained that she was having the absolute best time. She was also the quickest, most detailed “waitress” ever.

Two and a half hours later, we had completed the judging process. Our judging sheets, which broke down the judging into five categories ranking one through nine, were sent to the “war room.” No, this is not where the politicians duke it out for a recount of the votes (I mean, we were in Florida). This is where the numbers are calculated and entered into the voting system, later determining the winners. After our judging numbers were added correctly (thanks to my handy cell phone calculator) we were released to enjoy the rest of the day.

In rehashing the taste of the pies in my mind and comparing with my judging numbers, it was obvious. My aunt is still the leading candidate to win any pie contest.

Thanks to all that helped make this experience memorable, especially to the dedicated APC members, but no professional pie has yet to compare to my aunt’s mouth-watering, luscious apple pie.

So my dear aunt, if you’re reading this, can you send me another pie?

Marina Mayer