Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Time As A Pie Judge

My Time As A Pie Judge
The American Pie Council 2014 Championships

It was all my daughter’s fault.

My wife, Barbara, and I were visiting our daughter and her family at her new home in Connecticut.  We were planning on eating in and I wanted dessert.  She took me to a pie bakery in Norwalk, and as we entered, I noticed the various award citations on the wall.

Being the shy, reticent person I am, I engaged the owner in conversation about the awards.  

She had won several times with a couple of her pies at a national pie competition run by the American Pie Council.  Turns out it is held in Orlando, not that far from me, about 3 1/2 hours by car.

I explained that I was a big dessert person, preferring dessert over the main course any day.  Pies, cakes, cookies, fresh fruit, canned fruit, ice cream, sherbet, sorbet, any combinations of these things and I am in. I refuse to sit down to a meal unless I am going to get dessert.  I have always been this way, and anyone who knows me, knows I am always going to ask for the dessert menu.

After hearing this, the owner suggested I might want to go and be a judge.  How could I refuse this invitation?  My dream job has finally arrived!

When we got back to Florida, I went on the American Pie Council website and wrote them an email asking how I could become a judge.  They sent me an application which they wanted me to fill out.  It looked to me like they were interested in professional bakers or food critics, something I am not.  I wrote back to them that my 67 years of pie eating was a good qualification and I am the one who is going to buy and eat the pie, not just critique it. People like me should be represented.

Turns out, they agreed and I was scheduled to be a judge for the 2014 Pie Championship.

Once selected, I felt it was my judicial responsibility to get a base line of what pies should taste like.  I set out to eat as many pies as I could between when I was chosen, November 2013, and when the competition was, April 25-27, 2014.

My wife, while criticizing my decision, never turned down any pies I brought home, or ordered at restaurants.  Friends would join in to try pies with me, or get pies for me to taste.  Anything in the name of Judicial Research

About a month into my research, I had a doctor’s appointment. My doctor was not amused by my blood tests, but agreed to withhold judgment until after the pie contest, when I would return to my normal level of pie eating.

During this time, I started baking just to get the feel of what that is like.  I downloaded a pie recipe from the American Pie Council site of a past winner, and produced a very tasty pie.  I also baked cookies, Linzer tarts, Black and White cookies and a Rum Raisin Tiramasu.  I even made a chocolate flourless torte for Passover that was very good and got rave reviews from friends and relatives who came to our seder.

I now felt confident in my tasting ability and ready for the contest.

On Thursday, the 24th, Barbara and I drove to Orlando and checked in at the hotel.

It was a very nice hotel.  All the rooms were two room suites, well furnished and spacious.  There were three restaurants and a takeout cafe for us to eat at, a very pretty pool area and the convention center was located on the hotel grounds.  

There were two conventions going on.  The pie convention and a convention of nuclear cardiologists.  I wondered if that was coincidence or would some of us wind up as patients in the medical convention after consuming so much pie.  I viewed it as a built in referral and treatment option.

We went over to the convention hall and met the head of the American Pie Council and some of the people working and volunteering.  They were very friendly and I spent some time talking with them.

The only problem was I was told that the Food Network, that was supposed to be filming the event, cancelled at the last minute because of problems with the production company they had hired.  I was disappointed as I was sure I was going to be discovered and given a show of my own.  Oh well, the best laid plans of mice, men and pies....

The next day, I got up early, brought breakfast back to the room (juice, coffee and danish) for both of us, and then at 8:30 went to register for the pie judging.

There were about 100 people milling around waiting to go into the judging room. I met some of them.  Most were locals and had been doing the judging for several years.  They gave me advice on how much to eat and we talked about criteria. The man in charge announced a special meeting for the “rookies” in the group.  About 30 of us went to the special meeting.

At the meeting, Rich, the man in charge, gave us detailed instructions on how to fill out our rating sheets for each pie, how to do a tasting, and the importance of not discussing the pie we were tasting with the other judges until after everyone had rated the pie.  He explained that there was literally millions of dollars at stake for the commercial bakers and that this was serious business.  

Today was Commercial Pie day.  These are the people who distribute pies nationwide to supermarkets, C Stores, wholesalers, etc.  People like Krogers, Winn Dixie, and Legendary Bakers to name a few.

We were than joined by the “non-rookie” judges and more information was given and rules repeated.

The commercial people wanted “average joes” to taste their pies as we were the ones who would go to the stores and buy them.  That made a lot of sense to me, and I didn’t notice any professional people doing the judging that day.

The time had arrived and we all adjourned to the pie tasting room.  We were to be sequestered.  We had no contact with the pie makers on any of the days, so we could not be influenced by them.

We had each been assigned to a particular table, and there were five judges per table.  Each table was assigned 1-2 types of pies to judge.  My table got Apple Crumb and Banana Cream.  Fruit and Cream!  I was psyched.

Each table had a volunteer server assigned to it and that person would bring us the pie to inspect. They would then bring it to the cutting table, where a wedge would be cut off by “cutters” and then brought back to us along with the rest of the pie for further inspection.  Great care was given to the cutting. The wedge would then be placed in front of one of us and that person would slice off a sliver to taste, including the crust.  The wedge would then be passed onto the next person at the table and the process would continue.

We would then individually taste our sliver and evaluate it for flavor, texture, blending, identification of flavors or fruit, how well it met the expectations of its type, appearance before cutting and after cutting, first taste impression,  after taste. if we would buy it again, and overall evaluation.  The various criteria for rating the pie was on a scale of 1-9.  There was also a place for comments which we were encouraged to do.  The commercial people wanted to know our input, both good and bad.

In between pies we were to eat an oyster cracker and drink water to clear our palates.  We used new plates, knives and forks for each pie so as not to contaminate the tastes of each pie. No coffee, tea or soda was allowed as that would affect the taste.  

We were now ready and the first pie was brought out.

We dutifully followed our instructions and evaluated the first pie. Our evaluation sheets were collected and sent to the tabulation room after each tasting.  This was serious business, with people walking around monitoring us, wearing “Pie Police” T-shirts, making sure all the rules were adhered to.

Eventually there were 12 Apple Crumb pies and 9 Banana Cream pies to taste at our table. 

The pies ranged from pretty good, to not so good with most in the middle.  We were given a sheet that told us how to interpret the pie for price, based on the pies designation code. The Family being the lowest $3.00 selling price to Super Gourmet with a price in the $20’s. The price of the pie didn’t seem to matter.  One of the better pies was a cheaper one.  The price did not affect how we judged it.  We never knew who baked the pies.  All pies were presented with a generic code which we copied onto our evaluation sheets.  This was procedure was followed every day of the competition.

We were usually within 10-15 points of each other, high to low.  The highest you could score was 81.  I usually fell out in the middle, with other judges generally scoring higher and lower than me.  I didn’t give out any 81’s, the highest i gave was a 72, and the lowest I gave was a 44.  Since our scores were pretty close, I felt the scores were honest and correct.

We had been given a 20 minute break and I wandered into the exhibition hall where there were pie seminars and vendors of pie products.  There was a long table where all the commercial pies were set up for viewing.  These were duplicates of the ones we had sampled.  I managed to get a two pound bag of flour from a vendor as a giveaway.  When I asked for a T-shirt from the American Pie Council, I was told I had to buy it.  No freebies for us judges!

I returned to the judging room.

We finished up around 2:00 PM .  I estimate I consumed the equivalent of 3-4 pieces of pie during the judging that day.

I went to find Barbara.

She of course was hungry and demanded lunch.  We retired to one of the restaurants and she ate lunch while I just had a soda.

We found a shady spot near the pool and hung around until later in the afternoon.  We went up and relaxed in the room and then left the hotel for dinner at a town nearby, Celebration, which had many restaurants and shops.

Celebration is a planned community set up by Disney.  It has a small town feel and look.  Some people refer to it as the “Stepford” town for its orderliness and appearance.  It was very pretty, and we ate dinner, walked around and returned to the hotel.  

I awoke the next day and repeated the breakfast routine from the day before.  I then left for the day’s judging.

Today was amateur day.  

Again there was a special meeting for the rookies, I of course now being a veteran, did not attend.  I did go to the meeting later with the rest of the experienced judges after the rookies had been given their training.

We were all told that these people should be treated a little differently.  They took our comments very personally and we should not put down negative comments as that could bring on tears.  That was not to mean we should lower our expectations and raise our ratings, just not be cruel in the comments.  If you couldn’t say something positive, don’t say anything.  Good advice.

There were some professionals among us this time, not a lot, but some.  I felt they could be instructive after a tasting, giving their take on a particular pie.

We went into the judging room.

My table was assigned Chocolate Cream Pies.  Nineteen of them to be exact.  I like Chocolate Cream pies.  No professional at our table, but 3 of us had previous experience.

We began.

Once again, there was a wide variation in the tastes of the pies. I really liked two of them.  

The Bakers took a lot of care on the appearance and construction of the pies and many baked in some different ingredients in the pies.  Sometimes that worked; sometimes it didn’t.  One of the pies I liked the best was simply a chocolate cream pie, with no additions.

Once or twice we got a pie that we all sort of asked (after rating it) “did anyone taste this before entering it?”

Never the less, they all showed a lot of effort, thought and care. Some had very elaborate appearances. After all this, I still like Chocolate Cream Pie, although I may not have another for a while. 

By 1 o’clock we were through.  My hands were shaking a little from the sugar rush, but I persevered and I went to find Barbara.

There was a pie festival going on at Celebration, sponsored by the American Pie Council, so Barbara and I took the shuttle bus to go there.  

Of course Barbara was hungry and we (both of us) had tapas and sangria for lunch at a local restaurant near the festival.

After lunch we went to the festival.

The festival had vendors selling knives. baking dishes, aprons, dried fruit, spices and various other things.  There was also a section where the commercial bakers were giving away pie slices to anyone who was there.  Barbara got some pie, but for the first time, ever, I didn’t take any dessert. I was pied out!

The next day was Professional Day.  These are the people who own and bake at bakeries.  It is expected that these would be the best pies.  Everyone wants to judge on this day.  There are more candidates than there are seats for judging.

I had elected not to judge on this day, as my cousins were driving up from Tampa to visit us for lunch, and I wasn’t sure what time the judging would end.

I’m sorry I didn’t judge, but I was very happy to see my cousins.  Family outweighs pie, no pun intended.

After lunch we drove home.

Would I do it again?  Maybe.  I enjoyed being a judge, but it was quite expensive for me (about $1,000, including, hotel, food, gas, and tolls).  I will have to think about that, assuming they would have me again.

I did get to taste 40 pies and help determine the fate of some commercial baking companies.

What’s most important is I got to meet some nice people and I had fun.

Barbara and I are ready for our next adventure.  I heard about a Grape Stomping event where people do “The Lucy”.  Anyone want to join us?

As an aside, I’m fully recovered from my pie saturation and I am ready for dessert after dinner tonight.   

Commercial Pies

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