There is no greater honor at Mountain Fair than to be selected as a pie judge.
Over decades, the panel of judges has watched the rise and fall of emcees and contest winners with very few changes in their own ranks. They say that the only way to get a seat at the table is to inherit one.
“They” aren’t quite right. It is possible, in any given year, for someone not born into the position to get land a spot as a substitute.
“I love all of my judges, but we can also use some new blood,” explained Alta Otto, who has directed the contest for four years. She makes it a family affair, with her mom, aunt, and kids each involved as judges or servers. Last year, she brought me on as a substitute for Laurie Loeb, who received her position from my mother. This year, I had Peggy Devilbiss’s trip to Lyons to thank for the vacancy.
So, clad in faux-Western attire to fit the “Wild West” theme, I trepidatiously took my seat at the table on Saturday morning, under the close eye of more established judges.
John Ackerman, nearing his 30th year as a judge and sporting an outfit reminiscent of an old-timey undertaker or snake oil salesman, took me under his wing.
He defended our category, cream pies, against my assertion of fruit pie superiority, and noted that the exotic category gives folks “the freedom to make a pie that they’re passionate about.”
Although more than welcoming, he seemed a little dubious of my qualifications.
“I think you need time to develop a proper palate,” he told me.
“Pie judges have to stick around because it takes a lifetime to become discerning,” Staci Dickerson agreed. “It’s a very profound experience of distilling sensations — visual, textual, taste ...”
One of my former high school teachers, standing on the sidelines, was more blunt in his assessment.
“Will Grandbois doesn’t know a thing about pie,” is what I’m told he said, though perhaps the language was a little courser.
Nevertheless, I took up my fork and glass of champagne and tried to earn a measure of respect from my colleagues.
I’d like to think I succeeded. Flavor is the most subjective element for a judge to assess, but crust and texture are discussed in detail, while there’s usually a consensus on appearance. Contrary to one photographer’s characterization of me as the “Simon Cowell of Pie,” my contributions to the conversation were mostly middle of the road and, for the most part, met with agreement or at least respect.
It was a shorter process than usual, with only four cream entries, five exotics, and nine fruit pies. Past years have seen a score of pies in each category, but organizers say it fluctuates as longtime bakers move away and newcomers take up the torch.
The judges made up for the leaner showing with plenty of champagne and good talk. At one point, the entire assembly broke into a rendition of “Home on the Range.”
“We’re having a lot of fun, but it’s serious fun,” Ackerman explained.
The winner for cream pie was a macadamia nut cream pie with an elegantly scalloped crust. When most of the judges left and I was invited to select best in show, I found our category stacked up well against the others. The macadamia cream bested a bold kiwi lime pie and the multi-fruit “Nutty Politics of the Wild, Wild West.”
I left the judging canopy with a sense of accomplishment and a sated sweet tooth. I chose not to find out who baked the winning pie, for fear of biasing my taste buds if I recognize a hint of the same rum next time. Perhaps, if I practice on a part-time basis for a couple more decades, I’ll warrant a permanent position.
I better be sure I want it, though. As John Salamida told me, “Once you’re invited, you’re here for life.”