The bright orange ‘#6’ designating space assigned to me was as easy to spot as the manicured nails and made-up faces of a few of the other finalists. I unloaded my backpack on a countertop and then looked around. It was still hard to believe I was there. I’d entered the contest on a fluke.
Not a fluke, actually. I did it for my mother, who’d bake a pie a week leading up to the one she’d enter in the annual Great Berry Pie Cook-off Competition. This meant my sister and I ate pie most every day growing up. It was a staple. We were our mother’s taste testers as she concocted variations in an attempt to bake a winner. Neither of us complained. We liked them–all of them.
Our mother never won a blue ribbon or made the top ten, but she was convinced the pies were why her marriage ended.
“I swear your father was jealous of my pies,” she’d explain. “My baking gave me pleasure.”
Admittedly, he was a controlling man. I bet he was glad she never won a ribbon because if she had, it would have been out of his control and her worth as a pie maker would have been acknowledged.
So this day at the competition I dedicated to my mother. This day in the sterile kitchen was for her. Take that, Dad! Thanks for walking away. You missed some great pies from a great pie maker.
With the backpack emptied, I went looking for a storage closet. One of the rules of the competition was that contestants couldn’t have clutter around the work space. When I returned to my countertop, I found a man in the space next to me. He was contestant number seven.
I was relieved I wouldn’t be baking next to one of those manicured types, although he did have an expensive-looking apron laying on the counter (Another competition rule: contestants must wear aprons.) His name tag announced him to be Richard Lawson, a man with an address from further down in the county. That was where our conversation began.
“You must have started out early to get here on time,” I said with my hand extended in greeting. “I’m Mary Stevens.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mary,” Richard replied. “I have family in the area so I came last night.”
“I’ve never known a man who bakes pies.”
“My father owned a bakery in the front area of our home,” he explained. “I liked watching him flute his pie crusts. It was an art form for him. He was a master pie-maker.”
“So I don’t stand a chance?”
“I’m not my father when it comes to pies,” he assured me. “I bake when time allows.”
“You didn’t take over the family business?”
“No. I’m a police officer. Baking is how I relax, but that’s not going to be the case today.”
“I’m with you there,” I replied. “I’ve never seen a stove with so many knobs.”
Richard agreed. “All you need is preheat and start. Don’t know why everything has to be so complicated.”
After stashing his duffel bag in the closet, Richard asked about my pie-making history.
I explained about my mother, and then about my current job. “I teach tough kids. Most are marked as failures, but when I take them to the kitchen and we make pies, the kids melt just like butter.”
Just then, a woman introduced herself as Claire Bailey, chairwoman of the 55th Great Berry Pie Cook-off Competition, and asked for everyone’s attention. After welcoming us, she congratulated everyone for making the final cut.
“You were selected from over 1,600 entrants. That’s the highest number to date!”
Once she went over the rules for the day and answered any questions we had, she asked that we introduce ourselves and include a little information about our pies. Some talked about using organic this-and that-berries grown to be the biggest and juiciest in controlled settings, and crusts defined by nonfat and gram count and healthier substitutes.
I had no problem saying words like ‘sugar,’ ‘Crisco,’ and ‘butter,’ or letting them know I’d be using wild raspberries. I ended with something my mother would repeat when she served her pies to her taste tasters, “A great slice of pie warms the heart.”
Richard had similar sentiments when he gave his introduction and talked about his father’s bakery.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but cutting out doughnuts with my sister created a bond between us that remains today. We’d talk, share secrets. I believe my dad had more in mind than doughnuts when he put us to work.”
After contestant 10 wrapped up her tribute to the organics, we waited anxiously for the official start of the competition. When the clock hit the hour mark, the bake-off was on. With my mother’s apron tied around my waist, I found my momentum. I didn’t use the stainless steel utensils provided. I used my mother’s. The tin measuring cup had dents from falling on the floor so many times, and her yellow ceramic bowl had a few chips around the edges. None of that mattered. They gave me comfort.
“Nice raspberries, Mary,” remarked Richard as he cleaned strawberries for his pie.
“I found a patch along a fence line with berries ripe for picking. The timing was perfect.”
After cutting the lard into the flour and sprinkling the flour with water until it was the right consistency, I divided the dough into two balls. Then I dusted the countertop with flour like my mother used to do. Her fingers reminded me of butterflies fluttering about, dropping flour like a fine snowfall.
“Every part of the process plays into the symphony of the pie,” she’d explain.
My mother’s words played through my mind as I took her rolling pin to the dough. Her song kept singing in my head as I covered her worn pie tin with my rolled-out dough. After trimming, crimping, and fluting the crust, I filled it with raspberries grown in the sun and rain, which I had mixed with sugar and cornstarch, butter and tapioca.
“You have a way with rolling out that dough, Mary,” Richard remarked. “It was a pleasure to watch.”
“You know how you said you believed your dad had more in mind than doughnuts when he put you and your sister to work? I never realized it, but my mother was teaching me lessons never found in a classroom when she made her pies. Like taking pleasure in the task at hand, for example,” I said as I indicated the pie crust.
Minutes later ten pies were baking.
Tensions rose when a news crew came through the door. The other competitors, those manicured ladies, primped themselves for the camera, smiling, showing their starched teeth as Claire Bailey brought the media around. I was hoping my mother might see me wearing her apron on the local news at 6p.m. as a cameraman filmed me taking the piping hot raspberry pie bubbling with juices out of the oven. Maybe she’d hear me praising her when a man with a microphone asked me questions.
But I knew there’d be no chance of anything like that happening.
Once the pies were sliced, the judging began.