Serving as a pie judge at the State Fair of Texas is more stressful than serving on a death-qualified jury. OK, I’ve never actually served on a death-qualified jury. But I can attest from recent experience that judging pies is a lot harder than it looks.
It was a dream fulfilled when the State Fair powers that be asked me to judge this year. The first challenge was figuring out what to wear. I showed up to the Creative Arts Building last Friday morning in blue linen overalls. That felt appropriate—roomy yet not too casual, a slight nod to the farm women and men who came before me.
Volunteers quickly ushered me behind the barrier into the Competition Kitchen, which sits just past the butter sculpture, between walls of beribboned quilts and award-winning photographs of hawks and bluebells. The back of the kitchen is lined with electric ovens and the front faces a small section of stadium seating.
Contestants were registering their entries, gingerly unloading Tupperware pie carriers and towel-lined baskets, applying last-minute sprinklings of powdered sugar or dollops of whipped cream. One man, dressed for the part in denim overalls and an oversized straw hat, pulled his entry in a red wagon. Runners then placed the pies on the appropriate tables: chocolate, chess, cream, buttermilk, nut, citrus, or sugar-free.
A volunteer showed me to my seat. The table was topped with a yellow-checked tablecloth and outfitted with Styrofoam cups of palate cleansers: oyster crackers and sweet pickles (sour ones taint the flavors). I had been assigned to citrus pies, I was told. There were 22 entries and four judges for the category. We would be split into two teams of two, and each pair would judge 11 pies. We would pick our two favorites and the other two judges would pick their two favorites. Then we’d compare the top four and assign prizes: first, second, third, and an optional honorable mention.
The first of my fellow judges to arrive were Ellen, who has her own catering business, and Jerry, an antiques dealer in town. Ellen and Jerry are longtime State Fair judges, not just of pies but also collectibles and cooking contests. They graciously took me under their wings.
First, they said, you’ll want to mark your pie plates into quadrants and label them with the appropriate pie numbers when the runners start serving up slices for sampling. That way you can go back and review entries at the end. But, they warned, you are being watched. So don’t make faces. And if you take one bite of each pie, then you can’t go back and take three bites of the pie you really like. So it’s really better to take two bites of everything. But that means that you’ll have to take two bites of the really bad stuff and look happy while you’re doing it.
Plus, they said, the contestants will read your lips. So you’ll want to keep a hand over your mouth if you need to debate an entry with your fellow judges. Jerry said he focused on taste, appearance, and consistency when voting and preferred a scale of one to five for each category. But that wasn’t a hard and fast rule. We just needed to each be able to identify our two top pies. And keep an eye out for store-bought crusts, Ellen warned. That’s an immediate disqualifier.
Around that time, Deahna, my co-judge, arrived. She was tall and striking and she walked in like she ran the place, which it turned out she kind of does; she’s the guest experience manager for the whole shebang. Everyone knew her, so we quickly had runners running over to see if we needed anything. This was her second year as a judge. She said she made it a priority to experience every single aspect of the fair so that she could understand the full customer experience. Her secret, she said, was to pretend she was doing math equations in her head when she encountered a pie she didn’t like.
Then we were off, the pies arriving fast and furious like pancakes at a church breakfast. The first one was a puckery lemon pie with an added tang from limoncello and a dark graham cracker crust. Too dark, I wondered? And weren’t the whipped cream dollops sloppy? But I kept my thoughts to myself. Deahna was instantly in love. With 10 more pies to go, I would reserve judgment.
They came in quick succession: a mojito-inspired number with pretty whipped cream swirls but a weird mint flavor; a lovely lemon yogurt pie with an all-white top that seduced me with its subtle creaminess but Deahna thought was too mild; a ginger, lime, and grapefruit pie whose crust-to-filling ration was all wrong.
There were several lemon meringue options. The two obvious fails had simply blow-torched the meringue, so the whole thing dissolved when sliced and scooped out onto our plates—zeros for consistency. The addition of fresh raspberries to another turned out to be a mistake. Like tapioca pearls in bubble tea, the texture was unpleasant. Shredded coconut added to a key lime pie was a similar fail.
By the end of our 11, Deahna and I had a clear frontrunner for our favorite lime pie, a key lime that stood up perfectly when sliced and melted in our mouths, the barely visible flecks of zest undetectable to the tongue.
Picking a lemon was trickier. I was a fan of the yogurt one, as well as one creatively topped with sweetened cream cheese dollops. But Deahna was still cheerleading for the first pie of the whole bunch. I surreptitiously went back for another bite, quickly finding the slice in its labeled quadrant. The filling was creamy, the crust that I took for too dark held together with just the right crunch, and there was that unmistakable lemon tang that my other two favorites just couldn’t touch. OK, I agreed. We had our two.
Now we had to sample Jerry and Ellen’s picks. They were both prettier than ours. The lemon icebox pie had an intricate swirled topping, and their raspberry key lime pie was the stunner of the whole lot, with a raspberry jelly mirror glaze covering the top. But when we bit into them, we knew ours were better. That may be when I started feeling more like a contestant than a judge, suddenly invested in the outcome.
Jerry and Ellen clearly thought their picks would win us over, so they were surprised to hear us argue that ours were superior on taste. Wasn’t that what Jerry had told me in the beginning should win out over appearance? As we sang the praises of our key lime pie, Jerry and Ellen started to look confused. They said they hadn’t gotten a lime pie from us; just two lemons. The puckery pie and one with cream cheese dollops.
Hold the pie tin! The runner had given them the wrong pie. There was a sudden mad scramble and Ellen and Jerry were presented with our key lime pick.
They still weren’t convinced, and Deahna and I refused to concede style over substance. So a compromise was struck. Our key lime pie would take first place and their raspberry-glazed one would take second. In all of the flurry, I couldn’t tell you which lemon came in third. We gave the runners our picks. Now it was time for Best in Show.
Everyone loosened their belts. The runners took the seven winners from each category to apportion into cups. Then all of the judges lined up to get their final samples. I thought this might be the hardest part, but it wasn’t. I had three quick frontrunners: a dark chocolate cream pie, the pecan pie, and—yes—our key lime pie. I had a moment of self-doubt (Was I just trying to confirm my own instincts?) before marking the number for the key lime pie on my slip of paper and turning it in to the runners. Then everyone waited for the final tally, nervously sipping water and nibbling oyster crackers.
In the end, Sally Muhl from Sunnyvale took Best in Show for her key lime pie. That is to say, the same pie Deahna and I had to fight for and which almost didn’t get submitted due to the chaos at our citrus table. Thankfully, we figured it out. And, thankfully, the other judges vindicated our decision.
As I was heading out to leave, I was given one final piece of advice by my fellow judges. Stop and get a Fletcher’s Corny Dog on your wait out of the building, they said. You’re about to crash from the sugar rush, and you’ll need some fat and protein to balance it out.
They were right.