By Dennis Minich
Perhaps not since Li’l Abner was hired as a mattress tester or Norm Peterson was tapped as a quality control taster at a brewery has any one person ever been so perfectly suited for a job as I was on Saturday when I was asked to serve as a judge of the annual pumpkin pie competition at the Drexel Pumpkin Festival.
Fortunately, I had not been asked in advance so there was no time prior to the contest to worry about my very weighty duties. I just had a few pre-contest butterflies and merely a few minutes to clear my mind and pallet and prepare for the ever-so-important challenge facing me.
As I have revealed in the past, I have an affinity for certain pies, gooseberry and rhubarb, to name a few. But with all due respect when I am given the phrase “I love ‘blank’ pie” the blank is always filled with pumpkin.
I vaguely remember in the very early days of my youth at one of my first trips to a restaurant, the waitress asked if anyone wanted pie. I said yes, pumpkin. Since it was July there was no pumpkin pie.
Times have changed and pumpkin pie is now always in season, but this is the time of year when it is the very best.
So, it is with this understanding that I note my duties extremely seriously and was going to be diligent in the performance of my duties.
At this point, I will confess to you something the folks in Drexel may not have known when they asked me: not only do I love pumpkin pie, but I have spent many hours watching shows like “Master Chef,” “Top Chef” and “Food Network Star” so I know how to look the part, checking the beauty of the product; holding up bites to examine, giving it the sniff test and of course pulling away the filling from the crust to get to the bottom of the pie to ensure proper flakiness, taste and a consistent level of dough across the bottom of the pie plate. I was ready, I knew how to do it.
Now, so that you can fully appreciate the undertaking, know that no whipped topping of any kind was allowed so the pumpkin pie bakers had to be on point.
No whipped cream could be used to disguise recipe flaws. Scorched skin or crust was noted and points deducted accordingly. Only the best would be rewarded.
I was on a panel of three. We learned at the start that six entrants had taken up the challenge to be the “Top Pumpkin Pie Baker” at the Drexel Pumpkin Festival. This was a title not taken likely. Reputation was on the line. Victory was going to be sweet, defeat equally bitter.
Finally, the time came and the first pie was presented. The three of us judges eyed the pie carefully. Notes were taken about every aspect of the baked edible. Then pieces were presented and it was time to taste. Then re-taste. We asked ourselves, “What are the spices?” “Can you really taste the pumpkin or has some minor ingredient overpowered the taste of our cooked gourd?”
We tasted, we scored, we then prepared for pie two. It was now a case of eat, score, drink a sip of water, repeat. Six times.
I guess the part I found the most interesting was of the six pies they were all different. I honestly didn’t know there were that many recipes for the Thanksgiving mainstay, but indeed there are. Some were sweeter, some had deeper texture, some had the ideal crust. I suddenly realized this was harder than one might think.
All of that changed with No. 5. It looked different. Instead of a smooth skin it had bumps. It was pretty, but what was it that was so different. Finally, a slice arrived and it was immediately obvious this pumpkin pie had pecans baked on top. The very thought was disturbing. What could this person have possibly been thinking? But then came the taste and suddenly I wondered why all pumpkin pies didn’t come with pecans. It was a very original taste and simply dazzled the taste buds. All three of us judges were in agreement, this pie was special. Poor No. 6 never had a chance because it came after No. 5 and the bar was simply set too high.
So, there we had it. For about 15 minutes I enjoyed one of my greatest civic contributions. For the record the winning pie was baked by Janelle Phillips. The runners-up were Misty Schroeder and Diana Mayfield. All three were very worthy competitors and worthy of the title. In fact, everyone who entered deserves a round of applause. I have already volunteered for future pumpkin festival duties and I extend my offer to others, if its food you want judged I will gladly oblige, especially if it involves pie.