Sunday, April 24, 2005

Invasion of the Endless Pie Buffet

This year, my husband and I experienced another "first" in Celebration: the Great American Pie Festival. We missed it last year, much to my chagrin, since a "neverending pie buffet" sounded like something I could sink my teeth into (pun fully intended). This time around, as full-time residents, we planned to be front and center for the big event.

The event actually spans the entire weekend and overflows from Celebration to the Radisson World Gate Resort, just across 192. At the hotel you'll find the APC Crisco National Pie Championships (Crisco is also the main sponsor of the event, along with various pie-related businesses such as Baker's Square, Pillsbury, and Schwan's Bakery, to name a few).

I wasn't interested in the competition, which I can always catch later on The Food Network anyway. My main, selfish interest was in consuming mass quantities of pie. I originally had planned to be a volunteer, but both my husband and I had to work this weekend. We spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday chained to our respective computers, but on Sunday morning we took a break and headed downtown for feasting and fun.

Actually, Sunday was probably the best day to visit. Most of Saturday was pleasant and sunny, but in the late afternoon the rainshowers let loose with a vengence. Sunday was cooler, with plenty of sunshine; the only slight annoyance was a breeze that periodically strengthened just enough to whip the vendors' wares around.

We decided to head downtown right around 11 a.m., when the festivities were scheduled to begin. Normally, I would walk or bike down, but since the Farmer's Market was running simultaneously, we opted to drive. I reasoned that since the festival would draw a larger-than-usual crowd, there might be more craft vendors at the market. If we drove Canyonero and I found something large and/or bulky to buy, I wouldn't end up trying to balance it on my bicycle or dragging it along the walking path.

We parked way down on Celebration Avenue, near Stetson University. Since it was early, there was still plenty of parking closer to Market Street. But I reasoned that we were going to consume huge volumes of sugary calories, so some additional forced exercise would do us good.

The Front Street/Market Street area was blocked off for the event, and the crowd was slowly but steadily arriving. We passed the children's activity area and the Town Tavern booth. Normally, I would have a difficult time passing up their clam chowder and lobster pot pie, but this time I knew that I had to save valuable stomach space. Same thing for my husband...normally he makes a bee line to the Columbia Restaurant's booth to indulge in salad and sangria, but he managed to maintain his focus and head for the pies instead.

We made a quick stop at the Orlando Sentinel's booth. They are a fixture at Celebration events, and I always like to stock up on pens and notepads. My kitchen counter seems naked if there isn't at least one Sentinel pen and pad scattered somewhere near the phone.

There were a few scattered pie booths along Market Street, but we studiously ignored them. We were heading for the Main Event, commonly known as the "Neverending Pie Buffet." Within its sacred boundaries, pie connesuiers could run rampant from table to table, filling up on delectible baked delicacies. Within this fantasyland of pie, you could find anything from traditional standards like apple, cherry, and pecan to more exotic concoctions like mango and sugar cream. For those who might prefer an alternate indulgence, Oberweis Dairy was on hand with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. To wash it down, there were tables laden with bottled water, and Healthy Cow was handing out milk in plain, chocolate, and strawberry varieties.

And the price to be turned loose into this sugary heaven? A mere seven dollars. Pay at the gate, get your hand stamped, and cram in as much as your gullet will fit.

My husband and I coughed up the requisite fee and entered the Promised Land of Pie. The booths were fenced off in a ring at the end of Market Street where it intersects with Celebration Avenue. We flitted about from booth to booth like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Decisions, decisions! Where should we start? I ended up grabbing a slice of traditional pecan pie, then a hunk of coconut cream and a sample of tasty looking cherry. I also just had to sample the intriguing selection known as "sugar cream." I had no idea what it might taste like, but anything with the words "sugar" and "cream" together couldn't be too bad.

I plopped down at one of the many tables scattered around the area and waiting for my husband to return from his own pie-hunting excursion. He had amassed quite an interesting selection, and he'd brought samples of key lime and mango for me. Ah, yes, key lime! How could I live in Florida and not indulge in that traditional Sunshine State treat? I've learned to tell the real stuff from the phony shlock served to tourists who don't realize that real key limes are not green. If you ever order a slice of key lime pie and you receive something with a bright green hue, send it's not the real thing.

It was interesting to note that the portions of pie varied from vendor to vendor. Some, like the key lime and mango, were in tiny sample-size portions (both of those were in the little plastic containers normally used to hold condiments). Others offered slices, albeit thinner ones than usual. Still other served up big, whompin', full-sized slices. I actually preferred the ones who offered smaller sizes. After all, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, so you can take as many of the mini-sizers as you want. I'd rather have a lot of tiny samples to start off with so I can try more kinds of pie. Then, I can always go back and take more of my favorites.

My husband discovered a rare gem: rhubarb pie. We both love it, but it's hard to find, and when you do locate it, it's usually mixed with strawberries. Many years ago, we used to take a lot of weekend trips to Ohio. On the road we usually took, there was a farm stand that sold the most delicious Amish pies. Among them we could usually find that rare Holy Grail of the pie connesuier: 100% pure rhubarb. The pie at the festival had strawberries mixed in, but thankfully they were in the minority. Mostly, my fork hit huge, pink chunks of rhubarb goodness.

The pie was delicious, but there's only so much that a typical human can take before your teeth start to rattle from the sugar and your stomach begs for something that is not sweet. Still, we managed to taste quite a wide assortment of pasteries, and I topped off my feast with a helping of chocolate ice cream. The experience was definitely worth the seven dollars.

We dragged our pie-filled carcasses away from the buffet and down Market Street, planning to check out the Farmers Market. But as we approached the lake, we noticed that some entertaiment had just started on the main stage. I'm always a sucker for jugglers, magic, acrobatics, and the like, so we paused to see what was going on.

When we arrived, some poor volunteer was standing on the stage area while jugglers whipped fast-moving bowling pins around his head. I can only imagine the breeze as the pins zipped by his cheeks and ears and scalp while he muttered a silent prayer that he wouldn't suddenly have to sneeze. My husband and I decided to stick around, and we were treated to a spirited round of plate twirling and a very interesting unicycle ride...the performer wheeled around in a tight circle while balancing a volunteer from the audience on his shoulders.

Next up, he asked for another volunteer. My husband and I were standing in the back, behind all the seated people, so I figured that we were relatively safe. The performer was pointing in our general direction, so we figured he was going to pick on one of the people in the chairs. But no, he was suddenly heading right at us! At first, he said he was going to take me, and I was frozen in a sudden spasm of stage fright that kept me from even opening my mouth to protest. Normally I am an exhibitionist, but I am not the most coordinated person in the world. Thus, I'm not big on volunteer opportunities that might require me to throw, catch, climb, or do other things that potentially require skill. After watching the previous volunteer clamber up onto the performer's shoulders and balance there while he weaved around on the unicycle, I could only imagine what terrors I might potentially be subjected to.

Turns out he was just trying to scare me anyway...the one he was really after was my husband. Whew! I could tell that Tony was wishing he could melt into the pavement, but instead he sheepishly made his way up on stage. Why don't I ever have a camera at times like that!

It turned out to be a simple assignment. My husband was directed to lie down on a blanket spread on the sidewalk, and he was even given a pillow. Then, the performer climbed to the top of a ladder, which he planned to "walk" over my husband while juggling a trio of tennis rackets.

There was only one slight glitch. My husband is very barrel-chested, so there was no way the ladder's bottom rung would fit over it. No problem...the performer simply "walked" the ladder as far as possible, then did it backwards. He managed to do so without dropping any of the tennis rackets onto my poor, long-suffering spouse, who was eager to jump up and escape into the audience as soon as the trick was over. No such luck! He needed to assist one more time, but this time there was no risk to life or limb. He was asked to strap the performer into a straight-jacket, from which he planned to escape while riding around on a six-foot-tall unicycle.

I would never be able to ride any sort of unicycle, let alone one that is taller than me and while restrained in a staight-jacket to boot. But the performer managed to pull it off while the audience watched in awe. His manipulations to escape the jacket looked downright painful; they reminded me of the scene in "Lethal Weapon 2" where Mel Gibson dislocates his shoulder with a loud crack and worms his way out of restraints to win a bet. But Mel didn't have to do it while perched precariously on one wheel, cycling around the cement.

When the feat was completed successfully, we all let out a collective sigh of relief and burst into applause. It had been quite an interesting show. Even though he'd been walked over by a ladder while tennis rackets spun wildly overhead, my husband looked none the worse for the wear, so I led him to the safer environs of the Farmers Market.

Normally, when I come to the market, I allow myself a Sunday morning treat of fresh-squeezed lemonade and filled cookies. These items come from two separate vendors; there is a booth where the lemonade is made up right in front of you, and a little farther down is a table where a French couple displays their tempting, fresh-baked wares. My favorite item is their cookies, which are stuffed with enticing fillings like caramel or peanut butter. Those are my two favorites, and usually I can't decide between them, so I end up buying one of each.

But this time, I was still stuffed to the gills with pie, and even my favorite goodies couldn't entice me. I walked by the booths without feeling even one pang of temptation. I'm sure that my stomach was busily diverting as much blood as possible from my brain, rendering it incapable of manifesting any desire for sugary treats.

There were a few more crafters than usual, but nothing really tickled my fancy, so we cut across the parking lot to return to Celebration Avenue and Canyonero. Back at Duloc Manor, we both had plenty of work waiting for us, but we were happy that we'd taken the time for a sweet interlude.

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