Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Great American Pie Festival Revisited

Every April in Celebration, if you head dowtown on the right weekend, you'll find people staggering around in the throes of sugar intoxication. If you crane your ear, you'll be able to interpret their pained mumblings: "No more pie...please, no more pie!" But there is no escape for the weary...the creamy and crusty delights surround them on every side. Once you have entered the Endless Pie Buffet, a highlight of the annual Great American Pie Festival, you won't be allowed to leave until you have gone up at least one pants size and/or until your blood sugar level meets diabetic standards.

Last year, I volunteered at the buffet, handing out baked goods to hungry fest-goers (and imbibing in no small quantity myself). This year was a little different, as I worked at the hotel where the Crisco National Pie Championship competition was being held.

On the Celebration end of things, besides the Coneheads-style consumption of mass quantities, there is also entertainment such as pie juggling, games and crafts for the kids, and of course a pie eating contest. But things are much more serious on the competitive end...amateurs and pros alike vie for monetary prizes, prestige, and an appearance on the Food Network.

The compeitive categories are intriguing; they run the gamut from mundane (e.g. apple, cream, fruit/berry) to the more intriguing and creative (holiday, Splenda, and "open," i.e. let your imagination run wild).

My volunteer duties put me in the thick of all those pies...literally. I reported for duty at the Sheraton Safari hotel and was assigned to serve as one of six pie cutters. This meant that I hovered at my station, equipped with a cutting board, knife, pie serving spatula, pitcher of hot water to rinse the implements, and paper towls for between-pie wipedowns. Volunteers working the judges' tables would plop down a pie, which I did my best not to mangle and massacre as I hacked out a hunk.

Since the table-workers would bring their pie to any available cutter, I ended up chopping through every category, from firm, lovely, easy-to-cut creations to sloppy, disintegrating tins of pudding and Cool Whip that melted into soupy masses on sight.

At first, I was terrified. I've never ranked high on the manual dexterity scale, and adding a sharp implement into the mix seemed like a recipe for disaster. Would my pies look like they had been cut with all the finesse of a lobotomized surgeon on crack? Would I be the only volunteer ever fired at the Pie Fest? I gulped down my paranoia and plunged into my work.

Thankfully, while I doubt that I'll win any awards for pie-cutting prowess, I managed to do a halfway decent job. Soon, I could tell by sight whether a pie would be a pleasure to cut or whether it was likely to collapse into a crusty heap at the first touch of my blade. The absolute worst was a chocolate cream creation that literally melted into soup the moment it was cut. A close second on the challenge scale were the pies that had been over-baked, melding their crusts to the bottom of the pan as though they had been secured with Super Glue.

Pumpkin and sweet potato weren't too bad, nor were most of the traditional fruit varities. Cream pies were sometimes iffy, although generally not too bad. The pecan pies could be a challenge, and the fruity works of art (usually strawberry) with mounds of berries piled on top were usually a nightmare. No matter how carefully you tried to carve them, there was always an inevitable avalance of fruit.

Some of the pies were such breathtaking works of art that it seemed almost criminal to cut them. They were festooned with everything from candy pirate coins to chocolate and nut mice (on a mousse pie, course). The talent and imagination was amazing.

I was happy that I'd chosen to work "behind the scenes," as working a table required mental abilities that are well beyond my bushed brain on a typical weekend morning. You had to find specific pies on racks and in coolers, keep track of numbers, put the pies back in their original spot after judging, collect score cards, etc...ugh! I enjoyed my mindless route of hack, rinse/wipe, hack, rinse/wipe, hack, rinse/wipe, and so on....

At some point, we started cutting small pieces of the most appealing creations after they were judged and passing them among the cutters and the table workers. I sampled a small bite of everything from apple (LOTS of apple) to berry to key lime to pumpkin. My personal favorites were a sweet potato pie topped with toasted marshmallows and a berry/rhubard mix (I am a rhubarb fanatic). But alas, there was no "Volunteers' Choice" category, so their creators will go unrewarded unless they capture official titles.

The judges were an eclectic mix...everything from professional chefs and food critics to Miss Michigan Apple (I'm probably massacring her title, but her crown was impressive). Their tables were equipped with water and oyster crackers for between-pie palate cleansing as they imbibed in a continuous flow of crusty creations. By the end of the day, they were surely on a sugar high that would still have them bouncing off the walls come midnight.

As a volunteer, you receive a free ticket to the Endless Pie Buffet back in Celebration, but by the time my shift was over, I never wanted to see another pie for another year. In a way, it had been better than the buffet, where virtually all of the booths hand out full-sized slices. I prefer to sample tiny bites because then my stamina lasts much longer and I experience a wider variety of tastes. Also, at the buffet, you don't get to experience desserts with monikers like "Coco-Nutty Citrus Pirates Dream Treasure" or "Chunky Monkey Swinging Jungle Jam."

Now, pie fest is almost over for another year (it wraps up tomorrow), but I don't think I'll come down from my sugar buzz till then anyway. And if I want to reprise my memories, I'll pay a visit to Perkins and then tune in to the Food Network in November, when it will be televised, while grasping a glob of French Silk in one hand, pumpkin in the other, and apple crumble at the side in my own simulation of the Endless Pie Buffet.

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