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Confessions of a KCRW "Good Food" Pie Contest Judge

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There are few more delightful offers than one that involves you getting to eat a whole bunch of pie. After getting a behind the scenes look at the 1st and 2nd Annual KCRW "Good Food" Pie Contests, it took about four seconds for me to say "yes" when I was asked to be a judge this year. Yesterday afternoon, on what was one of those gloriously sunny September days that makes us the envy of the other 49 states, I joined my fellow judges, the great people of KCRW, hundreds of pie-hungry fans, and over 200 pies for an amazing experience.

Held in the beautiful plaza at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the setting was perfect for a gathering that brought together friends and strangers alike out of a shared appreciation of pie. Us judges were tucked away from the fray, first set to mill about the tables nearly groaning from the weight of pie after pie being added as they were dropped off by contestants. The drop off line snaked a stone (fruit)'s throw away from us, while the KCRW employees and volunteers gingerly carried over each new pie plate or tin bearing the hopeful concoction. Event host Evan Kleiman marveled alongside us until she headed out to begin the festivities, including an apron fashion show.

Pies came in five categories: Fruit, Nut, Cream/Chiffon/Mousse, Savory, and "Tim Burton" Inspired. Some pies seemed to defy categories (or even get a little bendy with what is typically considered pie; things that were more cheesecake-esque, mixes of fruits and nuts, or more like tarts caused a few mini-debates among the judges). Looking at the pies whole, as a single slice was prepped for extraction for the judging, and the rest sent up to the tables on the plaza for eventual eating, was a great experience, just to see the height of a meringue, ooze of the fruit filling, or the wild artistry in the "Burton" category.

Among the judges--an assembly of food writers, pastry chefs, and food personalities--the talk was focused mostly on pie, in the pre-tasting moments. Did we each have a "pie prejudice?" wondered Los Angeles Magazine's Lesley Bargar Suter, who was curious to know if we had unabashed love for cherry or banana creme, for example. The mix of pies, particularly the occasional savory pie amongst the many sweet ones, made for an interesting bouquet of smells in the judging area. Among the savory entries were things like a "Fried Chicken Picnic," an Australian meat pie, and something that made use of mutton...diverse to say the least!

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Soon we got to tasting, split into teams of four with about 50-plus pies for each team to sample. The mood was jovial, to say the least, as we scooped bites that best brought together a bit of crust and filling to get an overall taste. As teams we picked our favorites in each category, and once each table was done, we came together to taste again (and, for those who weren't bursting at the seams, again and again), and pick our winners. It was intense, as judges lobbied for favorites, and argued the merits of a given crust or concept.

It was fascinating to experience a contrast between appearance and taste, and to see what wild and sometimes wonderful flavor combinations were submitted. Some took it a bit too far when it came to unique flavor combos, but their gumption was certainly celebrated by the tasters, and a few pies could have qualified for a "most talked about" prize. Sometimes personal preferences were confessed, like if you prefer the fruit in your pie firm or mushy. And so we tasted, and tasted, and tasted.

Finally, winners were chosen, and the judges were sent out to the event to take part in the ribbon-awarding ceremony. It was then we got our first look at the crowd of pie eaters and bakers' supporters who were lined up to get a plate, a fork, and some slivers of pie from all the over 200 entries. It was quite a sight!

Attendees with plates piled with pie eagerly forked mouthfuls as they milled around the plaza. As we watched them eat, we tried to figure out just how much pie we'd wound up eating as judges: about 50 bites of first round pies, then another 15-20 bites as we chose winners, with whole slice estimates varying between 4-7 slices overall a person. We discussed our pre-pie strategies, like who did yoga for a couple of hours before judging (Roxana Jullapat of AMMO and the forthcoming Cooks County), and who forgot to cut out the carbs the night before. Then there was our post-pie strategy, like how desperately many of us craved protein, naps, or maybe just some fizzy water. Me? I prepped by sticking mostly to soup and juice starting with Saturday's dinner, took small bites of each pie, re-tasted only when necessary, and managed to go out to dinner that night and really earn that tummy ache.

The best part of the day, though--yep, completely aside from eating all that pie!--was seeing community in action, with people coming together and enjoying an experience, all centered around the almighty, and seemingly boundless, pie. I'm looking forward to next year, and hope I get asked back to judge, but I think for the next few days I'm going to abstain from pie. You understand.

Stephanie Shaiken - Classic Apple Pie

1. Stephanie Shaiken - Classic Apple Pie
2. Sam Robinson - Peach Blueberry Crumble
3. Jessica Kubel - Apple Cranberry

1. Stuart Faber - Pecan Toffee Pie
2. Kristin Anderson - Marcona Almond Pie
3. Claudia Guevara - Pecan Pie

1. Sandra Nuzzolilo - Banana Cream Pie
2. Morgan Simons - Banana Nutella Cream Pie
3. Linnea Weaver - Max's Cheese Pie

1. Terry Sweeney - Persian Tart
2. Jennifer Wang - Tomato Pie
3. Marla Cusack - Zucchini Pecorino Pie

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1. Emily Baker - "James and the Giant Peach" Pie
2. Bobbie Chi - Blueberry Pie for Tim Burton
3. Gretchen Getz - Chocolate Chess Pie