Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met were my competitors at the First Lady’s Pie Contest at the Arkansas State Fair. They greeted me with smiles, they tried to help me, and then they trounced me. I can’t even trash-talk their pies, because contestants got small tastes of everyone’s entries after the governor’s wife finished judging, and the ribbon-winners truly deserved their bunting. Their pies were delicious.
That year’s flavor was pumpkin. I’d competed once before in my 20s, earning an honorable mention with a pecan pie that plopped from the serving spatula like a cow patty when sliced for the judges. Too-loose filling, I guess, but tasty. I figured that in 2009, with another pie flavor that’s one of my favorites, I had to try again. So I got up before dawn on a rainy October day to bake my beloved deep-dish pumpkin pie, then drove to the state fairgrounds in Little Rock. Purse in one hand, pie in the other, I picked my way over wet gravel towards the arts and crafts building. Inside, I filled out an entry form and put my pie on a long folding table. A cluster of other pie makers greeted me in friendly fashion; a couple asked if I needed help getting the rest of my things from the car.
What things, I wondered. I assured all who asked that one pie was all I had. “Oh, honey,” one woman said with genuine concern. “We always put out decorations with our pies. You need at least a place mat and a napkin. I brought extra; you can borrow some.” Another woman volunteered a wiry strand of silk autumn leaves. Someone else offered a vase with dried flowers.
I was perplexed. Wasn’t this a pie contest? Had I wandered into the flower arranging contest? It wouldn’t be the first time my lack of a sense of direction had betrayed me, only this time I hadn’t ended up in the men’s restroom.
I politely demurred, feeling sure that a pie contest entry needed to win on the merits of flavor and appearance, not extraneous decor. Meanwhile, as I acclimated to the room, it occurred to me that people had gone to great lengths to showcase their pies. One woman had hollowed out a large pumpkin and balanced her pie inside the rim. I saw fabric swags, plenty of place mat and napkin combinations, elaborate botanical arrangements, hay bales, and lots of pumpkin props. No one had a plain pie, just pie, except me. No wonder my friendly challengers were concerned. No wonder the exhibitor handbook specified the color of the venue’s tablecloths. No wonder my cheeks were slowly turning red.
You already know how this ends. I didn’t win, didn’t place. The first lady was efficient, gracious, and tiny. (Did she eat much pie at the mansion?) Heading to the car afterward, I gave a piece of pumpkin pie to a grateful fellow working security in the parking lot, and I still had some leftovers.
I went back to finish my shift at the respite care program where I’m a volunteer lunch cook. “Did you win?” asked Newt, a gravelly-voiced octogenarian who was one of my favorite workers there. Nope, I said cheerfully; got beat like a yard dog. “Aw, I’d a voted for ya,” Newt said sincerely.
And in that instant, the world was right again.
This year’s contest flavor is apple. I’m not tempted. Really.
My Favorite Pumpkin Pie Ever (even if it didn’t win squat at the state fair), adapted from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax (© 1994 by Richard Sax)
There are a lot of ingredients here. Don’t be daunted, but do gather everything before you start. This is a good time of year to stock up on fresh spices. You’ll need everything here for the great cookie-baking marathon of Christmas.
1 unbaked deep-dish pie crust (Butter pie dish before fitting in pastry, and shape the pastry edge into a fairly high ruffle. Chill in fridge.)
2 cups canned pumpkin (not canned pumpkin pie filling)
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg (not the preground stuff in a tin)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 cup evaporated milk
1/3 cup whole milk
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 tablespoons bourbon or rum
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Whipped cream flavored with maple syrup for serving
Preheat oven to 400°F. Position rack in bottom third of oven.
Fit a buttered sheet of aluminum foil against the top of the pastry, buttered side down. Bake the pastry shell for about 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and gently peel off the foil. (Take care that pieces of pastry don’t come up with the foil.) Prick the dough all over with a fork and return to the oven to bake for another 5 minutes. You want the surface of the pastry to look dry, not shiny, but not baked through. Set aside to cool, and leave the oven on.
In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, both sugars, flour, salt, spices, pepper, both milks, eggs, liquor, and vanilla. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Pour into the pie shell.
Bake until the pie filling is set but jiggles slightly in the center, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Serve with whipped cream.