Prone to savor: 8 things I learned as a pie judge

This post is a little long, but I hope you like it, because it was written by an actual pie judge. How often can you claim that?!

A few weeks ago, I heard that the Great American Pie Festival was coming back to Celebration, Fla., in late April. As I was looking into dates and details, I noticed that they were accepting applications to judge the pies that would be part of the competition. It took zero convincing to realize this would be both a good story and a fascinating way to spend two days. (As you might have guessed from my bath house series, there’s not much I won’t do if it’s worth a good story.) I submitted the application and heard back a few days later: I was in!

I spent two days meeting pie lovers, tasting pies, and fasting from almost all other forms of food. Here’s what I learned:

the judging room1. Judging pies is serious business.
One of my first realizations was that I was a total rookie. I stepped into a world that many judges had been a part of for years. What I thought would be a fun story to share was actually a yearly ritual for some of these people–and I think that’s awesome. Was I really about to judge a pie and offer constructive criticism beside someone who had done this for five or more years?

Yes. Yes I was. And without any measure of shame or inferiority. I earned this spot, dang it.

2. The squeaky wheel is probably the captain.
I honestly don’t know how this happened: I was voted table captain both days of judging. Perhaps my commanding presence calmed the other judges. I had an old boss tell me once that I had “kind eyes,” so maybe that was it. But more likely, it was probably because I was the first one at the table to introduce myself to the other judges–only to be friendly! If I had known we would be picking a table captain, I may have just stayed quiet. Could I handle the pressure? Five other people were expecting me to.

I was really hoping that this included a special badge or maybe even a hat or sash or ribbon of some kind, but sadly, there resulted no physical marker of my stature. Only the duty of checking my fellow judge’s math when they turned in their score sheets. But I’ve already added this as a skill on my resume.

3. No one likes a pie bully.
There are several rules to follow upon taking your place at the judging table. Principle among them: no one likes a “pie bully” (yes, this is a real thing). When the pie is brought out, the table talk stops, at least regarding the pie at hand. Evidently in previous years, a few judges at the same table would collude on their favorites and influence the team through their verbal and nonverbal communication. I think this is also part of the reason that spouses and friends were split up among different tables. You’ve got to be pretty passionate about pie to be willing to sway the results.

judging formsWe judged the piece on a variety of points, including pre- and post-slice appearance, first impression, complexity of flavors and how well they worked together, mouth feel and consistency, crust quality, and aftertaste. As soon as the pie was done and the judges sheets were handed in and there was no longer the fear of influencing the votes, we all talked about what we liked, what we didn’t, and how it could be improved.

I was amazed at how quickly I convinced myself that I actually knew what I was talking about.

4. There’s more than one way to make a chocolate pie.
On the phone with my mom after day 2 of judging, she asked “how many ways can you make a chocolate pie? Aren’t they all just…chocolate?” Silly amateur.

One might think that the category of “classic chocolate” might get a bit…redundant. But pie makers are a creative bunch, and there are actually several different ways to make a chocolate pie. Out of the 22 chocolate pies we tasted (not an exaggeration), we sampled everything from banana and chocolate, “Coco Chanel” chocolate, mint chocolate, chocolate with cherries, and one unfortunate experience that felt like the pie was full of sand.

But I will admit that the 4th or 5th chocolate pie with some raspberry connection begins to see a bit unoriginal.

5. It’s all fun and games until there is a tie.
Each pie is judged individually, and all of the pies in a given category are ordered by final score. This meant that all of the judges had to stick around after the final slice is judged in case there was a tie. If there was, the two tied pies had to be judged again.

Oh the drama.

On the second day of judging, our table decided to plow through all 22 pies at once, instead of breaking for lunch and coming back afterward. We thought this would speed up the process, since none of us expected to stick around to break a tie.

We were wrong.

After finishing our last pie, a few of us walked to the cafe to pick up our lunch, thinking we would come back and be quickly released to the rest of our day. As we entered the judging hall, we were informed that two of our pies were tied for 2nd and 3rd place. So our volunteers scurried to bring out the two pies for re-judging. We went through the process again, and since I was checking the math and saw the final scores, I knew that we had broken the tie after this round. We all wanted a specific one of the two tied pies to do better than it did, but there were reasons we all scored it lower. And these secrets will stay among our circle of judges.

The "Classic Chocolate" judges on Day 26. Pie people are delightful people.
Over the course of two days, I got the chance to meet and talking with some very kind, genuine folks. It’s easy to make friends when you’re all there to talk about and eat pie. As someone who loves figuring out people’s stories, it was great getting to hear everyone’s background and how they became a part of such an interesting event.

It’s not just the judges that make this happen, but each table is assigned a volunteer or two. Their role is to bring out and present the pies, run back and forth to the refrigerators, turn in our judging sheets, and make sure our table is stocked with water, plates, napkins, forks, and oyster crackers. We had some fantastic volunteers at both of my tables.

7. It’s a family affair.
While the pies were judged at a hotel in Orlando, the public event was in Celebration, Fla. I had heard about the pie festival for a few years, but I had never been. My two days of judging afforded me two complimentary tickets to the festival and The Never Ending Pie Buffet. Just a few perks of the job…

The family sweet toothOf all the people I could have guessed I might run into at the pie festival, I should have known it would be my cousin. Jennifer and her family live in my home town, about 45 minutes away from Orlando, and after I made my way to the event on Sunday, the first people I ran into were my cousin, her daughter, and our friend Pam from my home church. While it was great catching up with them at talking all things pie, I declined to eat any with them because…

8. There is such a thing as too much pie.
Even the most ardent pie lovers among us had reached their limit by the end of a day of judging. Thankfully, we weren’t required to eat a full slice of pie for each one we judged–only a few bites, but enough to try all the flavors and components. After 13 apple pies, 9 peanut butter pies, and 22 chocolate pies, I’m staying away from sweets for as long as I can.

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If you live in the central Florida area, or if you love pies enough to travel here, I highly recommend the experience of the Great American Pie Festival. And if you really want to get in on the action, you can volunteer to be a judge or a table host when the competition comes around next year. I know I’m already planning on it.

Of all the jobs I’ve had, I can’t think of a sweeter gig than this. 😉


2 thoughts on “Prone to savor: 8 things I learned as a pie judge

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