The afternoon sun brings out glistening sweat on our foreheads and arms, baking us. The sensation is not lost on the nearly 400 bakers on the UCLA lawn, each representing their craft at the 6th Annual KCRW Good Food Pie Contest. Standing by rectangular tables under eight pop-up shade canopies which protect pies half as well as an iPhone-addled babysitter tends to children, we tempt the attendees with tastes of our pies – the creams, the cooked custards, the fruit-filled, the nut-based, the ones for vegans, the World Pie and the savories.
Just taste our pies, please, before they melt down into some unidentifiable puddle. My Pumpkin Cream Pie (with a Pistachio Crust) seems to be a pacifist in the fight against the heat, accepting its pending soggy transformation. We solicit passersby with our smiles, beaming salesmen selling free samples, hoping to not be left unselected like so many junior high dodgeball players. It’s working, relatively. A quick scan down the adjacent table reveals pies with so much more remaining than my own. Is that the contest, though? Get rid of the pie puddle quick? Not the main one, at any rate. The mind of each baker soars past the sweat-soaked aprons and Indian summer suffering, focusing instead on the dream of hearing their pie’s name, and theirs, announced. What sweet satisfaction to hear the crowd’s murmurs sliced through by the adjective-laden title (whose crafting must’ve equaled the pie’s own prep time).
My thoughts are brought back to the present as my silvery plastic pie server snaps, the second to fail my pie’s pistachio crust. The handle is severed, so I press forward with just the blade, scooping the now near-liquid cream onto plates, followed by a quick chisel into the crust to provide the waiting pie-ficionados. The beads of sweat that first formed on my hands as I put the disposable serving gloves on have since wrinkled my fingertips, lessening my already weak grip. Still, there is pie to serve. Or, a semblance of pie. A Substance Formerly Known As Pie. I try and distract myself by checking out more of the pies nearby. The End-of-Summer-S’mores Pie near me is catnip for kids. The Cherry Cream Cheese Pie seems like a barbaric attempt to fuse pie with cheesecake, and I won’t stand for it. I’m not proud of some of the other thoughts I have, so in a meditative way, I acknowledge their existence, then let them go.
The crowd, for their part, has been curious, good-spirited, and eager. Pies can get messy and gooey, difficult to slice, and though that doesn’t affect the taste so much, the experience of a sliced pie isn’t the same when the pie is scooped. This patience on the receiving end lends credence to the idea that baking is ultimately an act of sharing. Though baking tends to be an experience more personal than public (not much of a crowd to watch bread being baked at 5am), an expression of one’s interest, experience and ability, it is also a means to an end, a result to be shared, split up, sampled and savored. That I am able to share this pie with others is icing on the top of my own striving, as I am driven by a desire for improvement, in my ability and the results of my baking. I push myself in crust and concept.
In previous contests, delusions and inexperience kept me from a fuller understanding. To me, the mere act of baking was worthy of some accolade. Look at me, I’m being unique. I was more concerned with having baked, similar in vein to writers who love having written. Now, though, I’m concerned with what goes into the pie, subtle improvements, different categories, and, through it all, effort. The effort becomes the focus, and understanding that is a lesson worth more than the validation any colored-ribbon might bring.