Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Baking Pies (& Taking Pics) at Better Homes & Gardens

On Saturday I was in the shower and looked down at my chest where I saw what looked like a small-but-dead black bug. After a second glance I realized, no, it was not an insect. It was a false eyelash that had come unglued from my eyelid.

The sight made me laugh, in a disbelieving kind of way, that THIS is what my life has come to: grieving widow uproots herself from the security of her Portland home to travel across country in her Mini Cooper with two dogs and a bin of pie baking supplies and in the midst of judging pies at the Iowa State Fair ends up at the Des Moines, Iowa headquarters for Better Homes & Gardens magazine to have her photo taken for the November issue. Huh?!

Kelly Kegans, the editor who corralled me into this gig, sat and watched (and sent emails on her iPhone) while Mary-Kate the professional make-up artist applied copious amounts of foundation, concealer, eye shadow, blush and....drum roll....false eyelashes. When I saw Mary-Kate pull out her little containers of the fake hair I looked over at Kelly beseechingly. In truth, I didn't just look, I mouthed the words "What the...?!" to her. She laughed -- though I detected a trace of sympathy. Mary-Kate said, "Don't worry, you will look perfectly natural in the photos. Even Gayle gets false eyelashes for her picture." The Gayle she is referring to is BH&G's editor in chief, Gayle Butler. I had seen Gayle's picture and indeed there was no trace of stage-like make-up or false eyelashes. In fact, she looked fresh-faced and beautiful.

"Okay," I relented. "If Gayle does it, then fine."

After she glued on the lashes I blinked my eyes rapidly and hummed the "I Dream of Jeannie" theme song. I'm not sure if Mary-Kate appreciated my humor, but she tolerated my intolerance of her craft. Really, I should learn better manners.

The plan of the day was to do the photo shoot with me first, then have me give a pie baking lesson for the BH&G editors in the test kitchen. But life -- whether in the magazine world or otherwise -- doesn't usually go according to plan. After the make-up was applied and the shine on my forehead doused with an extra brush of powder, the photographer did not show up as scheduled. He was delayed by a certain high-maintenance super model he was shooting for the cover, some brown-skinned bird who took longer in the oven than expected. The magazine editors began filing into the test kitchen, ready to make pie. So that's what we did.

Photo: The Better Homes & Gardens test kitchen, before we made a mess of it.

I shouldn't have been wearing the purple long-sleeved sweater I brought for the photo shoot for my pie class -- I never make dough with long sleeves -- but with no time to change clothes I jumped right into instruction-mode. "First measure two and a half cups of flour into the bowl, then add two sticks of butter," I began. I ran up and down the long kitchen counter, supervising the dough mixing. "This is not bread!" I reminded them. "If you feel the urge to knead, then don't make pie, make cinnamon rolls."

One of the editors, who is known to her fellow staff as "quite the wordsmith," said, "It's like you want to fluff the dough."

"Yes! Fluff! That's a great word. I'm going to use that from now on," I told her. She smiled. Turns out the woman, Oma, is Kelly's boss. I'd like to have her for my boss anyday.

One "student" was intent on working her dough, practically beating into submission, and I gave her a stern reprimand. "Take. Your. Hands. Out. Of. The. Dough. Now." Too stern, actually, as it turns out she is one of the chief bakers in the test kitchen. Oops, sorry!
But I got a stern reprimand of my own when Mary-Kate came over and looked at my face. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. Look at you," she said, shaking her head. I was a melted mess, mascara was running off my eyes, and my face was so sweaty and shiny (from all that supervising and sticking my head in the oven) you could see your reflection in it. She came back with her giant powder brush to touch up my face, and then brought over her lint roller to get all the flour off my sweater. PHOTO: The gorgeous Kelly Kegans and her long red locks, and me with my penciled in eyebrows and false eyelashes.

At last the photographer and art director arrived on the scene and the shoot began. They had me peel apples, but when the photographer asked me to look at the camera and not at the apple while holding a knife in my hand and peeling I once again shot a look at Kelly Kegans. "Hey, when I signed that photo release form, did that also include a release of liability for any injury caused by my paring knife?!" The shoot went fine (no reenactment of Julia Child and her bleeding!) and the pies all turned out looking so picture perfect they were used in the photo shoot. Too bad the pies weren't slated for the magazine cover. Everyone knows pie is the best part of Thanksgiving. Maybe next year.

BH&G's slogan is "It's where life happens." But it should be forever changed to "It's where life -- and pie -- happens." May there be many, many more pies made in that test kitchen and beyond and, pretty please, no more false eyelashes.

Pie Not the Only Thing Being Judged at the Fair

Pie was not the only thing being judged at the Iowa State Fair. In between rounds of pie tasting I wandered over to the cattle barn, a place I clearly had a fascination with since I went there three times and always had a hard time extracting myself from the place. Inside the barn the smell was earthy, the mooing a soothing sound, the place full of life, breath, hay and...yes, manure.Even more fascinating was how the owners of the show cows slept in the barn with their animals! There were cots and bedrolls right there in the animal stalls. This is not something you see every day. I mean, I've never known a baker to sleep next to their pie. But like I said, the place didn't smell bad, though it didn't exactly smell like an apple pie baking in the oven.I learned a lot while strolling up and down the cow-filled aisles. By the way, this is no zoo, there are no barriers keeping you at a safe distance from the animals. Here you could get so close you could lay down and cuddle with a cow if you felt so inclined. But I did not.This is what I learned from talking to a man who was washing down his cow with a hose:
"Are you getting him ready to show?" I asked.
"No, we just showed him. I'm washing off the hairspray," he said.

Hairspray??!! There are two reasons for this, depending on the breed and what characteristics are being judged. In one case it is used to smooth down the cow's hair to help accentuate the bone structure and muscles. In the other it keeps the cow's hair fluffed up and makes the animal look fatter, impressing the judges. The cows get pedicures too, their hooves filed to perfection and oiled to look extra shiny and healthy.Before the showing and after the post-show shower the cows get blow dried. Man, these are some very pampered cows!When it's show time, the cows get led from the cattle barn...To the arena...Once inside the arena the cows wait...Until their turn in front of the judges...The man below in the cowboy hat is a judge. I wonder if he enjoys scrutinizing cows as much as I enjoy tasting different pies! I didn't dare lean across the railing to ask him. He looked very serious about his job. And well he should as the prize money is in the quadruple digits.Prizes are awarded...Sometimes by young women wearing tiaras...All that animal care is exhausting...but, presumably, well worth it.
Have I mentioned how much I love the Iowa State Fair?! My dad, pegging me for a big city girl, told me I should never marry a farmer. But I think he was wrong. I want move to a cattle farm now, milk the cows at dawn, maybe even bathe and blow-dry them, bake pies, and live happily ever after in Iowa.

Oh dear, have I swallowed some kind of Iowa Kool-Aid?! What was in that pie I ate?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pie Judging at the Iowa State Fair

How does it work to be a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair? Let me walk you through the process from becoming a judge, to tasting the pie, to receiving a blue ribbon.

First, you get "hired" by the Iowa State Fair Food Coordinator, Arlette Hollister. Arlette has held this position for 20-some years and is responsible for growing the food department so successfully that the Iowa State Fair now reportedly boasts the largest food competition in the world! Here's a nice article on Arlette and her work in the Des Moines Register. That's Arlette (and me) below standing in front of "Arlette's Corner," which serves as her Command Central in the Elwell Family Food Center, where the food competitions are held.
Pies are accepted up to 15 minutes before the competition begins. There were 11 pie categories this year, each with about 20 entries -- ranging from chicken pot pie, to French Silk, to pies made with Pillsbury and Keebler Crusts, to classic peach and apple -- with one category, sponsored by Iowa Machine Shed (a Midwestern restaurant chain that serves homestyle food), attracting 300 entries! And yes, I had to taste every one of them! Photo below: Pie contenders are assembled in a secure holding area, heavily guarded by fair employees. Meet Donna (below), an 84-year-old beauty, who is in charge of getting the pies out to the judging areas for their scheduled events. What you can't see in the photo is that Donna is wearing brand new high-tech running shoes -- built for speed! She recognized me from my Des Moines Register article and shared that she is twice widowed. You would never know it by her good nature and ever-present smile. I can only hope to have her warm spirit, grace and spunk when I'm her age!
Below, Donna in action! Pushing pies out to meet the judges.
Next step in the pie contest: Arlette Hollister introduces each category, assisted by her team who shuttle pies to the judging table and set up the judges' eating stations with forks, pie servers, napkins, wet washcloth, and a pitcher of water (to cleanse the palate). Photo below is the Pillsbury Refrigerated Crust category with some very beautiful looking -- and tasty -- pies!
A team of judges gets to work. Each judge has an assistant called a "writer" who literally writes down the comments and scores for each pie being tasted. As you can see by the photo below, it's a serious business.
Here I am, judging pie, one bite at a time. The woman pictured to my right is Patt Kerr, who volunteered to be my writer for most categories. We made a good team. She teased me a lot for some of my irreverent judging, strong opinions, and -- egads -- occasional use of the "F" word, but never commented about me picking off and eating pie crust with my fingers.
And the judging continues.... Below, it's the "Oh My, It's Peach Pie!" category sponsored by Neal Rhinehart of Marshalltown, Iowa. As a sponsor, Neal (in yellow shirt) set the criteria, which required that each pie have a double crust and that all pies would be given away by the slice to the audience after judging. He even brought plates and forks for this. Naturally, this was popular with the waiting crowd. I mean, who wants to just sit there and watch other people eat pie?! I hope Arlette will ask other pie category sponsors to implement this sharing of pie next year. After all, sharing is what pie is all about!!!!
The (hungry) audience watches -- and waits -- for the verdict.
Some pies were decorative....
Some were savory....
Most of them -- like the French Silk below -- were sweet...
(This chocolate category was so creamy and delicious that I broke my one or two bite maximum rule and ate and ate and ate until I was buzzing sky high on sugar.) Some pies were classic.... like the apple pie category sponsored by the American Pie Council. Amazingly, the winner of this apple category was a 14-year-old boy! He learned make pie from his grandmother whom he called from his mom's cell phone immediately upon winning to share the exciting news.
After tasting and tasting and tasting in front of the audience, the judges go behind the curtain for....yes, more tasting! As judges, we all deliberate, making cases for why one is better than another, why it deserves a ribbon, whether or not it is "State Fair ribbon worthy," and if the recipe could be duplicated by other bakers. It would sometimes take 20 minutes behind stage to ultimately decide on first, second, and third places. At last! The winners are announced. Below, Dianna Sheehy of Audubon, Iowa reveals to the audience the prize winners. Dianna is a former pie champion herself, the Lance Armstrong of Pie, and "retired" from competition to cross over to the other side, as a judge. The Iowan magazine wrote a beautiful article on her pie baking. I'm hoping to include a stop in Audubon on my Iowa Pie Tour to get some pie tips -- and some pie -- from her.
I, too, took my turn with the microphone over the course of the 10 days of competition, announcing pie winners. This one is a strawberry margarita pie made with a Keebler crust. Once again, I broke my two-bite maximum as my fork kept slipping back to the plate for another taste.
No competition is complete without a victory shot!
And last but not least, the winning pies were put on display in the Elwell Family Food Center's showcase. So even if I couldn't get another taste of my favorite pies I could at least go back and visit them and drool.
The fair is over now, the pie competitors have all returned to their home kitchens, and I'm about to set forth on the next leg of my journey -- touring my beloved home state in search of pie diners, pie bakers, and anything having to do with pie. Considering that one year ago I was planning my 43-year-old husband's funeral (still unfathomable!), I can honestly say two things: one, pie is good for healing the soul. And two, there really, truly is no place like home.

It's been so good to be back in Iowa -- better yet, eating pie in Iowa. I want to say a big, huge THANK YOU to everyone who made the Iowa State Fair the best place in the world to be this August, a month I had been dreading, but one that turned out to be magical, heart-warming, and, well, let's face it, a little fattening. But I'm not counting calories, I'm already making plans to come back next year.