Apple pie immersion

WHAT's more American than apple pie? An apple pie baking contest, perhaps. At these affairs, such as that held recently at the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, Mass., you get not only the smells and flavors of that most patriotic of dishes - but a slice of good old American competitiveness, too.

Ten bakers, 10 pies, six judges: That was the lineup. The pies were swiftly taken from an antique beehive oven to cooling racks. After a few minutes, two ladies who could have been everybody's favorite aunts selected one - No. 4, if memory serves - and sliced it.

One of them passed the slice, resting on a clear glass plate, slowly before the judges' eyes, holding it high - so gooey bottom crusts could be detected. Her colleague followed with the whole pie. Artful designs in dough, ugly gaps between apples and crust, and sloshy fillings were noted.

Next came taste, the crucial category, rated on a scale of 1 to 40. The bakers carved out six slim servings and judges took thoughtful bites. Never more than two, with a sip of water or crunch of celery between pies. Dishes and nibbled pie piled up.

Things were a little bland until pie No. 1 arrived. Glorious golden crust, a filling sweet and tart, apple pie better than Grandma ever dreamed of! A sure ``40.''

Later, free dinners at the inn, grocery-store gift certificates, and other prizes were distributed. Then last year's winner, a sprightly 102-year-old who declined to enter again because her experience night be an unfair advantage, was coaxed into singing a full-voiced rendition of ``I'll take you home again, Kathleen.''

It was an afternoon of serious if good-natured competition. Justifying a few hours' immersion in Rockwellesque nostalgia, the innkeeper asked: ``With all the killing and violence going on in the world, what's wrong with something like this?''

What indeed.

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