The Race for The Perfect Pie

JOURNALISTS get a lot of exotic invitations. If compelled, a writer can spend a day at a boat christening, a palm reading, a punk-rock fashion show, or a pie-baking contest.

Pie baking?

Martha Salem greeted me at the door of the Salem Cross Inn on a drizzly Sunday morning. This 18th-century farmhouse in West Brookfield, Mass., is the site of the annual ``1699 Beehive Oven Grand Champion Apple Pie Contest.''

Eleven regional bakemasters were already inside, poised to prepare their tastiest concoctions in hopes they might earn the title ``Best Apple Pie in New England'' for 1994.

``What do you know about apple pie?'' Ms. Salem asked.

``Nothing, but I like to eat it'' (an understatement).

``Perfect,'' she said, slapping a name tag on my shirt and thrusting a recipe book into my hand. ``You're a judge.''

I wandered into the hay-barn-turned-dining-room where the competition would be held. Outside the rainswept windows, cattle grazed on rolling hillsides at the edge of a piney woods.

Inside, contestants hovered over oak tables, arranging their own collection of mixing bowls, measuring spoons, and bags of sugar and flour.

Sharon Preston from Bedford, N.H., spoke of her family's delight when she first added her trademark apricot preserves to her apple pie. Mike King talked of capturing the Vermont State championship with his concoctions. Dawn Kuhl from Southwick, Mass., took a hard look at the oven.

According to Ms. Salem, the 17th-century beehive oven at the inn is an authentic colonial specimen. Here's how it works: A fire is stoked with wood in the heavy brick shell. When the oven gets up to temperature, the wood and ashes are swept out. The bricks absorb so much heat that the oven stays hot for up to 12 hours. Although it has a reputation for baking evenly, it can be intimidating.

So can judging.

WHEN I met my benchmates, I realized that I was the token novitiate. The other guys were pros: Lars Johannsson and Bob Pekar from the legendary Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island; Eric Berndt, Master Baker for Stop and Shop grocery stores; Margie Kreschollak, a food columnist and television host from New Haven, Conn.; and my colleague John Young, longtime food and travel writer for the Monitor.

When the competition began, I peered at the score card. The categories included ease of preparation, overall appearance, taste, and texture.

As the entrants deftly mixed their ingredients, I sauntered around the room trying to look thoughtful.

Some contestants battled nerves, glancing at their watches and shifting their weight anxiously from foot to foot. Others molded their top crusts meticulously, spending 15 minutes alone on artistic embellishments. Some spoke of recipes handed down from four generations.

BRANDISHING a pencil with a pristine eraser, I began questioning the participants one by one on their culinary theories and techniques.

Baking a pie, I learned, is an intricate art form. A 1/2 teaspoon difference in cinnamon content or an extra three minutes in the oven can make all the difference in flavor. A pie can succeed marvelously in one respect, like thickness of the filling, while failing completely in another, such as flakiness of the crust.

After nibbling on 11 separate pieces of pie, I could still discern the unique qualities of each entry. I shuddered at the thought of picking a winner.

Talk about pressure.

When the last piece had been served, we judges looked over the plates in front of us and started scribbling notes on our score cards. ``Crust is too buttery,'' I noted on one entry. ``Apples are firm,'' I scrawled on another.

In the end, we all agreed on a winner: ``Grandma Ada's Apple Pie,'' baked by Rita Pooler of Winslow, Maine.

I cast my vote for Ms. Pooler when I realized that I had nothing left to judge: I'd eaten an entire wedge of her delicious pie in about 12 seconds.

I left the Salem Cross Inn that day with an appreciation for the art of baking. But I felt something else, too: a newfound respect for the importance of thorough and objective journalism.

It may sound silly, but judging an apple- pie contest is a lot like writing a newspaper article.

In each instance, if you don't take time to educate yourself on the issues, listen, and make careful assessments, you can sully the outcome.

A friend once told me that every time a newspaper covers something he cares about, they get it wrong. Everybody's entitled to make mistakes, but when a journalist blunders, often the only people who know it are the ones who have the most at stake.

Meanwhile, a writer can just say ``oops,'' stuff the story in a junk drawer, let the phone ring for a day or two, and hope the editors will run a correction.

I think every aspiring journalist should judge a pie contest. What's more, they should be forced to stick around afterward and help all the contestants pack up their rolling pins.

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