There are a few perks that come with being the editor of a small-town weekly. One is that you get tapped to be a judge for the Harvest Festival’s annual pumpkin pie contest.
And what a perk it was.
The rain came down in torrents as we stood under an open-sided tent at the Village Green last Saturday. The wind blew. The ground grew soggier and soggier as the event went on, until all of us — judges, contestants and spectators — were standing in puddles.
But it mattered little. The golden-orange pies — many of them made from Island pumpkins that flourished during the last lovely weeks of fall — seemed infused with warmth. With each bite, I felt a bit of summer flow into me. After a while, I hardly noticed the cold.
What I did notice is that there are a lot of ways to bake a pumpkin pie. Number two, a personal favorite, was particularly sweet. Number 12 was earthy, dark and spicy. Some had fillings that were soft and almost fluffy, others that were dense and rich. The crust was crunchy or flakey, dark or light. The tops were golden or burnt orange or a warm, rich brown.
I also noticed how smart the other judges were — Rebecca Wittman, last year’s pumpkin pie winner, Jessica DeWire, co-owner of Gusto Girls, and Emily Vogt, a caterer — all serious “foodies” with refined palates. One noted the interesting twist goat’s milk brought to a particular pie. Another detected the subtle influence of sage. A third was put off by the heavy taste of salt.
Could I really offer up anything brilliant, any keen observations other than, “I like the sweet one”? And more to the point, could we agree?
It wasn’t easy. After tasting all 12 and carefully keeping score by way of a rating system DeWire devised, a few of the pies seemed to rise to the top — but we weren’t sure, and we weren’t in complete agreement. So we homed in on three, including the sweet one I liked, resampling them, comparing notes, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.
All were delectable — pies I’d be happy to consume in larger quantities and with a healthy dollop of whipped cream. But complete agreement eluded us. And, being women, we wanted to agree.
So we revisited the first pie — we’d tasted it so long ago, who could really remember it? — and the third, which, according to some of our notes, had that all important combination of good filling plus good crust.
All the while, the contestants and spectators watched and waited, no doubt wishing we’d hurry up with our delibertions — now having lasted some 45 minutes — so that they could get their own taste of pie.
Maybe it was the pressure to wrap things up or the growing dampness of my socks — or maybe it was the true loveliness of pie No. 3. But somehow, in those last few minutes, it all became clear.
This pie was traditional. It tasted of pumpkins. It was sweet, but not too sweet, spicey but subtly so. The crust was flakey and beautifully fluted. And the list of local ingredients — a factor we were asked to consider — was impressive (eggs, milk, pumpkins, squash).
We then got to announce the winning pies, still not knowing who made which ones. Third place — that delightfully spicey one made with goat’s milk — was created by Karen Biondo, a beloved Island farmer whose own goats gave it that special earthy taste. Second place went to Martha Ormseth for a pie that delighted us with its crunchy pumpkin seeds artfully arranged on the top, adding not only some whimsy and beauty but also a healthy dose of zinc to our diet.
And the winner? It turned out Rob Peterson baked that perfect pumpkin pie — Rob, who’s married to Joanne Jewell, manager of the Vashon Farmers Market and organizer of the pumpkin pie contest.
A modest man, he quietly beamed as the honorary apron (a gorgeous thing made by Wittman) was placed over his head. His oldest daughter, Mira, her hair in braided pigtails, stood next to him, beaming, too. His youngest daughter, Rose, snuggled in his arms, as rosy-cheeked as her name implies.
His wife, meanwhile, pulled me aside to make sure I would let the world know the contest wasn’t rigged.
Rob Peterson won this year’s contest fair and square for a pie that captured our hearts and sated our palates, a lovely, traditional tart that conjured up that certain something that makes pumpkin pie the coup de grace of so many Thanksgiving feasts: Autumn’s bounty. The warmth of the sun. The last hurrah of summer.
May we all savor summer’s sweetness as we gather with friends and family around heaping tables this week. And may we all enjoy a delectable piece of pie. I’ll take mine with whipped cream.
— Leslie Brown is The Beachcomber’s editor.