SHE ate graham crackers for breakfast, chili for lunch and 59 pies for a midafternoon snack.
Apple, peach, pineapple, raisin, she tasted them all. One tiny bite, that didn’t even fill half her plastic fork.
And from that single taste, food judge Janet Cassidy decides a small, unassuming blueberry pie in a tin dish is the best pie in all of Stark County.
It isn’t as pretty as the raisin one in the Longaberger dish, or the apricot one with a heart shape pressed on top, or the apple one that is twice as thick.
But it tastes exactly how a pie should taste.
Imagine the perfect blueberry pie, Cassidy says. One with the precise amount of sugar, fruit, thickener, flakiness. One with a uniform crust and an even beige color.
This blueberry pie came closest to that standard.
Now imagine what it’s like being a food judge, traveling to county fairs, festivals and church bake-offs, tasting pies, cookies, breads, sweet rolls, candies, and then deciding from one mouthful which is the best.
Cassidy’s been doing that for 12 years and is so confident in her taste buds that she does open judging. For example, the pie bakers at this Stark County Fair contest stand around the table while Cassidy samples each of their creations. After she picks the top four in each category, she tells them what she likes or what could be improved.
This peach pie is overspiced, she tells them. You want to taste more of the peach.
Or, it’s hard to get a good crust out of a disposable pie plate like this.
Or, this needs more sugar. Just because you made a great apple pie last year with this much sugar, doesn’t mean it will work again this year. The amount of rain from year to year affects the fruit’s natural sweetness.
“I want them to come back,” Cassidy says as she justifies why open judging is best. “I want them to improve so they don’t keep entering the same project each year and not winning.”
Although sticking to basics is best when it comes to contests, Cassidy knows a lot of judging is pickiness.
Just because the peach pie with the brown crimped edges is slightly overcooked and doesn’t win, that doesn’t mean it won’t be fine for Thanksgiving dinner.
And just because an apple pie with raisins and nuts varies too much from that “basic” recipe to take the blue ribbon, it doesn’t mean Cassidy doesn’t wish she could take a couple more bites.
Sometimes, although it’s rare, Cassidy doesn’t even want to take that first bite.
Really, all that’s sitting in front of her are a bunch of pies. She’s never even met the people who baked them. That can be scary, she admits.
“I’m not with folks in their kitchens,” she says. “I’m assuming they’re washing their hands first, their dogs aren’t in the kitchen when they’re baking, their sick kids aren’t in the kitchen sneezing in the batter.”
And if she has any doubt, she skips it.
For those rare times when it’s already in her mouth before she realizes something is “off,” she’s been known to spit it out.
But usually she’s eating a lot more food than she’s avoiding, and many times it’s more than just 59 pies.
At the Coshocton County Fair, for example, she has judged breads, cakes and candies, one right after the other.
Her first time, she came home looking a little green.
“You have to get a handle on that if you want to judge,” she says. “The key is tiny, tiny bites.”
The key to keeping the 45 pounds she recently lost from piling back on is also tiny, tiny bites, sips of water between categories and a heavy round of exercise before the contest.
She does have favorites, though, that test her willpower. But she’s keeping quiet on what those are so next year’s contest doesn’t end up with 100 apple or pineapple or blueberry pies and nothing else.
People really want to win this, she says. And it’s certainly not for the money – first place wins $3 – as much as it’s for the recognition. Simply being “the best pie baker” in the whole county can make any cook feel good.
After 59 bites from 59 pies, Cassidy feels pretty good herself. She isn’t as full as she’d anticipated; almost 90 pies had originally been entered, but not all of them showed up.
It just means Cassidy will have plenty of room for dinner now. Salisbury steak, mushrooms and mashed potatoes. Hold the dessert, please.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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Need a culinary judge?
Janet Cassidy lives in Louisville, Ohio, and is available to judge contests. She’s done all types of food judging, however, she’s best known for doing preserved foods and canned goods. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-875-5712.