I’ve judged quite a few cookoffs in the past few years. Casseroles, Cupcakes, Pie (twice!), the Bodega Challenge, Chili. All have been fun, inspiring, difficult and often hell the next day on the gastro-intestinal system. I mean our bodies aren’t used to eating that kind of variety of one food all at once!
It may look easy to watch us judges up there tasting all the food, as the crowd drools in anticipation of being set free to eat the rest. It’s really hard. There were 53 pies entered last Saturday at the annual Enid’s Apple Pie contest. 53! That’s a LOT of pie. And truth be told, some of them were not very good. A few were downright inedible. 6 of us judges had to whittle down 53 pies (!) to find 3 winners. I certainly didn’t taste all of them, but probably tasted 20 of them. Even at only one bite of each, that’s a lot of pie for one sitting, and this was not a competitive eating event.
It’s always delicious, every cookoff has had its standouts, and to those people I say congratulations. I’ve helped some people, like Theo Peck, who won last year’s Casserole cookoff get into a whole world of cookoffs (he now plans his own and has an up and coming pate business) Others, like last year’s winner Sam Rio, came to the other side of the table this year to judge at Enid’s.
Some pointers for aspiring cookoff entrants:
1. Test your recipe first. If you’ve never made this pie before, make one a few days before and see if you like it. At the very least make a small one too that you can taste before you bring yours to the event. A previous cookoff winner came up to me at the Apple Pie contest and confessed that she didn’t think her pie was good enough to win so she left it at home (this shows restraint, and also saved me from having to eat another bite of pie).
2. Make sure your food is cooked all the way through. This may seem obvious with how temperature crazy the USDA is about cooked meat, but at the pie contest the judges agreed unanimously that the most common problem with the pies was that they weren’t fully cooked, and undercooked crust is gross.
3. Signage is nice. I think it’s nice to know what’s in the dish. I’m not allergic to anything (but someone in the crowd might be) but more than that it can be a real surprise to take a bite of what you think is an apple pie and it actually a sausage pie (with apples).
4. Don’t ask why unless you really want to know. By the end of a cookoff the judges are in a food (and possibly alcohol) induced state of mania, and much like taking sodium-pentathol, will answer your questions about why your pie didn’t win with their true opinions. Don’t berate the judges. Sometimes its a fine line that makes the #1 pie win over #2. Some people hate cilantro. Some tastes just aren’t good. If you can take the criticism then ask away, but give us a break and have a good time. That’s the point!
5. Have fun! If it’s stressing you out to make the food and get to the cookoff, then relax and don’t do it. It’s not worth it, nobody’s bleeding, and nobody is getting a giant check with zeros too numerous to count at the end.It’s not worth the stress.