I made my first, and probably also final, appearance as a pie judge in Lexington's annual Independence Day pie contest on Thursday.
It was no piece of cake.
The four-person band of judges — which included Frankfort lobbyist Judy Taylor and Master Chef contestant Dan Wu — chewed our way through 40 pie samples on the way to naming winners.
Food writer Janet Patton and I wangled our way onto the judging unit by mustering our best strategy: Janet asked, and the city apparently did not want to hear us complain, at which we are local champions.
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An insomniac, I had watched seasons of Top Chef, Master Chef and Hell's Kitchen, and thought I had this routine down: Grab a little bit of each item on the plate, chew thoughtfully and try to think of something clever.
I envisioned myself saying things like, "It's texturally complex yet fundamentally single-tiered in its approach, and I like the buttery complexity of the scorched owl's egg meringue layered over the caramelized green onion foam."
The night before the pie contest, I realized the competition would be nothing like that and spent an hour on the Internet, where you can find oodles of sound advice on judging pie contests from those who have done it around the country: Don't overtaste, as it wears out your taste buds and stomach. Pay attention to the crust, and deduct points for crust that is either scorched or pasty. Pretty pies don't necessarily taste good. Bakers of tasty items aren't necessarily obsessed with decoration.
Thus armed, Janet and I plowed into the fray at the Fifth Third Pavilion, where torrential rains blew in to soak our score sheets and even threatened the pies before we could judge them and downtown workers could line up for free slices.
First we had to judge the pies' appearance, from the crust to the filling — which is hard to do when you sometimes can't even see the filling on first inspection. Which was the prettiest pie?
We all pretty much agreed on that one, because the pie with the Roman coliseum of pecans on top shouted that somebody had spent a day lining up every shiny nut. It looked as if the baker had sprayed those pecans with Armor All. They lit up like the eyes of a Stephen King villain.
But already we were on tricky ground: Several of the judges were iffy on tasting one of the pies that did not look as if it had set up correctly. The words "pure liquid" came to mind.
I eventually did taste it — because I am one of those people who say, "Fried Twinkie with Dorito dust? Yup, I'll eat that" — and it was not awful. It seemed that the baker's intentions were pure and not, "Let's poison the lawyer district of Lexington by giving its members a runny, Cool Whip-based concoction."
About 30 pies in, I started to feel a little sugar-fatigued, as if it were time to get my pancreas vacuumed. How many ways can berries and nuts and custard be manipulated? Would I even know a good pie at this point?
My favorite pie was built like a fudge brick — I got a piece on my fork and turned it upside down and shook it a little bit, and it did not move, like a little chocolate Hummer — but some of the others were not settling in well.
Forty pies in, I heard Janet say, somewhere in the sugary distance, "I can hear my eyeballs buzzing."
The judges took a selfie after it was all over, and I am proud to say we all look pleasantly and only temporarily deranged — like people who need a shower, a change of clothes and a week of clean vegan eating.
At one point during judging I dropped a lump of chocolate custard on my arm, and, seeing no available napkins, licked that dollop right off my appendage in front of a city employee.
At that point it occurred to me that perhaps it was time to cut back on the sugar.
As we left, Janet and I passed Mayor Jim Gray, who had come to present the city's pie prizes. A couple were trying to get their toddler son to pose with the mayor for a picture, and the kid was having none of it. Toddlers who have had no pie are notorious in their lack of respect for elected officials.
You know what that kid needed? At least two helpings of fudge pie and a scoop of marshmallow meringue. I nominate him to take my place on the pie judging team next year.
Stick a fork in me, folks: This pie judge is done.