6 a.m. and I am out of bed. Today will be the start of a new adventure that will take me out of my comfort zone. I head to the kitchen and grab my old, more than well used recipe book. I have the recipe memorized and yet I feel the need to have my old friend with me for support. I have made this pie crust several hundred times and today it feels like I'm making it for the first time.
I glance at the directions just to make sure nothing has changed; it hasn't. Like a carpenter I measure twice and dump once. Why am I so nervous? It may have something to do with the fact that this pie will be making a 320-mile trek to the Wisconsin State Fair to
compete in the County Fair Pie Classic.
This pie competition focuses on Wisconsin products, and being a berry grower, I want to feature our blueberries! I have taken snippets from four different recipes to make this pie, and it will be where the dairy meets the berry!
Berry season is over, but I have a well-stocked freezer that will supply my needs. Blueberries from the farm and raspberries from a neighbor will be layered into this very patriotic looking pie. I will take two pie crusts and make both pies this evening. Having a backup is always a good idea plus we will have one to eat!
The frozen berries are carefully placed in a freezer bag wrapped in newspaper and stowed in the downstairs freezer until it is time to go. The whipping cream and cream cheese are placed in another insulated bag in preparation for the trip. A milk crate of sorts is filled with miscellaneous items that I will need to complete the pie making process, including my well-worn cookbook.
Alyssa (my daughter) and I pack the car and we head out. I can't help but think of Caroline Ingles from Little House on the Prairie when she took her fresh baked pie to the fair. She wrapped her creation in a clean dish towel and placed it in a basket for safekeeping and delivery. Thankfully we are not traveling with a horse-drawn wagon and thankfully she did not have 320-miles to travel!
With an audio book playing, my mind relaxes, and I slowly begin to process all that will happen in the next couple of days. I review my recipe and realize that I never grabbed the fruit out of the freezer! The blueberries and raspberries are both snug in the freezer bag, in the basement, at my house. We turn around and head back. What's an extra 50 miles added to our trip? Thankfully we have allowed plenty of time for travel, and we are determined to make this adventure fun! I wonder if Caroline ever forgot anything on her way to the fair.
The filling and assembling of the pie will take place near Madison. So the morning commute will not take half the night. I am blessed to have the support of my family on this venture.
I practiced taking my pie creation on trips before this just to see how well it will travel and how much time I will have before the crust is soggy. Working with frozen berries always adds moisture to the pie fillings. Judges do not like soggy bottoms. I will wait until later in the evening to start making my pies.
As I begin, I find I am struggling with an unfamiliar kitchen and a different layout. After completing the first pie the second one comes easy. By 10:30 p.m. I am finishing the dishes and ready to climb the stairs to bed. The house is quiet, but my mind is awake with excitement, making it hard to sleep. In the morning I still need to put the finishing touches on my pies and choose the one that will make the final leg of the journey.
It is 6 a.m. again and I'm up and ready to check on my pies in the fridge. Both look great from the top but as I peer through the glass pie plate, I can see that the raspberry juice has already soaked into the crust of my first pie. I hold my breath as I lift the second pie above my head to examine the crust. No red juice! The winner is pie Number 2. I get to work piping a border and stars. My young raspberry plants at home had six lonely raspberries on them. Three of them will now be the garnish.
The night before we tasted each component of the pie, making sure that it was delicious. If all the parts taste great, why wouldn't the whole pie be awesome? The pie looks very patriotic and tasty.
State fair form and passes? Check.
Is the pie inside the pie carrier stabilized with a clean dish towel (just like Caroline) nestled in the bottom of an insulated bag with ice packs? Check.
Breakfast eaten and family in the car? Check.
We are off to the Wisconsin State Fair!
Only once did we fear for the life of the pie. When a construction site with little warning catches us by surprise, we hit the brakes, but the pie holds its own and we continue. Soon gate 1 is within sight. Finding a parking spot is easy when the fairgrounds is not officially open. I spy the shuttle waiting for us and we gather our items for a quick ride to Grand Champion Hall. The driver stops in front of a very colorful, beautifully landscaped building where another staff member greets us.
It is cool in the hall, and I feel a nervous twinge as we walk to the registration table. Two smiling faces greet me as I unwrap my pie so it can be taken to the refrigerator until judging time. I am handed a first-time exhibitor's ribbon and a cookie cutter in the shape of a milk can.
There; it is out of my control. My creation has been birthed and I have done everything in my power to make it the best it could be. The registration staff said I am already a winner. I'm sure every contestant is a winner in their eyes just for entering. The greatest challenge isn't the judging, it is the journey. I did exactly that by traveling 370 miles (320 plus the 50 because I forgot the fruit), making and delivering a beautiful pie!
Judging will not begin for a couple of hours, so we are free to explore the fair. To the animal barns we go. In the coliseum, beef cattle are being judged so we sit and watch. Memories of 40-plus years ago come rushing back to me of leading a Holstein heifer calf around this very ring. I watch and smile as a young mother helps her very young daughter show a yearling Angus heifer. Yes, this is where it begins.
11:30 a.m. and we are back at Grand Champion Hall joining all the other contestants and fairgoers. I am a little nervous now and think of Caroline. I am wondering if there is a Harriett Olson in the crowd today. I am hoping to be as cool and collected as Caroline was. We find a spot to sit as the judging begins.
They introduce the judges along with our Fairest of the Fair and Alice in Dairyland. As I watch the judge cut into the first pie, I feel my heart begin to race and my stomach tightens. Instantly I know that I will not be able to sit through the judging. I escape my bench seat to look at all the amazing exhibits in this building. Just like me, all these exhibitors have done their best and put it all out there for the world to see.
The more I look, the more I find that the ribbon placings are less important, and the creativity and intricacies are inspiring. Photography, mural-like quilts, cakes that look like a stack of pancakes or a stump with mushrooms growing on it, gladioli tall and straight picked at the peak of perfection. The hours and energy spent on each exhibit regardless of the sticker it wears is showing through. My family keeps checking on me and I am doing just fine.
The judges have finished tasting all the pies and return to some for another taste. It feels like forever and yet only an hour has passed.
The judges will now give their description of each pie. One combination grabs my attention: rhubarb, cranberry, and cottage cheese. Wow, the creativity is wild.
I did not name my pie. My focus was about the flavor, not about what it is called. On my recipe I typed a note to the judges that said, "Enjoy a slice of heaven from Wisconsin!" The judges are now calling my pie, "A Slice of Heaven from Wisconsin." Perfect, I like it! They talk about my glass pie plate showing the flakiness of the crust, creaminess of the filling, and the deliciousness of the fruit. The presentation is beautiful and she even comments on my three lonely raspberries as garnish!
Four pies are now being pulled forward and one of the four is mine. Both Alyssa and I hold our breath because what does this mean? The Fairest of the Fair and Alice in Dairyland pick out their favorite pies based on appearance.
The time has finally come, and I must tell myself to breathe because I am holding my breath.
In fourth place is the peach and blueberry pie.
In third place is the Wisconsin barn quilt apple pie.
In second place is the Dairy State Apple Pie with cheddar cheese crust.
In first place and best of show is ... A Slice of Heaven from Wisconsin pie! (I really like the name.)
I am in shock. There is much clapping and whooping (family support) while my mind just spins. A gentleman comes up to me and asks if that is my pie? I cannot even speak so I nod my head. I feel pats on my back and hugs from my kids.
I'm not the composed Caroline Ingles, and I raise my hands in the air and let out a whoop! This is crazy. I put myself and my pie out there for all to judge hoping for the best but tempering it with reality checks for the possibility of not placing. I did it! Pictures were taken and ribbons gathered before we left Grand Champion Hall.
One more stop before we leave and that is for one of the best cream puffs in the world because it is a must-have when you visit the Wisconsin State Fair. We head home with my ribbons and Wisconsin State Fair Apron. I can't help but wonder if Caroline was as tired as I am after the pie judging. Time for a nap!