It was opening day at the Tennessee State Fair. The barred rock cockerels weren't ready for viewing in the poultry barn yet, and the lops and lionheads still hadn't hopped into the rabbit shed when volunteer Amy Hazelwood was already herding livestock of another sort: the bakery judges. A motley lot of amateur bakers, career culinarians, enthusiastic helpers, friends of Amy, and at least one food writer had gathered in the cavernous Creative Arts building at the fairgrounds to sample and evaluate some 330 submissions of cookies, cakes, pies, breads and other delectables.
I was fortunate enough to land at the pie table, where approximately 50 entries were lined tin-to-tin to compete for blue ribbons, best in show and, ultimately, baker of the year. I was responsible for tasting three categories, from which I — and I alone — would award ribbons and promote winners to the next round. I started off with a bang, forking my way down the long table, gobbling heaping bites of toasted meringue and cloudy wisps of whipped cream, issuing compliments with each mouthful — The crust is so flaky! Those are fresh peaches! — and scoring the pies based on State Fair-issued criteria.
But soon the pace slowed. In a zealous effort to tease out subtle differences that might give one pie advantage over another, I backtracked and resampled, becoming more critical with each bite. (Is that custard curdled? Does that lemon filling taste like furniture polish?) The worse a pie tasted, the more of it I ate, just to be sure. Meanwhile, the other judges were equally anxious and assiduous, tasting and retasting, giving every item its due.
Over time, as sugar intake mounted, energy flagged across the sea of baked goods. One by one, judges peeled away from the group, in search of ice water. I overheard one taster quietly cursing a banana loaf. My teeth — slick with sugar and shortening — started to itch.
When the pie judges at last pronounced winners in all categories (cobbler, cream, lemon, fried, fudge, refrigerated, chess, fruit, pecan, chocolate meringue and other), volunteers escorted the blue-ribbon baked goods to the best-in-show table, where judges would attempt to reach consensus on a best all-around entry.
If psychology is more your cup of tea than baking, then the best-in-show round is where things got really interesting, because it would be hard to cite a more textbook example of groupthink than what passed for deliberation at this stage.
Maybe it was because our friendly cadre went out of its way to avoid dissent. Or maybe it was because none of us could stomach another bite of sugar. Either way, after going over the desserts with a fine-toothed comb in the early round, our second-round negotiation went something like this:
Judge 1: "I like the coconut cream."
Judge 2: "Me too."
Judge 3: "OK, fine, then I'll pick it too."
Judge 4: "I don't like it, but I'm going to go with them."
And so it was that Areeda Schneider-Stampley's exquisite coconut specimen — belted by a flaky rope of homemade crust and capped with a toasted flourish of airy meringue — advanced to the final round, to be judged against cake, candy, brownies and bread, to determine Tennessee's Baker of the Year.
But before you jump in and accuse the pie judges of abandoning critical analysis in favor of keeping the peace, consider this: Areeda Schneider-Stampley was all but a sure thing. Unbeknownst to us judges, the Williamson County cookbook author — and wife of country music artist Joe Stampley — was responsible for four out of the 11 goods that we had independently selected in the name-blind contest. On top of that, Schneider-Stampley won Best in Show at the State Fair in 2010 for her chocolate meringue pie, along with five blue ribbons, and her coconut pie swept top honors at the Williamson County fair last month.
Sure, if the judges' conversation had gone a little differently, maybe Schneider-Stampley's pecan pie — instead of her sweet and custardy tropical sensation — would have moved to final round. Or her chess pie made with buttermilk. Or her fried pies, which emerged from the oven like tiny golden evening bags filled with peaches that Schneider-Stampley put up herself this summer.
For that matter, a slightly different judging process might have catapulted Schneider-Stampley to Baker of the Year. As things were, that supreme honor went to Karl Rehder, a first-time competitor from Bon Aqua, Tenn., whose four submissions won three blue ribbons. Not to take anything away from Rehder's elegant golden braid of herb bread (which resembled a loaf of challah), but as the only savory item in final heat, it may have enjoyed an unexpected edge. Honestly, at that point in the sugar-saturated proceedings, a saltshaker could have won, simply for its non-sweet novelty.
Still, Schneider-Stampley isn't bitter about the outcome. On the contrary, she considers herself "blessed" to take home so many prizes. Looking ahead to next year's Baker of the Year contest, the blue-ribbon baker is already working on a recipe for a yeast roll. "That's the next thing I want to zero in on," the pie champ says. "Bread."
Areeda Schneider-Stampley's cookbook, Areeda's Southern Cooking, is available at areedasoutherncooking.com.
In the Food section of our Fall Guide 2011 (Sept. 15), we printed the wrong date for the Music City Southern Hot Wing Festival. The event takes place 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, in Walk of Fame Park, in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We regret the error. — DANA KOPP FRANKLIN
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