Judging Pies at the Iowa State Fair

Photo of Iowa State Fair from Good Egg blog

Guess who’s going to be a pie judge at the most iconic state fair in the country? CurvyMama!

Yep. I’m packing up soon for another pie adventure. This one’s pretty much the polar opposite of the one that launched this blog last fall: my bus trip to New York City to spend a week making pies with Ron Silver’s crack team at Bubby’s restaurant.  This time, I’m getting on a plane to Des Moines, Iowa to join the other judges who will be sizing up more than 20 kinds of pie at the Iowa state fair.

I’m not leaving for a couple of weeks yet, but I’m already counting the days.

So how could a Jewish girl with Interior Country Syndrome (that blurry sense that many states lie between New York and California, but little is known about them) end up surrounded by pie at a Corn Belt state fair famous for its cow made of butter? Good question. And the answer is a delightful testament to the power of Pie Nation; a tribute to the same power of pie that brought Seattle pie maker Kate McDermott to my house last month for workshops, and ensured that two strangers bonded over the joy of that humble pastry.

When National Public Radio held its Pie Week earlier this month, one of the people they interviewed was Beth Howard, who just published a pie cookbook chronicling her journey from Portland, where she was grieving over her husband’s sudden and early death, back to her roots in Iowa. She found redemption and community in making and sharing pies. In a streak of good fortune and sheer brio, Beth made a new home–and a pie shop–in that most American of homes: the American Gothic House, made famous by the Grant Wood painting of a straight-faced farmer and his wife. And she talked about the joy of going back to the Iowa state fair.

American Gothic House

That hit a number of notes for me: Here, clearly, was a kindred pie soul. And then there was the lure of an all-American state fair, resplendent not only with dozens of pies, but a staggering array of other culinary fascinations: there is an entire competitive category, for instance, devoted to desserts on a stick. My dear friend Lesli, who comes from a small town in Missouri and shares my love of pie, had suggested that I would be in pie heaven if I could get to the Iowa state fair. Rolling those things together gave birth to another crazy-ass idea.

I found Beth’s blog and emailed her, telling her how her story touched me, and asking for more details on the total coolness of the Iowa state fair. A couple of weeks later, she emailed me back, as bubbly as a peach pie fresh from the oven, with good pie wishes

Photo from The World Needs More Pie blog

and a surprising offer: why didn’t I come to Iowa to be a pie judge? She said she loves doing it. (You can see Judge Beth on the right here, in the white T shirt.) And she said she could hook me up with the fair’s food supervisor, Arlette Hollister.

After a moment of stunned, joyful paralysis, I wrote back with the only possible answer to such a great offer: TOTALLY!!! That would be AWESOME! Thank you!

Arlette proved to be friendly, efficient and accommodating. She had just about all the judges she needed for this year, she told me, but she could squeeze in one more. How would I like to judge the peach pie competition? Or the apple? What about the contest sponsored by the Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport, which includes many different types of pie? It was a tough choice, but I grabbed the chance to savor a variety of pies, and opted for the Machine Shed contest.

I let Arlette and Beth know that I was hustling to get an affordable plane ticket and find a place to stay. And the power of pie took hold again: Beth said she had a “pie friend” in Des Moines who was baking for the fair, and would likely be willing to let me stay with her. And that’s how I met Kathleen, friendly and generous enough to allow some crazy pie baker from Washington, D.C. to stay in her house.

And that’s how a trip to Iowa came to feel like it was meant to be. With one agonizing aside: I booked a plane ticket before reading an email from Beth, inviting me and Kathleen to the American Gothic House for a pie slumber party the Saturday night of the weekend I’m there. I’ll be on a plane already by then. But I’m still hoping I can get out to the house at some other point in the trip to get a slice of American pie there.

Excited! Counting the days! (17, since I know you were going to ask)

  1. Don Langworthy
    This is the coolest thing ever - I am fantasizing about getting my ass on a plane to Iowa to join you! I just forwarded your post to Deb, who is from Iowa and was Miss Corn Belt or something back in the day.
  2. CurvyMama Pies
    Yes!! Get your ass on a plane and join me!!!! You've gotta see the Butter Cow!
  3. bud the pieman!!!
    well young lady....what a pie adventure you have in front of you!!! when you get to Texas you must make the road trip to royers round top cafe as Kate did..... NOW THAT WAS A PIE ADVENTURE!!! bless, bud the pieman!!!
  4. CurvyMama Pies
    I will, indeed, young man! I would consider it an honor!