It sure seemed like a good idea. Eat pie. As much as I want. All kinds. For free.

Serving as a judge for the Kern County Fair’s annual pie-baking contest would not only be a nice, civic-minded gesture, I reasoned, it would allow me to indulge a favorite hobby of mine — gluttony. Sample a few morsels of Americana, bestow some ribbons upon gracious grandmother-types and then go forth into the tattooed night, my sweet tooth satiated.

What a misguided innocent I was.

Pie judging is a brutal, grueling business, ill-suited for the faint of stomach.

I walked into the Fine Arts building’s “baked department” Sunday evening, expecting to see two dozen pies and two dozen Aunt Bea look-alikes hovering proudly over their respective creations. Wrong and wrong. Pie bakers come in as many flavors as their pies. The only thing they have in common — other than an apparent love for baking — is the prolific nature of their devotion.

The fair’s entry office accepts up to four pies per person per contest, and judging by the number of entries spread out before me now, they had all fulfilled the quota. My co-judge (former KERO-TV anchor Lisa Kimble) and I were informed we would be expected to sample 55 pies.

I can do that, I thought. We stepped onto a small stage and stood behind the judging table, which is basically a long, enclosed countertop. The audience was seated directly in front of us, watching the proceedings with the aid of an angled overhead mirror that reflected the pies currently being evaluated, along with the judges’ greedy little fork-wielding fingers.

The first of the 10 categories was apple. Linda Swanson, the emcee/contest coordinator, placed seven entries before us, and we took small, cautious bites, just enough to get some crust and a bit of the filling into our mouths. We wanted to pace ourselves, but mostly we didn’t want to look like pigs in front of all those people.

Working independently, we assigned scores to each pie, using a 10-point scale to rank them on appearance, texture, flavor and crust. When we finished with the first category, we added our scores together, talked our way through any ties and delivered the verdict to Linda.

She announced the winners, and no one in the audience shrieked or swore. This won’t be too bad, I thought. Cheesecakes followed. Then cobblers, cream pies, fruit pies (other than apple), pumpkin pies and lemon pies. Three, four, five — up to eight entries in each category. Two hours passed.

Then came the nut pies — seven of them, all pecan, with a few variations. That’s when it hit me. My face went pale, my vision blurred and the room lurched ever so slightly.

Buck up, I told myself. I can do this! Must take ... seven bites ... of pecan pie. Lisa, also beginning to blanch, said the ordeal reminded her of an “I Love Lucy” episode. Was it the Vitameatavegamin episode, wherein Lucy becomes progressively inebriated from too many spoonfuls of health tonic? Or was it the candy factory episode, in which she and Ethel are hired to wrap chocolate chews moving on a too-fast conveyor belt? They try to mask their incompetence by stuffing their cheeks, to their eventual intestinal distress.

So there we were, Lucy and Ethel, struggling to hold steady against the pastry onslaught. It just kept coming.

We moved on to peanut butter pies — eight of them. On any other day, under any other circumstance, most of these pies would have seemed quite appealing, but now they were mocking us. For an instant, I saw myself facedown in an immaculate peanut-butter meringue. I fought back the hallucination and steeled myself, determined not to short-change any contestant.

Can integrity, I asked myself, co-exist with nausea? We would soon find out. We survived the peanut butter pies. Then came the final category: “other.” I had been dreading this category since the beginning of the evening, fearing the ominous potential for experimentation that the name implies.

None was overly exotic. My fears were unfounded. The end was in sight. We gave the best-in-show prize to a wonderful pumpkin pie. I don’t really care for pumpkin pie all that much, but I can appreciate perfection. The baker turned out to be Betty Rutherford, a 79-year-old great-grandmother who’d been watching the whole two and-a-half-hour ordeal with great interest from the front row.

Afterward, she told me she’d been baking that same pie recipe for 60 years. Wow. How wholesomely American.

The fair is holding the second of its two pie contests tonight at 6, same building, same room. Word is, there may be 70 or 80 pies this time around. I won’t be able to make it. I’ll be at home, on the couch, with the phone off the hook. Not eating pie.

—Originally published Oct. 3, 2001

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