The Great Pie Town Showdown

Each September, Pie Town’s Pie Festival summons intrepid bakers to compete for top honors

NEED TO KNOW
Pie Festival 2013 Saturday, September 14. For more details, visit pietowncouncil.com/pie_festival.

Pie Town is at mile marker 56 on U.S. 60. For advice on traveling to Pie Town and exploring along the way, refer to “Road Trip,” pp. 12–15.

Inside Pie Town’s fire station, a pair of white-haired women wearing aprons briskly check in pies from entrants in the town’s annual Pie-Baking Contest. With the mingled pride and apprehension of parents dropping off their children on their first day of school, the bakers surrender their best efforts, hoping for the glory of a Pie Town Festival win.

Amber Clark, a graduate student in rhetoric at the University of Texas–El Paso, has driven up to Pie Town, along the way picking up best friend Jessica White-Cason in Alamogordo. Clarke parts with her Falling in Love Pie, a date pie with an oatmeal crust; White-Cason’s Pineapple Upside Down Pie also takes its place on the Fruit pie table.

“I’ve always loved to bake,” says Clark. “Two years ago, I entered my Casting a Wide Net Berry Pie in the Pie Town contest.”

“Why did you call it that?” I ask.

“My mom joked that it would help me find a boyfriend if I gave a slice to every man I met.” Her squeeze, Mauricio Gonzalez, wearing a T-shirt that reads “bueno pie man,” stands by as a testament to the effectiveness of that approach.

Clarke is working on a pie cookbook with White-Cason, an analyst for a startup website called Food Sentry. “I’m definitely a foodie,” White-Cason states with a smile. “I’ve been baking since I was 12.” And given that Clarke presented a paper titled “Pop Pie: The Prankster and Pie as Protest—Personal and Political—in Popular Culture” at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Conference in Albuquerque, it’s not surprising that the two women identify themselves as “pie nerds.” Nerdiness implies seriousness, but that isn’t the case for this contingent. White-Cason, Clarke, and their partners are puppylike with glee, clearly glorying in the pie-squared experience of being in Pie Town during, as the locals call it, Pie Fest.

The next duo of bakers to drop off pies has traveled just 10 miles to Pie Town, from home “out in the country north on 603.” Youthful grandma Jeanne Wimberley and her 12-year-old, camouflage-wearing grandson, Lance, baked pies this morning. “I’ve been baking pies ever since childhood,” says Wimberley, “and my pecan pie just took first place in the south Texas town of Camp Wood’s Old Settlers Reunion last August.” They enter three pies: Lance’s apple pie edged with pastry stars; pecan; and Texas peach. Lance smiles when I ask him about entering the contest. “I just wanted to do it,” he says. I wish him good luck, pleased that he doesn’t shy away from this traditionally female domain.

Nor does pulmonary physician Dr. Ron Bronitsky, a tall, windbreaker-wearing gent with a penetrating gaze whose mom taught him to bake pies when he was a kid. “I find baking very therapeutic and relaxing, and the best part is, there’s something great to eat afterward!” He lives in Bernalillo, and today enters four pies: a Checkerboard Cherry Pie topped with a lattice of alternating chocolate and plain crust; Chocolate Chess Pie; pecan pie; and Peanut-Butter Peanut Pie, adorned with surgically precise curlicues. “This is my second year,” he says. “Last year I took First in Nut pies for my pecan, and Third in Fruit for my strawberry. I also enter my pies at the State Fair.”

“What’s your secret?” I ask.

“Freshness in my fillings,” he says. “I get the blackberries, cherries, and peaches from my back yard.” Unlike the gals from Texas, Bronitsky seems all business; I sense that if his pies don’t place, he won’t be leaving Pie Town a happy man.

Registered nurse Tristan Kwiecinski, wearing a yellow leather jacket, a French-village print skirt, and a brimmed hat with insouciant feathers, has traveled to Pie Town from Farmington with her son, Dakota, age 12. “I’ve only been making pies since January, and immediately decided to enter the contest,” she says. “I’ve been practicing my pie skills ever since.” Her Queen of Hearts Cherry Pie is laced with green chile and bourbon. Her son enters a pie in the Youth contest: a riotous jumble of strawberries, marshmallows, and chocolate almost as exuberant as his mom’s skirt.

In 1922, World War I veteran Clyde Norman filed a mining claim for gold and silver in what is now Pie Town, hoping to make his fortune. People referred to it as Norman’s Place. When the mine didn’t pan out, he opened a store that offered gasoline, sundries, and pies made from dried fruit. The pastry-topped treats were an especial draw for cowboys on long, dusty cattle drives—and the pies made a name for this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it punctuation point on U.S. 60. In the 1930s, Dust Bowl storms drove most of Pie Town’s original families into the town’s arms, and Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee memorialized them in 600 iconic photographs taken in 1940. Many of the humble wooden homes that housed those folks endure, ramshackle and abandoned, but still imbued with wistful charm.

Today, some 60 families live in Pie Town, which is in Catron County, New Mexico’s largest and least populous. North of the Gila National Forest and south of Zuni Pueblo, the town is an hour-and-a-half drive west from Socorro, and its two restaurants and convenience store offer locals fortification between grocery-getting hauls to Socorro, Grants, or Albuquerque. But the Pie Towners I talk with—many of them retirees who relocated from California, Arizona, Alaska—seem to take the remoteness in stride. They get to say that they live in Pie Town.

Wannabe miner Norman may have hoped to be remembered for unearthing mother lodes of mineral riches, but this legacy is sweeter, and pays out dividends to this day to everyone who stops in at the down-home Daily Pie Cafe, the effervescent Pie-O-Neer Pies, or during the annual Pie Fest, the town’s main fundraising event. Jackson Park bustles with casual pie appreciators enjoying $5 wedges served by a sweet-faced local volunteer at a rustic plank stand, browsing vendors’ goods, and watching children spin on a carousel. In the park’s wooden pavilion, roofed with corrugated metal, a band of country gentlemen, ranging from seventysomething men in immaculate cowboy hats to a reedy young singer in a trucker hat, eke out poignant, winsome ballads. This evening, townspeople and visitors will two-step at a dance where local talent Doug Figgs and the Cowboy Way play country standards, before the winning pies are auctioned off.

A hand tugs at my sleeve. “I heard you were writing an article,” says a bright-eyed woman. “You have to meet my sister! She bakes amazing pies!” I follow Carol Feldman outside, into the soft misty morning. And so I meet energetic, trim, silver-haired Marcia Mermelstein, of St. Louis, a social worker in a spotless white Kansas University sweatshirt and jeans, who came to visit her sister in Albuquerque. On the spur of the moment, they decided that Mermelstein should throw her hat in the pie ring; her Caramel Apple Pie, its glistening streusel hemmed in by a sine-wavy collar of thick, golden pie crust, looks good enough to heedlessly abscond with. “My mom was a baker,” Mermelstein says, “and so I’ve always made pies.” This is the first time she’s ever entered a pie contest.

A couple of young women dressed in slouchy-chic natural textiles and knitted hats, devoted dogs at their feet, catch my eye. Lanky blonde Turtle (“Just Turtle”) and her rosy-cheeked brunette friend Robin Soliz look timelessly wholesome, as if they’ve just walked out of a Russell Lee photograph.

“Our pies are all vegan,” Turtle says. “We came in from Tucson.”

“Where are you staying?” I ask. Pie Town has no lodgings (see “Road Trip,” p. 12, for options). “At the Toaster House,” Soliz says. Turns out they’re referring to a popular hostel for hikers (and others in the know) on the Continental Divide, a mile and a half east of town. Toasters dangle from tree branches and the front gate, hence the name. Turtle and friends have been hosting an annual all-you-can-eat, vegan-pie-party fundraiser in Tucson since 2003; it’s grown so big that it now takes place in a school auditorium.

I wonder aloud how the vegan thing goes over in Pie Town; they tell me they’ve been coming to Pie Fest for nine years and that Turtle’s pies have won five times. Snap! This year, they’ve brought a savory Night Shade Pie made of tomatoes and eggplant; a Cappuccino Pie adorned with gem-like pomegranate seeds; Sweet Potato Crunch, laden with Brazil nuts; and a whimsical, celestial-blue Pie in the Sky creation dotted with stars, made by their friend Josh Schachter. It’s clear that they practice a very tasty brand of activism, introducing folks to veganism one slice at a time.

The judges begin to taste, in categories of Fruit, Nut, Other, and Youth. Overall appearance, crust, and taste are the criteria, and judges rate each pie’s characteristics from 1 to 10. Two crews with video cameras and mikes—one from Europe, one from a major U.S. news agency—jockey for position. Photographers tensely circulate, with a lick of the tenuous camaraderie of red-carpet paparazzi.

One of the judges, bespectacled N.M. Tech student Adrian Morris, of Socorro, in an oatmeal woolen hat that matches his sweater, impresses me with his methodical solemnity. Turns out he’s a longtime pie baker on sabbatical. He reveals some pie-crust tips: using freezer-chilled vodka in place of water in the crust (“It gets colder than water without freezing”), and straight-up lard instead of butter or vegetable shortening. Nadine Mantoyaz and her toddler daughter taste together, the girl as serious as any of the judges. And judge Kelly Ahrends, of El Paso, pauses to tell me about the best pie he’s ever eaten: a slice of Fruits of the Forest (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, rhubarb) from Cloudcroft’s General Store.

The scores are tallied; the winners are announced. Turtle and Robin’s Sweet Potato Crunch, its ring of crust trumpeting, in pastry letters, “pie is the balm of the soul,” takes the Grand Prize. Their Cappuccino Pie takes First in Other, solidifying Turtle’s near-decade of lard- and butter-eschewing dominance. Dr. Bronitsky’s takes Second in both the Nut (Peanut-Butter Peanut) and Other (Chocolate Chess) categories—a remarkable accomplishment, but I can see that he’s a tad chagrined. First-timer Lance Wimberley’s Star Apple Pie takes First in the Youth cohort. And Marcia Mermelstein’s Caramel Apple Pie garners a First in the Fruit category.

When I catch up with Mermelstein in July 2013, she tells me excitedly that since her Pie Town win, she’s been teaching people how to bake pies at parties, giving out pie samples at events, and taking pie orders from individuals. She’s even started a new business, Pie in the Sky, which she hopes to grow into a bricks-and-mortar bakery. I discover a quote on her Facebook page by Pascale Le Draoulec, author of American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America’s Back Roads, that hints at the source of Pie Town’s perennial appeal: “I’ve learned you really have to stop your life to make a pie. That is what makes it the ultimate gift. It is a gift of yourself. A gift of time.”

Pie Fest champ Turtle takes it one step further: “The pies are a culmination of days spent baking with friends and loved ones. There is magic in that moment—the more activity in the kitchen, the better the pies turn out. The warmth and love in that kitchen are the secret ingredients.”

And that’s what’s cooking in Pie Town.