As we head into the holiday season, our thoughts naturally turn towards what to serve our nearest & dearest after the main meal, which for me usually means PIE. Apple, pumpkin, coconut, berry—I've never met a pie I didn't like. So when I first moved into our 1830s farmhouse, I thought it would be charming to enter the local pie contest in my small town. Oh, how naive I was! I soon learned Rule Number 1:
—Pie contests in rural America are not for the faint of heart—
Upon entering the competition building with my delicately sophisticated pie I called "Raspberry Cream Enigma" (that entailed my own recipe for a macadamia nut-butter crust with a vanilla custard layer & a raspberry layer topped with sweetened sour cream & a kick of hazelnut liqueur), I was shocked to discover a sea of blue hair waiting for me. It appeared that every woman in my small town over the age of 65 (& some well into their 90s), armed with oxygen tanks and walkers, were already seated and prepared for battle. Quickly, it became clear that these women didn't just fall off the turnip truck yesterday—they were seasoned veterans of county fairs (probably from the time they could walk), and the dour looks on their faces told me this wasn't merely a contest. This was WAR.
Still feeling cocky, however, I was certain that the creation I had slaved over for the last week would surely rise to the top. But my fresh ingredients, nuanced flavors, and carefully calculated balance of sweet and sour were no match for the one woman who would prove to be my fiercest competition for nearly a decade: GILDA RUMSBY.
Yes, Gilda Rumsby of the sweet apple cheeks and long gray hair piled on top of her head in a loose bun, who always wore orthopedic shoes and vaguely Mennonite skirts and who the locals called "the best cook in town, hands down." THAT Gilda Rumsby trumped me in a blind taste test by a panel of judges with her heartwarming yet humble crowd pleaser: an Apple Crumble Pie (served in an ancient Corningware dish, no less!). Of course, I was tempted to throw my nose up in the air and claim these country bumpkins must have no taste. Until I made the grand mistake of trying a bite—Gilda Rumsby's Apple Crumble Pie was as close to heaven as any mortal might experience on this earth. Warm, rich, and bursting with homespun flavor, it made you instantly feel as though you'd snuggled inside a cozy wool blanket beside a fire at a hearth—AND had your grandmother read your favorite book aloud. Could my pie possibly beat that? In a word, NO. And that's when I was forced to learn Rule Number 2:
—Don't ever, EVER get cocky—
Another year, another recipe—over time I filled that competion hall with the aroma of every original pie & cheesecake I could conjure, some of which included:* A French-style berry galette featuring a thin pistachio-vanilla paste embedded within a rustic, golden crust
* A chocolate cream pie with cocoa imported from Belgium and a not-insignificant amount of Kahlua & dark rum...
* A butterscotch pie topped with whipping cream spiked with Cognac and Brandy (are you seeing a pattern here yet?)
* A pumpkin custard pie with mail-order Steen's cane syrup from Louisiana and yes, a hefty helping of Bourbon...
* A vanilla-bean cheesecake featuring no less than 6 Madagascar vanilla beans and my own private recipe for dulce de leche negra (a dark caramel sauce that requires 2 days to make)
* A banana cream pie drizzled with Swiss chocolate ganache & topped with delicate curls of shaved chocolate
The list goes on! Time after time, I was always the bridesmaid, never the bride, as I watched Gilda Rumsby sweetly smile and accept her winning certificates. Until one day it hit me: Gilda Rumsby never entered just one pie—when I looked back, I realized she often had as many as four entries! No wonder she always looked so fatigued on pie contest night! And that's when I realized Rule Number 3:
—When all else fails, create a war plan—
Gilda didn't pour her soul into just one pie—she had an entire strategy for winning through tastebud assault! By the time the judges had tried her third or fourth entry, they were so overwhelmed by the overall effect of her culinary prowess that they were
begging to yell "Uncle!" and were probably ready to hand her the blue ribbon right then and there. So to my mind, my only hope for positioning myself with a winning entry for the following year was to bake AT LEAST THREE PIES...
And bake I did—a key lime pie, a pecan pie, and what I hoped might be the night's showstopper: my "Tuxedo Opera Cream Cheesecake" featuring layers of chocolate & vanilla cheesecake alternated with layers of toasted pecans and homemade toffee in an Oreo cookie crust & topped with a chocolate ganache that was spiked with Kahlua & Frangelico.
But there was only one problem: Gilda Rumsby was nowhere in sight when I arrived that evening. Well into the competition, there was no sign of her, and all at once I felt my heart begin to race. The thought of winning our small town pie contest without Gilda Rumsby suddenly meant nothing to me. Without a worthy opponent, I was just an overly-obsessed country woman with nothing better to do in her spare time but fret over pies. It was Gilda Rumsby who had artfully raised our competition to the level of mythic struggle. And it was Gilda Rumsby who always tried a sample of my pie at the end of each competition and slowly mulled the flavor over her tongue, brooding for a moment before finally looking up at me and saying, "Mighty tasty, dear. Don't know why you didn't win over me this time."
The approving gaze of "the best cook in town, hands down" had always energized me to scale a baking apex I'd never before conceived! If I won without her present, it somehow felt like stealing. But fortunately, I saw Gilda Rumsby stroll into the building at the very last moment before they announced the winners (having deposited her entries earlier that day). The game was on after all, only this year the winner was . . . ME!
And who was the first to congratulate? Gilda Rumsby, of course, with that sweet twinkle in her eye. My chest swelled as she took a bite of my Tuxedo Opera Cream Cheesecake and rolled it around on her tongue, then looked up and gave me a wink. "Now that's something to shout about, honey," she said.
Yet my joy proved to be short lived.
The following year, neither one of us won. Caroline, the best quilter in town, took the prize with her checkerboard pie, with Gilda and I falling to second and third place. When it came time for the group photo, Gilda leaned over and whispered to me, "If you stand on one side of her and I stand on the other, we could take her OUT, you know—"
That's MY GILDA!!!
But the truth was, her fight was gone. She said later that it was her time to retire now—she no longer had the energy to bake all day Saturday and all day Sunday to prepare three to four pies that might thrill the crowds. And that's when I had to concede this final tidbit of wisdom I'd learned through pie baking for Rule Number 4:
—Competition is nothing without a worthy opponent—
I hate to say it, but without Gilda Rumsby, my pie contest days were done. It just doesn't seem the same to me—but I still leave my "Famous Pies" sign up on the porch at my farmhouse. So every now and then, when a delivery man comes to leave a box or the neighbors happen to pop over to chat, I serve them a piece of one of my pies. It's the people who really made my pie baking worthwhile, not the competition. But still, I find myself looking back fondly over those years going toe to toe with "the best cook in town," and wishing in my heart that wherever Gilda Rumsby is right now, her every step is blessed . . .