Category Archives: community

Chili Interview: Debbie Eiland Turner, Chili Champ, Judge, and Publisher

Debbie Turner judging chili. She’s laughing in this photo because when she smelled the chili, she got some on her nose.

Gina: Approximately how many chili cook-offs have you participated in as a contestant and/or judge? What are your proudest achievements?

Debbie: I never have tracked the number of cookoffs I have been a contestant in, ran the judging or judged. But to come up with an estimate I figured since I start cooking in the summer of 1983 and an average estimate would be 30 events a year, that makes it well over 800 events. I am an unusual chili cook since I cook in all three of the sanctioning bodies, Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), International Chili Society (ICS), and the Tolbert group, which leads to proud achievements with each group. Winning major events like the Tolbert Texas Ladies State Championship, the CASI Southwest Open Championship, and an ICS Last Chance Cookoff were very memorable, along with the two second place wins at the Original Terlingua International Chili Championship. But what makes me most proud is to be able to say I can hold my own in competition in any of the three sanctioning bodies cookoffs and I have chili friends across the country.

Gina: Who taught you to cook chili and how did you get involved with cookoffs?

Debbie: I’m a native of Dallas, Texas, where I grew up. My Mother did cook chili, but a very mild version of what I even cook at home. My Mother and Grandmother were good cooks and I enjoyed helping them and learning, so although not a gourmet cook, a good cook.

I worked with computers in my working years, from keypunch operator (dating myself here) to eventually becoming the manager of a computer department for a small oil company. I discovered chili cooking from a fellow employee. She had moved to Dallas from Houston. She was single and had competed in chili cookoffs in Houston and needed someone to go to cookoffs with. I went to one, met some great people, went to a second cookoff, saw the same people again and decided it would be a fun thing to do.

After I had been cooking three years, I met my husband (not a chili cook but former team sponsor) at a chili cookoff that neither of us really wanted to be at, but after ten years of being single, I married him after six months. I told him I would give up my job where I was happy, move from Dallas and my family, but I was not going to give up chili cooking. Twenty-five years later, we’re still together and I’m still cooking chili. He does not often cook competition chili, but participates in the showmanship competition and enjoys giving chili away to the public.

When we married, I quit work since my husband had taken an early retirement and we traveled across the country in an RV. Over the years, I’ve cooked chili in 43 states, two Canadian provinces and two Mexican states. Trying to cook in all 50 states, but most of the ones left are on the Northeastern part of the country where they don’t have many and it’s a long way from Texas.

Gina: What role does showmanship play at chili cookoffs? What did your husband do that won him distinction this year?

Wayne Turner dressed as a Whoopie Pie. Photo by Jim Stoddard.

Debbie: In the beginning of chili, before we had all the rules we do now, showmanship was part of winning. The judges walked around and tasted your chili and you tried to convince them yours was the best by telling them stories or putting on a show to tell how good they were. Now it has evolved into a separate judging. Not all cookoffs even have showmanship judging anymore since cooks have gotten more serious about winning chili and it takes time, effort and money to put on a good show.

Show was kept around to have something to interest the public who attended cookoffs, but in comparison to the 70s and 80s, it has just about died out. Just watching a bunch of people standing around outside stirring their pots of chili is pretty boring. Showmanship judging runs for one to two hours at least 30 minutes prior to or after the chili is turned in so you can be concentrating on your chili in the critical last minutes before turn in.

Wayne Turner's Brain Hat. Photo by Jim Stoddard.

This year my husband competed in One Man Showmanship. There used to be only one category at Terlingua, but to encourage more teams to show and give the smaller teams a chance to win, there are now three categories Open (as many as you want on the team), Limited (four or less), and the One Man Show. Over the years, we did show together but the more involved I got, the more likely he was to do show by himself. Not being a cook, he gets bored at cookoffs sometimes and LOVES, make that NEEDS attention, and showmanship allows him that outlet.

Since this was the 45th year, he pulled out several of the old show programs and every 30 minutes changed costumes and games. He started with our original show, where you tossed items that might be in a pot of chili into a cast iron pot on the ground. Next he changed into his Fart’ O’ Meter costume, checking for excess gas on passers by.

The third was a costume change into a giant Whoopie Cushion. You may see a theme here, eating chili and drinking beer often leads to excessive gas. The final costume (and by this time he was hot from the costume changes and work) he just took off his shirt and wore a western hat without a crown on top of a plastic skullcap that looked like a brain. That just was to shock people.

At various times during the two hours, he has a puppet goat on strings named Gertie and challenged the public to made Gertie dance. He also had a leftover Halloween prop, a five-foot Frankenstein who played music and danced. If the public participated with him in any of his actions, they got to choose a toy as a prize.

The criteria for show is theme, costume, audience participation, and audience appeal.

Gina: What’s the difference between competition chili and eatin’ chili?

Debbie: With competition chili, you are trying to “wow” a judge in one bite instead of eating a whole bowl. Because of that, the chili is often heavy with spices. That does not mean hot with spices, but more spices you would normally use. An average competition chili might use over 7 tablespoons of chili for 2 pounds of meat while an eating chili might only have 5 tablespoons. Cooks are also prone to adding more salt to their recipes, especially in hot weather since their judges often have been drinking beer or sodas, which contain a lot of salt.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Debbie: If I really knew that answer, I win a lot more cookoffs. But someone once told me, you need to look for a chili with no negatives. Not too hot, not too mild, not too thick, not too thin, have no flavor that overrides the others, but have the flavors blend together.

Gina: What’s your advice for cook-off contestants?

Debbie Turner took 10th Place at Terlingua this year.

Debbie: I have a saying that I made into a button to give to friends years ago and still believe in it. “Don’t hurry, Don’t worry, Do your best, Forget the rest.” Winning chili is probably at least 95%luck and 5% good chili. At any cookoff I have won, there are people there who have beat me at other events. Also, more cookoffs are lost in the last 15 minutes. That is when the cook does the final taste and thinks it “needs” something. Trust your recipe. The flavors in your chili will change as it cools down. And sometimes your taste buds are off because of what you have eaten or drank or have a cold or hay fever.

If the organization you are cooking with allows it, sign up to judge on the preliminary table. It’s quite an eye opener to some new cooks to taste the number of flavors and styles of there are in a competition. The more you taste chili, usually the better you will be able to distinguish a winning chili.

You have to have a good competition recipe. The one you have cooked at home and all your friends rave about probably won’t do well. Do some research. Go on-line and check out the CASI and ICS web site for their Champions recipes. That will give you a good starting point. Cook several practice pots, your friends will love to share your leftovers. Don’t’ forget to continue to taste the chili as it cooks down. Does it get hotter, the heat go away, the cumin get overpowering, the salt either dies, or intensifies?

Use fresh spices ordered from a spice company, not what you find at your local grocery story. You don’t know who long those spices were on the shelf or how they were stored. Spices deteriorate with time and heat, so store your spices in glass jars in the refrigerator or freezer. Keep them in a cool place when you go to cookoffs. I always keep mine in my RV refrigerator or an ice chest. Don’t buy more spices than you can use in 6 months or a year. Any I have too long are relegated to cooking with at home or when making chili to give away to the public. It’s not bad, just does not have the edge needed for competition.

Use good meat. Stay away from real tender cuts of meat because them have a very short window of time between being done and turning into mush. You want to be able to simmer the spices a couple of hours in the meat and it not have it fall apart. If using cubed meat, cuts like tri-tip, chuck tender or London broil work well. If you cube your meat, try to maintain a consistent size. It will make the chili look better and not have the problem of some pieces done and some tough. And just because you love venison chili or other exotic meat, most judges do not. A good thing to remember is you are cooking for the judges, not for yourself.

Stay consistent in what you do, follow a recipe to the letter, not just a dash of this and a dash of that. And remember that at each cookoff they are probably different judges who like different things. That was brought home to me sharply when at one of my major wins I got first out of 134 cook and the next day using the same recipe, same type meat, cooked in the same manner, I did not even get on the final table out of only 41 cooks.

Gina: What criteria should a chili judge consider and do you have any tips for judges?

The organizations have similar criteria, but make sure and read the judging sheet and really consider the criteria. There is more to a winning chili than taste. Check out how it looks and smells. It is getting harder to judge now than when I first started since it is now so easy to go on-line and download winning recipes. I say much of the chili is “clone chili” these days. Too many people using a similar recipe with similar spices.

For first time judges, remember, you are tasting the chili, not having it for lunch. You will often be tasting over 15 chilies at one sitting. Not only tasting them, but also cleansing your palate with a cracker, cheese, carrot, or something similar and drinking something. You can fill up faster than you realize. I like to always end with the same palate cleanser before I start judging a new chili. In other words, usually the last thing in my mouth will be something bland like a cracker so I start with the same taste in my mouth for each chili. For some people it will be a sip of their drink.

Please bear in mind, these cooks have spent a lot of time, money and effort to cook their pot of chili and would like you to be as serious about judging it as they were about cooking it.

Gina: Chili seems to inspire extraordinary passion. Why do you think that is?

Debbie: I wonder if some of the passion comes from its history. Chili got its start when our nation was expanding. There are plenty of stories about chili on the cattle trails, and later was a common dish found in cafes across the country. Famous people talked about chili. One of my favorites was the humorist Will Rogers who rated a town on their chili and even movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor made the news by having chili shipped to her from her favorite place in Hollywood while she was on location.

We are a competitive society, everyone one wants to be the best or have the best. Chili is easy to make. A favorite food at deer and fishing camps has always been chili and men prided themselves on their own special pot of chili. When you have pride in what you do, that instills a passion to be better than your friends. Not surprisingly, there are more men chili cooks than women and that was especially true in years past.

Gina: How many times have you been to Terlingua and what makes that cook-off so special? I gather it’s a pretty rowdy, festive scene. Can you describe it?

Debbie: I’ve attended the Original Terlingua cookoff every year since 1983, that means I’ve made the trip 29 times. A few things make it special. The fact that only qualified cooks are able to cook mean you are cooking with the best of the best. It has a long history and winning there is the pinnacle of success for chili cooks. You get to see friends from across the country and sometimes the only time you see them is in Terlingua.

Add to all that is the mystique of that part of Texas. It is really hard to explain, it’s almost like being in a different country or time, although over the years progress has crept in. It’s only been a few years since we were able to get cell service down there and we were so excited when a Bank was built in the area with an ATM. It’s still a 2 and half hour drive to the nearest hospital or grocery store in Alpine. So, for this modern world, it’s as close as you can get to the old west.

There are two Terlingua Championships about five miles apart on the same day. I attend the one called the Original Terlingua cookoff and it is a much smaller and milder event than the one down the road at the CASI site. That one is known for their rowdy spectators. They even have set up a special area called Krazy Flats for them and have built a bar in that area of the campsite. The chili cooks camp in a separate section of the site and are not very rowdy at all. In fact, a large number of cooks, on both sides are at in their 50’s and up, so they are not near as rowdy as they were 20 or 30 years ago.

There are not that many motels in the area so most of the attendees camp out at the site. It looks like a large RV park. A lot of alcohol is consumed during the event, so it’s a good thing most people do not get out on the roads. It’s like a small town has risen up, in the desert in the middle of nowhere. People actually begin arriving a week before the championship is held and over the years other events like beans, salsa and barbecue competitions have been added to the event. Those are held on Thursday and Friday and open to everyone, not just qualified cooks.

Different Pods (chili clubs) and other groups of people have parties during the week prior to the cookoff. These have started by Wednesday at the CASI site. The Tolbert site also has parties at different campsites.

Both sites have bands playing at night later in the week. CASI usually only has one band while the Tolbert site has at least two bands a night for three nights. Most of it is country music with lots of dancing around the stage area.

The weather makes it a unique and challenging experience. It’s not unusual to start the day in several layers of clothing, only to start shedding all those layers by the afternoon. A temperature swing of from the 40’s to upper 80’s in one day is not unusual. And then there is the dust. It is the desert, so dust is expected, but sudden wind gusts are more normal than not. By the end of the week, everything you own is covered by a thin layer of caliche dust, kinda of a fine, powdery, gritty dust.

Gina: Do you have any favorite songs about chili or that you think of as being part of a classic chili cookoff soundtrack?

Debbie: Since I started in the 80s, my favorite will always be Gary P. Nunn and the Bunkhouse Band. For many years he was the headliner at the Tolbert site. He still has a following of chili cook fans who follow him at gigs across the state and even country. He even has a song written about chili cooking, called appropriately enough, “The Chili Song” from his For Old Times Sake album. Since Texas and chili are synonymous, other favorites are “What I like About Texas” and “London Homesick Blues” from his Home with the Armadillo album.

In the early days of chili, part of the enjoyment of cookoffs was sitting around the campfire and listening to singers playing their guitars and singing the favorite tunes or ones they wrote. Kent Finlay, of the Cheatham Street Warehouse fame (a place new singers got their start), has a great song about chili, don’t know if it was ever recorded, the only time I ever heard it was around chili cookoff campfire.

Gina: What’s the history and editorial focus of Goat Gap Gazette? How did you become involved with the publication?

Debbie: John Raven started the publication in January 1974. At that time, there was only one chili organization, although by the next year, a group of cooks headed up by Carrol Shelby split off from the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and became the International Chili Society (ICS). The Goat Gap was not directly associated with either organization although, being published in Texas was more likely to report on activities of the CASI group.

In April 1975, Hal John Wimberly, a newspaper writer in Houston, Texas took over / purchased the paper and changed it from a newsletter style format to a tabloid sized newspaper. He continued the paper until his death in September of 1982. His wife, Judy Wimberly took over the paper at that time and ran it until her passing in August 1994. At that time, Jo Ann Horton the editor, a freelance writer had worked with the paper since Hal John took it over inherited the paper from Judy. A little over a year she sold it me.

I took it over in January 1996. At that time, it was only published eleven months of the year since there was very few cookoffs in January, so the year began with the February paper. After I took it over, I went to twelve issues a year because times had changed and there was enough activity going on all year long to warrant a paper. Unfortunately, like many large newspapers, the internet and changing chili politics forced me to change from the tabloid newspaper format to a booklet style format in 2009. There was a Goat Gap Gazette website for a few years, but at this time it has been shut down, but hopefully will be back up in the near future.

A combination of decisions lead to me taking over the paper. In 1989 I took over publishing a name, address and information book of chili cooks, called the Cooks Register that Jo Ann Horton had published. Before that, I began contributing short article about my chili travels and other snippets of gossip to the “Hot Flash” column in the paper. So when Jo Ann decided not to continue with the paper, she turned to me. Probably the main reason she did was I had the willingness, time and income to purchase and produce the paper. It is not a money-making job, more like a labor of love of chili history and friends. I have no formal journalism training, but have been an avid reader all my life and enjoy people and history and am very detail oriented, which you need when tracking cookoff listings and winners.

The paper is dedicated to the chili cooks and their friends. With the change of format, it now just reports on Tolbert cookoffs and winners, but subscribers can contact me for information on the other events. It has humorous articles and retains the “Hot Flash” column for more gossip type items. I still report on significant information about the whole chili world in its pages, not just Tolbert related items.

The Tolbert Behind the Store Experience 2011 from Jim Stoddard on Vimeo.

"Chili Cook-off In a Box" by Gina Hyams will be published by Andrews McMeel next summer.

Chili Interview: Brooklyn Chili Takedown Founder Matt Timms

My agent gave me a heads up about the 2011 Brooklyn Chili Takedown yesterday and I was immediately smitten by founder Matt Timms’s assertion that “chili is a foul seductress, people” and that “this is a no rulez competition that says rules… are for Texans.” Much as I love a traditional Texas bowl of red, I have a soft spot for newfangled chili rebels and I’ve decided to feature the Takedown’s People’s Choice-winning recipe in my Chili Cook-Off in a Box.

Gina: So what’s your deal, Matt?

Matt: I’m an actor, a filmmaker, an artist, and a party promoter for my events at I throw amazing parties and occasionally someone will cast me in something and I act all amazing, or I will shoot something amazing.  I’m totally a self-taught cook–had to be in NYC–and I don’t give a truck about prochefs too much–I’ve had too much fun partying with home cooks like myself around the country.

Gina: How many food competitions have your thrown and what is your inspiration?

Matt: I guess I’ve thrown about 50-60 Takedowns over the years and across the country–been doing this for like a decade now!!! Chili, cookies, bacon, fondue, salsa takedowns–whatever.  The inspiration was totally assed up boredom, especially when I was a starving actor when I first got to NYC. I have this unquenchable desire to party very hard to the point of an explosion!

Gina: What’s the structure of your chili contest? How many competitors?

Matt: Pretty simple! People line up and try each of the 25 chilies–they get a tasting cup of each–and then they vote on the yummiest!  Judges do the same! Throughout the whole process, I play very brutal heavy music, which is important. Then there’s a big ol’ ceremony where the crowd meets the contestants, and the winners are named, awards given!

Gina: What’s the range of kinds of chili you expect people will enter?

Matt: I run a no-rules chili competition–because if you’re from NYC, the cowboys aren’t down with you anyway, so just have fun.   I see veggie chilis, all the different meat chilis, and then people go bonkers off the map–candy chili, ice cream chili… stupid fun stuff.

Gina Who will judge the chili and what criteria will they use to judge it?

Matt: I get local food writers, bloggers, and food personages to come party, but the major prizes are the People’s Choice. I am the benevolant leader of a tyranical democracy!

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off competitors?

Matt: Use your imagination and come to have fun.  Think of it like a party and not a competition.  The whole idea of a food competition should be about partying.  It’s a catalyst for hanging out. And a chance to show a wider audience how your food rips.

Gina: What do you think makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Matt: How much love you put in that shit.  You can follow a recipe to a T and it could easily be meh.  But people come to a Takedown to show everyone how insane their cooking skills are –and when you come with that attitude, you throw all your positive energy into that batch of chili, and people can taste it.

Gina: What sort of a space is the Bell House?

Matt: Bell House is a rock club, probably the best venue in NYC.

Gina: How many people do you expect to attend?

Matt: I keep it small. 200 is my magic number!

Gina: Why do you love chili?

Matt: My site was originally called–I was only throwing chili parties because they are the raddest.  Basically chili is the most important food group if you are starving.  You can make a huge pot of it, keep it in the fridge all week–and the best part is, it only get better and better over the week as the flavors wed! So when your friends ask you to join them at some re$taurant, you can say naw man I just ate.  And you can put all of that money into drinking.

I used to be a card-carrying member of the ICS (International Chili Society) and loved it, but the rules are pretty serious.  Meat has to be rough ground or cut into 1/2 in. or smaller cubes, no visible seasoning, spoon has to stand horizontally and fall slowly for best texture, blah blah blah. And ask any Texan, they’ll tell you about “no beans” “no tomatoes” etc. etc. I love those big competition chilis, but I didn’t want to see my chili parties like a chemistry experiment of closely monitored chili dumps. Chili is a fukked up improvisation! People should go nuts and throw in the kitchen sink!

July 10: Save the Date! WBCR-lp Berkshire Community Radio Benefit Anything Goes People’s Choice Pie Contest!

WBCR-lp Berkshire Community Radio Benefit Anything Goes People’s Choice Pie Contest
Sunday, July 10, 2011, 3pm
Place TBA
$5 to $10 sliding scale admission (no one turned away for lack of funds)

To celebrate the publication of my Pie Contest in a Box, I’ve decided throw a pie baking contest to benefit WBCR-lp, Great Barrington’s scrappy, spunky, fierce little community radio station. Pie and community radio have quite a lot in common. Both are ways for families and communities to unite on common ground. We may fight about politics and religion, but most everyone agrees that pie and free speech are good.

In the spirit of the all-volunteer radio station with its 80+ programmers, where both everyone and no one in charge, I’ve decided that everyone who attends will get to sample the pies and vote for the best one.

Anyone can enter any kind of pie that they like, such as: homemade pie, semi-homemade pie (store-bought crust OK), totally-not-made-from-scratch pie (like Candy Pie), farmers’ market pie (the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market will be in full swing), hardcore locavore pie (churn your own butter!), family heirloom recipe pie, vegan pie, regional specialty pie  (Southern Chess Pie, English Meat Pie), booze pie (think Whiskey and Buttermilk Pie, Slug-O-Bourbon Spiced Apple Pie), pie that is not really pie (Eskimo Pie, Whoopie Pie — just no Cow Pie), story pie inspired by the movie Waitress (“I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me Pie” — vanilla custard with banana; hold the banana), Turduken-style pie (pie baked inside of cake), Early 70s Women’s Lib ugly pie (dig out the vintage recipe pamphlets and explore gelatin flavors only vaguely rooted in nature), aphrodisiacs pie (fig, honey, pomegranate, etc.), or any other sort of pie you can imagine.

Enter the Pie Contest
Contestants will need to sign up in advance (by Friday, July 8th) and bring two sample pies of each variety they wish to enter (multiple entries A-OK). To enter, send me an email at ginahyams [at] that includes the type of pie(s) you’ll be entering. You will then need to drop off your pies at 2pm on the day of the contest.

Funky Apron Fashion Show
In addition, the event will feature a Funky Apron Fashion Show. If you would like to model and/or supply a fun apron for someone else to wear, please send me an email (or comment below) and we’ll figure it out.

Hope you can join us. It’s gonna be a fun time!


Interview with Daniel May, Author of “Chemo Honeymoon”

Author Daniel May has enjoyed a broad range of life experiences–college football kicking specialist, indoor rowing competitor, martial artist, wine expert, restaurateur, and truck driver, to name just a few. In January of 2008, he drove six hundred miles to make dinner for Andrea, his high school sweetheart with whom he’d recently reconnected via the Internet after more than 30 years. A week later, she asked him to marry her. And then they found out that he had Hodgkin Lymphoma. His new memoir, Chemo Honeymoon: A Romantic Medical Odyssey, recounts their whirlwind rekindled romance, PET-scans, CT-scans, biopsies, exploratory surgery, wedding, and Berkshires honeymoon tucked in between medical procedures.

Danny and Andrea on their wedding day.

Gina: What’s your writing background previous to this book?

Danny: I wrote two wine books and several years’ worth of monthly wine articles for Berkshire HomeStyle magazine. Wine really lends itself to writing—we can transcribe music and chemical reactions for posterity, and record events with photos and film; however, we are limited to language when it comes to memorializing the taste of a particular wine.

Gina: Did you keep a journal during your cancer treatments? When did you decide to write the memoir and why?

Danny: No, I didn’t keep a journal, per se, but I started writing the actual book early on. My family insisted that I do so after I described to them the particulars of my bone marrow biopsy. I have a compulsive need to understand the underlying science of everything around me, and so I read as much as I could understand about cancer treatments. My doctors were very helpful with this. And after going to such lengths to explain cancer to myself, I wanted to share what I had learned with my fellow patients and their families. When it comes to things like cancer, knowledge often displaces fear.

Gina: Why did you decide to self-publish and how has the experience been for you so far? What company did you work with?

Danny: As you know, literary agents have long been the gatekeepers. They are also scared to death, I have reason to suspect, about the potential implications of e-publishing. Perhaps because of this, I couldn’t get even one agent to read a single page of Chemo Honeymoon. And when I have worked with agents and editors in the past, I’ve seen my work manipulated beyond recognition. An old girlfriend who works in the publishing industry suggested Amazon’s new Createspace program to me… “the wave of the future,” she called it. And so I am selling my actual words in their raw, unedited state, printed to order by Amazon. They’ve been terrific to work with!

Gina: You decided to stay in the Berkshires for your cancer treatments rather than go to Boston or New York. It does seem that a lot of people here are under the impression that they have to go to a city for quality care when faced with catastrophic illness. Please tell me about your decision and medical experience here.

Danny: Being treated in the Berkshires wasn’t completely by choice. Simply put, I couldn’t afford to miss the time at work that commuting to Boston or New York would have required. But I soon realized that decades of research and high-speed e-communication has made it possible for oncologists in outlying regions like the Berkshires to offer a level of treatment identical to that offered in the big cities. I also figured out that my doctors were highly respected in their specialties. I had a lot of confidence in them.

Gina: You write about Guido’s customers’ sometimes-inappropriate comments when you lost your hair during chemo. I remember seeing you behind the fish counter during that time and registering your illness and, since we don’t know each other well, not knowing what, if anything, to say. I also remember seeing you in line at Fuel Coffee Shop, after your hair started growing back, and feeling compelled to speak up and tell you that you looked good. Great Barrington is a small town. What is the proper cancer etiquette?

Danny: When in doubt, don’t say anything unless you have cancer yourself and perhaps recognize someone from the chemo salon. If you are close enough friends that you should know, they will have told you already. By the way, I once tried to commiserate with a bald man who turned out to be just bald.

Danny undergoing a cancer treatment.

Gina: You mention in the book that pink champagne is your favorite wine. Please tell me about the kind you like best and what it tastes like. When did you first experience it? (I love, by the way, your sommelier description of barium sulfate.)

Danny: I’ll never forget my first sip of Domaine Chandon “Blanc de Noirs” in 1981. 100% Pinot Noir… Varietally-correct Californian fruitiness with bubbles imparted by the traditional French methode champenoise. Now they also bottle a pinker-yet “Brut Rosé.” I also love Mumm Cuvée Napa Blanc de Noir and Gruet’s New Mexico bottlings. It seems that these French champagne houses operating in the US have the upper hand in this category.

Gina: You served “Rebecca’s Breads” at your wedding reception, calling her “the pre-eminent guerilla baker in the Berkshires.” What does it mean to be a guerilla baker and where can I find her?

Danny: Rebecca baked drop-dead fabulous breads in her home oven… very unofficial vis-à-vis the governmental authorities that regulate such things. She did all her business by email, personal delivery, and cash. From what I hear, she no longer bakes. It’s the Berkshires’ loss.

Gina: If the movie rights sell to Chemo Honeymoon, who should play you and Andrea?

Danny: Laura Leighton (of Melrose Place) should play Andrea; they are actually  second cousins. Me? I can’t say. I’m not much of a film or TV buff, so anyone I could think of would be too big a star to play an “everyman.” Brad Pitt would definitely be overkill.

Pie Interview: Queen Esther on Winning the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party Pie Contest, Learning to Bake on a Suzy Homemaker Easy-Bake Oven, Pie Crust as Waterloo, and the Connection Between Pie and Creativity

My friend Katherine Myers posted as her Facebook status the other day about how she loves it when procrastination works in her favor. This happens so often to me that I’ve come to believe that it’s somehow key to my creative process—that if I marinate a project long enough, when the time finally comes for me to really deal with it, I’ll have what I need and often as not, it turns out what I need wasn’t available during that earlier time period when I’d have been writing in a less adrenaline-driven sort of way.

The piece of the pie puzzle that I’d been pondering, but not acting on, was the contacting of pie contest winners to secure permission to include their recipes in my Pie Contest in a Box, which is due to my Andrews McMeel editor in a couple of weeks. I’d stumbled on many promising candidates during the course of my research, but there were still a few open slots. On a whim, I searched “pie contest” on Twitter and this message popped up:

“@queenesther I won the pie contest – “best savory” – at the roaring 20s jazz age lawn party today! *applewood smoked bacon apple pie* – yaaaay!
12:21 AM Aug 29th via web from Hamilton Heights, New York

This was every which way fortuitous, as I needed another savory pie recipe and this one sounded great and the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party on New York’s Governors Island is totally fun and represents the new face of pie contests. Then I clicked on Queen Esther’s Twitter profile, where she describes herself as: “Negropolitan. Artist. Hillwilliamette. Dazzling urbanite.” From an editorial standpoint, we’re talking gift from God. She was just what I needed to balance the Iowa State Fair peach pie contest winner, the California vegan gluten-free apple pie champ, and the Georgia rancher with his blue ribbon chicken pie.

Queen Esther is a singer and actress, in addition to being a prize-winning baker and, as it turns out, a phenomenal writer. Here is her pie interview. You’ll have to buy the kit next spring to see her recipe.


Queen Esther performing at the Harlem International Jazz Festival, Apollo Theater, 2008.

Gina: How many pie contests have you entered and won?

Queen Esther: This is the first pie contest I’ve ever entered, and it’s the first one that I’ve ever won. I love to cook and bake, and entering contests is something I’ve always wanted to do – just for the fun of it.

Gina: What’s the scene like at the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party? Did you go in costume?

Queen Esther at the 2010 Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party. Photo by Josh Lowenthal.

Queen Esther: The scene at The Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party is kind of like stepping into an ever-expanding time warp. The more you walk around, the more you take in, the more you see and do and explore, the further down the rabbit hole you fall, until it feels as though it really is 1920-something, and the people who aren’t dressed to the nines are the ones who eventually come off as though they’re totally out of place. It’s surreal – in part because there are so many participants who take it seriously.

Think of it. You, with your garters and stockings, your brightly colored paper parasol, your drop waist linen dress, your Marcellus waves in your hair, your vintage jewelry. You know quite a few of the tea dances and you take to the dance floor as often as you are asked to dance. The dress you are wearing is older than your grandmother. And the guy that you’re with, the one that’s wearing an impeccable seersucker suit and a straw hat tilted just so, you’re the ones who are in step with the now. At least that’s the way it feels when you’re surrounded by so many others who are dressed this way.

By the way: if you’re anything like me, it’s not a costume at all. It’s simply the clothes in your closet.

And that’s not all that’s happening at that party, that’s not the only element in the mix. There are vintage cars, vintage stores set up with all kinds of lovely things for sale, there’s a bake sale, tug-of-war contests, a hat parade, a bathing beauties contest, rumble seat rides, lots to eat and drink, dance lessons, a floor show, and a victrola that plays when the bands do not. And the bands play and play and play. There’s a big band and a smaller combo, all of the tunes faithfully in keeping with the original arrangements. Imagine all those songs you’ve heard in the confines of your little speakers, coming at you, live. It’s quite overwhelming, really.

Those picnicking hipsters who are gawking at you – they seem so unrefined, so ill-mannered, so clumsy, so…ordinary. Eventually, they recede into the backdrop and everything vintage comes into even sharper focus than before. It’s kind of trippy and so far for me, it’s never been a disappointment.

What did I wear? It was a vibrantly dark blue rayon dress with an ecru/ivory lace doily of a collar and a slightly a-line shape. I admit, it was more early 1930s than 1920s. The truth is, my body is anything but androgynous and I think it’s rather pedestrian to show up looking like a flapper. The 1920s was so much more than that. You’d be surprised to know how much research it takes to pull all the elements together and get the details right. I was recently cast as a jazz dancer in an episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and sometimes I do it up and go to 1920s soirees. I’m also developing a one-person musical about performer-showstopper/songwriter (and nurse!) Alberta Hunter that delves heavily into her early years in cabaret, so I’m beginning to explore the options.

Gina: Do you have any tips for pie contest competitors?

Queen Esther: Only one – be yourself. Make it up as you go along, and more of you will be in what you create than you’d dare to think.

Gina: What do you think makes the difference between a good pie and a great one?

Queen Esther: Individuality and a flair for the bold. Taking a risk and coming up with something that’s completely unexpected. Doing something different with something traditional.

Queen Esther with Michael Ingbar, an infamous presence on the NYC swing scene -- and one of the pie judges that day. Photo by Mindy Haywood.

Gina: Please tell me about your artistic career and baking history. Why do you love pie?

Queen Esther: I grew up singing in the sanctified church as the middle child and the only daughter in the semi-rural environs of the Deep South, with six brothers, a four-octave range and an IQ that set me firmly in the gifted program for creative writing as a five year old. After studying and singing classical music in a prestigious performing arts high school in Atlanta, I drenched myself in the live music/blues scene in Austin, TX, thanks to an NFA/ARTS theater scholarship. Eventually, I relocated to New York City, finished a BA in Screenwriting from The New School, and flourished in the downtown alt-music/alt-theater scene.

My work as a vocalist, lyricist, songwriter and actor/solo performer and playwright led to creative collaborations in neo-vaudeville, alternative theater, various alt-rock configurations, (neo) swing bands, trip hop DJs, spoken word performances, jazz combos, jam bands, various blues configurations, original Off Broadway plays and musicals, experimental music/art noise and performance art.

I was raised in a traditional Southern household  – with a large, loving, extended family in Charleston, SC that included grandparents and great-grandparents –  so I learned how to cook and bake at an early age. I distinctly remember that I had a Suzy Homemaker Easy-Bake Oven when I was a tot. Unbelievable but true –it baked little cakes with a light bulb. You could look through the tiny oven door and watch the cake rise and everything. And there was icing! I can remember making my daddy a cake. It looked like a miniature hockey puck. And he ate it! He said it was delicious – and believe me, he wouldn’t have if it weren’t true.

By the time I was 10, I was running the kitchen to my entire immediate family’s watchful and overly critical satisfaction – especially my daddy, who would sometimes stand over me and watch me do my thing.

My mother made the best cobblers, dumplings, sweet potato pies and biscuits –bar none. I distinctly remember all of us kids – and quite a few that we played with in the neighborhood – habitually bringing her mounds of blackberries that we would usually pick and eat in the woods after she once off-handedly remarked that if we brought them to her, she’d make something good. And she did. They were the absolute best blackberry dumplings I’ve ever had, then or now. It was so effortless, so delicious, with very simple basic ingredients.

And therein lies my very personal problem with pie crust.

My mother couldn’t tell me exactly how much of anything to use when she made pie crust because she never measured anything. She would throw shortening, flour and water in a bowl and the next thing I knew, she was rolling the dough onto that flour dusted kitchen table. My grandmother, on the other hand, wouldn’t tell me how to make pie crust. Even now, whenever I ask, she just throws her head back and waves me off, with a short high laugh. She declares that if they had Pet-Ritz when she was a kid, she wouldn’t know how to make it now. As far as she’s concerned, I should stick to the Pillsbury pie crust that rolls out, right into the pie pan ready-made, and call it a day.

But I can’t. I have to make everything from scratch. It’s my thing. Pie crust, as it turns out, is my Waterloo.

Gina: Do you think there’s any connection between your singing and your baking?

Queen Esther: Absolutely.

Baking pie is a great escape. It’s a lovely way to get lost in my own home. When I bake, something clicks and I stop thinking – and that’s when real creativity tends to emerge. I usually leave the kitchen fortified with strong ideas for some project I’m working on that’s already underway.  Or bits and pieces of lyrics. Or a melody that’s sticking in my head. Baking pie is a great way to keep those creative juices flowing.

Queen Esther

I couldn’t possibly eat everything I bake, so I’ve developed this bad habit of foisting what I come up with on so many beautiful people in my life because frankly, there’s no way I could possibly stay this size if I didn’t.  So far, I haven’t gotten any complaints. And sharing everything keeps my pie baking skills in great form.

Baking pie can also be a handy distraction.

On the Saturday that I went to the lawn party on Governor’s Island, I had an audition in midtown early in the afternoon for an upcoming Broadway show – the lead role for the musical Sister Act.  There I was on the subway, dressed head to toe in vintage clothing surrounded by sunburnt tourists of every ilk, with fresh hot pie in my lap. Now that was quite a picture.

The problem was that my pie had to be on the judge’s table by 3pm. The audition started at 1pm. With the slower weekend subway schedule and a boat ride to get to the island – albeit a short one –  it could take an hour to get there. And there was more. When I got to the audition before 1pm, the place was packed.  I almost left when I saw someone walking around with the number 200 – but that’s the number they started with, so I stayed. My number? 239.  The question floated over my head all day, in neon: Would I make it?

Surprisingly, I did – with a little help from my friend Mindy.

After a flurry of text messages, phone calls and hand-wringing, Mindy swept into the audition like a superhero, and as she changed into her vintage attire in the restroom, she reassured me repeatedly that she would get that pie to the island on time. Believe it or not, I finally calmed down. (A little.)

What about the audition, she said, almost laughing, as she left. Oh, that! I remember thinking.

Here’s the thing about auditioning that most actors know and very few actors can pull off. You can’t care all that much about it. If you care too much, you’re desperate – and that’s never a good thing. If you don’t care enough, you’re ambivalent. That’s not good, either. You have to care, but not really.  It’s a delicate balance. I think that pie helped me find it that day, and that allowed me to go into the audition with confidence, have fun and do my best.

Pie! Who knew?

Gina: Why do you think pie matters today?

Queen Esther: Cake is one thing, but pie is something else entirely.

When I think of desserts, pie is the ultimate comfort food. Simply put, there is something about it that says home. And although home means different things to everyone, I think that instinctively you are reaching for your idea of what home is, and for that comfort, with every bite, even if you didn’t have a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother that baked, like I did, or even if home for you was a negative situation.

In the aftermath of 9/11, so many people that I knew stayed home and basically nested.  When it was time to socialize, potluck dinners became the norm. Everyone seemed to intuitively want what a restaurant or a bar strived for quite often but couldn’t ever really provide – comfort.

Nowadays, things seem to be shifting gears towards a less complicated approach to living well. Everyone wants to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat clean food. Locally grown, organic produce and meats are all the rage, at least in my neck of the woods. When it comes to baking desserts, there isn’t much that encompasses the essence of this ideal more than pie does. It’s synonymous with nurturing and warmth and, well…love, I suppose. Perhaps this is true because making pie is so personal and because it can be served hot, and that warmth translates into so much more when it’s inside of you.

We all want to feel loved, don’t we. If it’s true that you put yourself in what you make and if there’s love in your efforts, perhaps inadvertently, that’s a part of what someone is experiencing when they eat pie.

I’d like to think that’s true of the pie that I make.

Interview: Former Roller Derby Skater Kat Selvocki on Founding Piety Bakery, Her Favorite Seasonal Pies, BK Farmyards Pie Contest, and the Brooklyn Local Foods Renaissance

Kat Selvocki grew up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania — close enough to Lancaster County that she developed a deep love for shoofly pie at a very young age. She now bakes pie, cooks, crafts, and gardens in Brooklyn, travels the world for inspiration, and photographs and blogs about all of it at

Kat Selvocki

In addition to her urban homesteading adventures, she works full-time for a nonprofit, teaching volunteers to paint murals, garden, and serve meals in soup kitchens and she is the proprietor of Piety, a Brooklyn-based pie bakery that uses seasonal ingredients from local farms and organic suppliers to craft pies that give your grandma a run for her money.

Kat is a former roller derby player and current manager of the Bronx Gridlock of Gotham Girls Roller Derby. She explains, “I loved skating, but wanted more time to bake pie and explore other endeavors.”

Follow her on Twitter at and


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Kat: I love pie because it’s a really homey, comforting food that is meant to be shared. I love that pie reminds me of family and of history: I grew up with homemade pies — my grandmother makes the best coconut cream pie in existence! — and I also think it’s fascinating that the ancient Egyptians and the Romans consumed pie in some form. I love it because the best pies are very seasonal; you’re not going to have the perfect peach pie in the middle of winter. And I love that the best pies don’t look flawless: they’re handmade and show it.

Gina: Who taught you to bake?

Kat: I baked cookies and other things with my mom as a child, but I’m not sure I ever made piecrust with her. I started baking pies a few years ago, when I joined my first CSA, and I found myself with an abundance of some fruits — gooseberries in particular — and I had no idea what to do with them! I remembered my grandmother and my mom baking some beautiful summer pies, and I called them both to get their crust recipes and ran with it. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I knew the crusts tasted like the ones I remembered, so I kept doing it.

Gina: When did you start Piety Bakery and what are your hopes for it? Do you have a storefront?

Kat: I started working on piety in fall of 2009. I competed in a couple of bake-offs, and baked pies for a few events and around the holidays. This year, I’m working on figuring out all of the required paperwork (New York is currently cracking down on small food businesses), and looking into ways that I can find shared commercial kitchen space for a reasonable price. I’m aiming to sell at markets and custom orders; I’m not interested in having a storefront at this time.

Gina: What are your favorite pies for each season?

Kat: Spring: Apple-rhubarb or rhubarb, straight up. Summer: Peach-blueberry and sweet cherry. Fall: Peach maple walnut and pear-cranberry. Winter: Balsamic vinegar with pomegranate and shoofly.

Kat's Balsamic-Strawberry Pies

Gina: I notice that you offer gluten-free pie. What do make the crust with?

Kat: My gluten-free pie crust is made with a combination of tapioca, white rice, and sorghum flours. And butter. Lots of butter!

Gina: It seems like Brooklyn is in the midst of a pie renaissance. Why do you think that is and do you know the other players?

Kat: Brooklyn is in the midst of a local foods renaissance, so I think that’s a big part of why pie is back on the radar. People are creating urban homesteads and farms all over Brooklyn and participating in activities that go along with that (canning, for example), and I think people like the tradition that comes along with pie. Also, there are cupcake and cake and cookie shops aplenty around the city, and pie hasn’t been as much a part of that. It’s time for something a little different, and Brooklyn is great for being at the forefront of that shift.

I haven’t talked with the women of First Prize Pies and Four & Twenty Blackbirds yet, but I have sampled their wares and both shops make a pretty tasty pie! I have had the pleasure of meeting Lauren Cucinotta of Pie in the Park, and I’m really excited about her Kickstarter project. I’ve pledged, and will be publishing a pie recipe on my blog over the next few days to help raise awareness of the project and hopefully get her fully funded.

Gina: Please tell me about the BK Farmyards Pie Contest. Where was it held? What were the rules? Who attended? Who judged? Who won?

BK Farmyards Pie Contest

Kat: Jimmy’s No 43 in the East Village hosted the BK Farmyards pie contest. Jimmy’s is a great supporter of local and organic foods, and also hosts a lot of food events and cook-offs.

The only rule was that you had to make your own crust, which I think is probably the most important rule that you could have!

A variety of bakers, both professional and hobbyist, participated, including: Elizabeth Witte Kalin of Betty Brooklyn, Matthew Tilden of SCRATCHbread, Annie Novak of Growing Chefs and Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Allison Kave of First Prize Pies, Emily and Melissa of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Megan Paska of Brooklyn Honey, Joann Kim of Greenpoint Food Market, Lily & Fig, Blondie & Brownie, Lauren Cucinotta of Pie in the Park, and of course, me!

The judges included:

– Amy Zavatto, Edible/Imbibe contributor

– Anna Broussard, pastry instructor, French Culinary Institute

– Matt Timms, Chili Takedown

BK Farmyards Pie Contest

The winners of each category were:

Savory: Annie Novak of Eagle Street Rooftop Farms, for her rainbow chard quiche

Sweet: Joann Kim of Greenpoint Food Market, for her strawberry-rhubarb pie

People’s Choice: Elizabeth Witte Kalin of Betty Brooklyn, for her braised short rib mini pies

Gina: Have you entered other pie contests? Do you have any tips for contestants?

Kat: This is my third bake-off (two were pie, one dessert). At the Jimmy’s bake-off, the winners kept it simple, though that hasn’t been the case with the winners of previous bake-offs. It seems that with pie bake-offs, people tend to bake sweet pies, so if you make a good savory, you’ve got a better shot. And of course, the biggest key is making a good piecrust. The judges at Jimmy’s were surprised that no one used lard (I personally prefer butter so that it’s vegetarian-friendly, though I’ve sampled some delicious lard crusts), so using a different fat in your crust could help out there as well.

BK Farmyards Pie Contest

Gina: Why do you think pie matters today?

Kat: I think pie matters today because of tradition and community. Pie is an amazing food to create and share with others. Technology is both bringing us together in some ways and disconnecting us in others, and it’s important to be able to sit down and interact, and good food can really help the process. I think everyone has a pie story, and so many of us remember pie from family meals when we were young, and that can be a part of today, too.

Guest Blog for Rebecca Walker on Huffington Post

My “Enabling the Dead: A Gringa’s Day of  the Dead Altar” essay is up on the Huffington Post. It’s a topic that I’ve threatened to write about for a long time. I’m grateful to Rebecca Walker for the invitation to contribute to her “One Big Happy Family” series.

My dad, Dave’s dad.

TED Talk by Ben Cameron, Program Director of Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

Inspired and inspiring.

Pie Interview: Author Debra Ginsberg on the Role of Pie in Her New Novel, the Inferiority of Cake, and the Revelation of Fresh Strawberry Pie

Debra Ginsberg

Debra Ginsberg is the author of the memoirs, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress (HarperCollins, 2000), Raising Blaze: A Mother and Son’s Long, Strange Journey Into Autism (HarperCollins, 2002), and About My Sisters (HarperCollins, 2004) and the novels Blind Submission (Shaye Areheart Books, 2006) and The Grift (Shaye Areheart Books, 2008). A graduate of Reed College, she has contributed to NPR’s All Things Considered, is a regular reviewer for Shelf Awareness, and works as a freelance editor. She lives in Southern California.

Debra and I share a dear mutual friend and we used to be represented by the same literary agent. We didn’t know each other until recently, though, when Facebook closed the circle. The other day she posted  the below photo of a star-topped blueberry pie that she’d baked. I could tell she was passionate about pie and she gamely agreed to an interview on the topic.

Debra's Blueberry Pie


Gina: Has pie played a role in any of your books?

Debra: It does play something of a role in my new novel (The Neighbors Are Watching – November 2010). Here, one of the “neighbors” is always trying to come up with these spectacular desserts, pie among them, but she’s a hopeless baker.

Gina: Why do you love pie?

Debra: What’s not to love??? Flaky crust and fruit–can you beat it? I think not! But if I were to investigate more deeply, I’d say that I’ve never really loved cake (in fact I don’t really like cake) because it’s too sweet, feels too cloying. There is something very fresh about a pie (well, a fruit pie anyway) and something so satisfying about that combination of crust and filling. Plus, I don’t eat eggs (or bake with them) and it’s quite easy to make wonderful pies without them.

Gina: Who taught you to bake?

Debra: Self taught!

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Debra: My sister and I convincing my dad to go buy fresh strawberry pie and then eating it en famille. I was a teenager and we’d just moved to Oregon. We’d never had fresh strawberry pie like that before–it was a revelation.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Debra: Cherry, if it’s made with fresh cherries. Cherries are my favorite fruit… But unless you make it yourself, it’s hard to find a fresh cherry pie, so the runner up is going to have to be apple or blueberry. Or peach. Or… you see where I’m going with this…

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?

Debra: Any one of those medieval English pies one hears about. Those people would put anything in a piecrust. Hello–four and twenty blackbirds?

Illustration from The Song of Sixpence Picture Book by Walter Crane, 1909

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest?

Debra: I have not, but I think it would be great fun.

Gina: Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Debra: I think if you manage to not make a public spectacle of yourself, it’s all good.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Debra: Lots of butter, lots of chilling, lots of patience.

Gina: What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?

Debra: I think it helps to be a perfectionist and to have the desire to make people happy.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Debra: Pie is like home. The farther we drift into this disconnected morass of technology, the more we need the simplicity, warmth, and connectedness that pie represents.

Pie Interview: Shelley Handler on Spit Cups, Flaky Crust, and Drunken Cream

Shelley Handler

Shelley Handler is a three-decade veteran of the food business. The inaugural chef of the Chez Panisse Café, she cooked in restaurants in San Francisco and Italy, including the three-star Gualtiero Marchesi. She has taught throughout her career, serving for a decade as a chef-instructor at the California Culinary Academy, and as a chef in numerous Bay Area elementary-age after-school programs. She’s put her English degree to work since 1993 writing for food websites, magazines, catalogs, and the back of packages. She also lends her brain to food product development for large food corporations, and looks to put these skills to work on healthful, sustainable, earth-loving food and education for school kids.

I first met Shelley in 1974, when I was nine, and my mom and I moved into a commune in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district that was largely populated by members of Anna Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop. Shelley was then living in the basement next to the primal scream room.  Coincidentally, my husband Dave met her not long after that, when he was playing in a New Wave band with his brothers called No Sisters. Shelley’s sister (whom Dave just told me starred in Devo’s Whip It video…now that’s some kind of claim to fame) dated the drummer (who was the only non-brother in the band). Shelley’s floated in and out of our lives ever since and remains a loyal friend to my mom. I’ve always admired her flair, smarts, and creativity.


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Shelley: I love it because what you see is what you get. And I love the flavor of a well-made, flaky crust, especially the toasty part around the rim.

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Shelley: I can’t remember where it was eaten, but a deep-dish boysenberry pie–individual sized, single crust, hot, with vanilla ice cream, a la mode.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Shelley: Any pie with a delicate, flaky crust and tart fruit. I’m particularly fond of boysenberry or strawberry rhubarb.

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard of?

Shelley: A timballo, a traditional Italian confection–deep, drum-like with a cornucopia of ingredients including pasta and sauce. It’s the central character of the iconic food movie Big Night.

Gina: Have you ever judged a pie contest? Any tips?

Shelley: I have not. That said, being a regular taster/judge of less lovely ingredients for the San Francisco Chronicle‘s product tasting and rating panel since 1999, I would suggest small bites, take time to breathe with your mouth closed to taste the nuances, and have a spit cup at hand for when you can’t swallow any more or run into a nasty sample.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider?

Shelley: The synthesis of crust and filling–the taste and texture of that place where crust and filling meet. The texture of the crust–is it tender and flaky, but still substantial enough to contain the fruit? Take a bite of the crust, a bite of filling, and then a combined bite–to take in the flavor and texture of each on its own and then the flavor/texture of the two in a combined bite.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Shelley: Ice water and mix gingerly–just till the ingredients come together.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good pie and a transcendent one?

Shelley: The quality of the ingredients and intensity of the flavor of the filling. The more distinct and nuanced the filling the better the pie.

Gina: Do you think great bakers are born rather than made?

Shelley: Due to the chemistry/science aspect of baking–accurate measurements and definite order of business, I think bakers are made. Perhaps inspired bakers are born, but I think anyone can learn to be a good one. I think kindness and thoughtfulness are good pie-making traits.

Gina: Is there a way to use alcohol in pie without having the kick burn off?

Shelley: The best thing for making pies with a kick is to use a baked crust and a cold filling, such as a mousse or pudding. Think drunken cream pie.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Shelley: Because of its honesty and simplicity, it seems like the pastry antidote to information overload. It is such an historic dish, and it links us to our baking predecessors. It’s also a perfect food for difficult times–inexpensive to make, comforting in process and flavor, and meant to share.

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