Barbara Swell is a gifted pie baker, an accomplished heirloom recipe book writer, and an all-around great lady. Barbara hosts woodstove cooking classes in the historic log cabin on the land where she lives with her husband, Wayne, an old-time music instructor. The gardens surrounding her cabin are also the site of the legendary annual Retro Pie Contest, whose motto is “It’s Not Fair.” I felt lucky to be able to attend the pie contest this year, and after a busy day at the Cake Shop yesterday, Jess and I grabbed the pies we made Friday evening and headed over to the party.
Attended by over 100 friends and family of Barbara and Wayne’s, the contest featured over 75 pies, all from scratch, in more than a dozen categories including fruit, meat, youth, local, heirloom, tarts, and the mystifying “Men’s Pie” category. I entered a pie in the “Historic” category, and the story of that pie is a long and meandering one, but I’ll try to summarize:
Shrimp and Grits Stargazey Pie: this pie was inspired by a Cornish tradition of celebrating the winter solstice (I know it’s the summer solstice, but I’ve taken lots of liberties in the making of this pie) and the legend of Tom Bawcock, a fisherman who went out to sea in a storm to catch enough fish to keep the village of Mousehole from starving. When his expedition succeeded, the townspeople made pies of potatoes, boiled eggs, bacon, and Pilchard (the fish that sardines are made of) with the heads sticking out of the pastry and “gazing at the stars.” Alas, I was unable to find fresh pilchard with heads on in Asheville on Friday, so I settled for whole shrimp, and the recipe took a Southern turn. I made a simple pastry with celery seed in the crust, and filled it with a layer of creamy grits, then a layer of pimento cheese, then a layer of sauteed onions and garlic with fresh herbs (basil, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage). I then covered the pie with the top crust of pastry, made slits in the top, and wiggled the shrimp down into the pie. The result was, I think, tasty, and I did manage to tie with the Peach Pie maker for first place in the historic category, winning me this vintage Davey Crockett coffee mug.
The other entries were amazing. One pie in the youth category featured doughnut holes, and the custard pies were beautiful. The savory pies were delicious too, and most of them ended up winning a prize in the “Pies that should have won but didn’t because this contest isn’t fair” category. Winners got to choose from a selection of beautiful vintage aprons, cookbooks, and baking tools.
Some pies were thematic and clever:
while others were inspired by family history and memory:
And while I didn’t get a shot of it, the beautiful fruit and pesto tart made by my friend Ashley English took home a prize too (prettiest pie? I think).
I have to say that my favorite pie was the one that Jess made, the Fruit of the Forest Pie. With strawberries, pineapple, apples, peaches, pears, and a pecan streusel top, her pie was not too sweet, and perfectly subtly spiced.
I felt grateful to Barbara for hosting such a sweet event, on such a beautiful evening, to share the love of food, which, really, is just a vehicle for sharing the love of friends and family. Thank you, Barbara!