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What does it mean to win?

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Instead of a cooking ingredient or technique, I thought it might be fun to explore a topic that not many of us have had the opportunity to play with: determining the rules for a food contest.

Keen readers may recall that a few months ago I participated in a local, impromptu pie competition and was named the Best Piemaker in Charlottesville. Shortly after that competition, the people who put it together decided that they couldn’t let well enough alone, so a competition was born. This time, instead of being a quick little 2-week thing, it was to be a proper competition, with fancy things like “more than two competitors” and “proceeds being donated to charity” and the like.

Instead of competing in the next round of competition at the Cville Pie Fest, I am the Head Judge. This sounds impressive, and I’d like to encourage everyone to believe that. As the Head Judge (oooooooh), I got to make up the judging criteria for the Pie Fest. This is fun for a couple of reasons.

First, it allows me to ask and then answer the philosophical question, “What makes one pie better than another pie?” Usually when cooking, even when I was competing in the Pie Down, I don’t really get philosophical about my food. I just try to think about what’s tasty, what makes for a good crust, what will present well, but without any real meaning to it.

Second, before becoming the Food Geek and before making robots, I used to make video games. This means that I am temperamentally suited to making point and scoring systems. It’s been a while since I’ve had to create a scoring system, so good fun is to be had all around.

What do we know about pie? Well, most important is that it should taste good. Food that tastes bad fails at being food. It should also look good. As a pie, it exists in two states while being presentable: whole and sliced. Both of these states are important to pie enjoyment.

Of course, crust is important. Pastry crust should be tender and flaky. Cookie crust should have structural integrity without being rock-hard. Texture isn’t the only important factor, though. Crust should be flavorful in and of itself. Crust isn’t just a vessel, it’s a key part of the dish. Some people care about the crust more than the filling, though I am not quite that extreme.

The last part is traditionality* or creativity. Some pies should be traditional pies. If you’re replicating Grandma’s apple pie, and you deviate from the recipe by adding pomegranate to it, that means you’re not replicating Grandma’s recipe. On the other hand, it would be a dull pie competition if all the pies were traditional, so it would be nice to work some room in for creativity.

The above gives us our framework. Define what’s important, then making the scoring should be easy. Overall flavor is worth 10 points. This should be the single highest score someone can get, emphasizing the importance of flavor.

Crust texture and crust flavor are worth 5 points each. Neither alone are worth what the overall flavor is, but together they show the importance of crust to a pie.

Whole presentation and sliced presentation are likewise worth 5 points each. I’ll admit, it’s a little cruel making the pie have to look good in both states, but it’ll give the pie makers something to worry about before judging. You can’t let all of the work finish just because the pies are baked. It’s like a wedding cake competition, where you have to move the cake before it can be judged. A cake that can’t be delivered is a cake that cannot be sold; likewise, a pie that doesn’t look good on the plate is not as likely to be eaten.

Finally, you can score 5 points either for Creativity or Traditionality. These are mutually exclusive categories. By wrapping them up into one score, I hope to encourage someone to either go big with their pie changes, or stick to a traditional recipe and do it right. Minor variations will be punished, but doing one or the other well will be rewarded.

By and large, we have what should be a useful guide for judging pies. It has a point of view, and should encourage bakers to follow that point of view. There is one minor element that’s not been covered yet: what if there’s a tie?

The easy way to deal with a tie is to pick a single person to break the tie. It could be the Head Judge, or it could be a Special Guest Judge. That works out well, and is a great backup plan. Still, it would be nice to limit the likelihood that there will be a tie. After all, one tie every few years is exciting; one tie every few categories gets boring.

So what I’ve done is to rank the importance of each category. I did that a little with Overall Flavor being more points than any other single category, but in this case I can be a bit more explicit. In order of importance, the categories are:

  1. Overall Taste
  2. Crust (Texture)
  3. Presentation (Whole)
  4. Originality/Traditionality
  5. Crust (Flavor)
  6. Presentation (Sliced)

If there’s a tie, we can take the total score from all of the judges for each category individually. This means that if one pie tastes better than the other, it wins. If they’re both tied on flavor, the texture of the crust is the next most important, and so on.

Hopefully the rule for ties won’t come into play, but I like to be prepared. If the scores are tied all the way down, then we can do the Special Guest Judge thing. But really, what are the chances?

Okay, I’ve had my fun, now it’s yours: if you had a pie contest, how would you judge it? Am I crazy? Did I overthink it? Am I going to regret this come Saturday? I’d love to hear what you would do in this circumstance.

*- Yes, I totally made up the word “traditionality.”

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