Pies take the cake at Mountain Fair | AspenTimes.com

Pies take the cake at Mountain Fair

Naomi Havlen
Lulu Volckhausen, left, and Nancy Bolam cut the pie as fellow judges Bruce Stolbach and Nancy Smith wait for their first piece at the Mountain Fair pie contest in Carbondale. Mark Fox/The Aspen Times

Tradition collides with sugar nowhere in the Roaring Fork Valley like at Carbondale Mountain Fair annual pie-baking competition.Judges arguably have the most envied volunteer position in the valley, sitting in the shade of the judging tent sipping champagne and pondering the perfection of each forkful of pie. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a number of them say with straight faces that one of the very few ways to become a judge is to inherit a seat from a long-standing judge who has died.When Dorothy Keepers died many years ago, Carbondale resident Ron Robertson said he was next in line. The group of judges make a toast each year to judges who have died in past years, and Keeper’s photograph is framed at the front of the tent with the caption “Pie in the Sky.””There are thousands of stories in these pies,” Robertson said on Saturday morning, gearing up for an hour’s worth of pie tasting.A number of them have volunteered for more than two decades, honing their taste buds to the perfect crispy crusts, fresh fruits and marshmallowy meringues as the years go by. Each year the throng of judges dress up in wild costumes, this year sporting masquerade masks, feather boas and wigs.

Judge Peter Craven of the 9th Judicial District has been taking the July weekend to apply his skills and experience to pastries for the past 20-plus years. He said from underneath his large hat, shaped like Mt. Sopris, that the volunteer job takes “tremendous focus.” He (most likely joking) added that he abstains from pies in the weeks before the competition, but did note that he drinks a mixture of Gatorade and whey to replenish his electrolytes and protein during hikes or lengthy pie-tasting sessions.They take their job seriously, measuring a pie’s worth using criteria like appearance, crust, texture and taste. Some of the judges were once professional bakers, like Carbondale resident Karen Tafejian, who has been judging for over 20 years.”I can consider what went into the pies – I know the thickening they used, the spices, so I have the baking experience to bring to the table,” she said. She’s quick to point out Carbondale resident Judy Harvey, who has more ribbons for baking pies and cakes each year than she can count.For the last 18 years, Harvey has made one pie and cake in each category for the Mountain Fair competitions. It’s not unusual for her to leave with a fistful of ribbons – on Saturday she took home two first places in the cream and exotic categories, and the highly coveted “Best in Fair” award for her white and dark chocolate mousse pie.”I’m not a professional, but I like the challenge in it,” she said. “After all these years I can’t just pick up a recipe – I make my own combination and make it look nice.”

It’s the understatement of the year, as one of Harvey’s pies was a caramel coconut cream peaked with translucent amber spikes of macadamia nut brittle. Judges gave the pie low whistles and approving nods even before discovering how it tasted.Harvey’s husband Roger tells the story behind his wife’s baking perfection – Judy was up until 4 a.m. on Saturday creating her masterpieces. Their garage refrigerator is stuffed with trial runs – so full that he’s taken to encourage friends to stop and grab some pie without even ringing the doorbell. His job, naturally, is dishwasher.”This is the hardest day,” he said on Saturday, just after judging had finished. “We’ll go home, clean up everything and she’ll get started making cakes. I guess I’m the best dishwasher here – she’s gourmet cook, but no one ever says anything about how good the clean up is.”The valley’s bakers compete under three categories: fruit, cream and exotic, all of which are up to interpretation. Slices from each pie are sold by the contest’s organizers after they are judged, and the proceeds benefit the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities.The judges are similarly split up at tables according to category – Carbondale resident John Salamida has been tasting cream pies for eight years. Does he get sick of cream pies?

“No – that’s like asking ‘Do you get sick of sex?'” he said with a laugh. All of the best pies Missouri Heights resident Davis Farrar has ever tasted have been at Mountain Fair.Although the pie quality year-to-year ebbs and flows, Farrar agrees that judging pies is all relative – it’s hard to not have a good time sitting around eating pie on a summer morning.Carbondale resident Ken Olson wants to take things a little further by seeing the group put together a cookbook featuring winning pie recipes, and even tips on putting together a good pie judging costume.”We’re here for fun, camaraderie, and we’re serious about good pie,” Salamida added.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com

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