The pies, glorious pies, on the tables of the Incredible Pie Championships were a taste to behold.
Grandma Nancy’s looked crammed with an entire farm’s worth of berries while somebody said they wish there was more than one entry in the savory category so Spark’s decadent zucchini pie would win by talent and not default. The tasters — pie lovers who paid the admission to Sunday’s championships by donation — hovered around the chili lime peach pie with hopes nobody would notice their hand slipping through the crowd for a second or third helping.
The 1950s Housewife Pie advertised itself as being a “hot mess” by 1 p.m., but it was unclear if that was because the late August sun roasted down on the tasting arena set up in the middle of Sixth Avenue between Manitoba and Ontario Streets, or because of its ingredients — jam, peanuts and bourbon.
A wild card of ingredients made up the Incredible Pie Championship’s newest category called Mystery Box to join the Sweet, Savory, Sculptural and Vegan. Mystery Box was a grab bag of non-traditional pie ingredients that included chips, ginger candy, seaweed and tarragon — and was given to six pairs of brave bakers on Thursday. By Sunday, there were six different creations, which included a clever Faked Alaska and the blood-sugar rocket Space Jam Pie.
Despite the reality cooking show-inspired deadline, the list of ingredients didn’t faze bakers Leanne Yu and Birdie Hamilton — the creators of the Space Jam Pie — one ounce.
“We wanted to do a throwback and we’ve always wanted to make a Pop-Tart pie,” said Yu. “It plays on nostalgia… coming home after school and sitting down with your VHS Space Jam, drinking some Sunny D.” The amateur bakers tried a similar pie during a previous pie competition and realized baking this particular pie worked better as a square rather than a circle.
“This isn’t our first rodeo,” said Hamilton.
Added Yu: “We have tried it and we’re quite surprised at how good it is. We had some really weird ingredients so we used the roasted seaweed in our filling and tarragon glaze so it’s more an adult Pop-Tart pie. We’re the only pie here with sprinkles.”
The addition of sprinkles push the Space Jam Pie into the verge of dangerous cake territory, but it’s a gamble that paid off as the Yu and Hamilton’s pie won both Sculptural and Mystery Box categories. The blueberry and strawberry jams baked into the square cookie crust with the ginger candy lemon tarragon glaze did really give the dessert the taste of a super-deluxe Pop-Tart.
“Pie takes a lot of work and dedication to get everything right,” said Yu. “With pie, you just have to let the oven do the work and however it turns out is however it turns out. Pie is more a celebration of nature’s bounty, particularly this time of year.”
Others who also believe pie for breakfast is perfectly acceptable are the two women behind the Incredible Pie Eating Championship — Jenny Lee Craig and Caroline Ballhorn. The two artists joined creative forces about eight years ago with Tin Can Studio, the mobile art studio in the form of a rotund 1969 Streamline camper. The pie championship was one of the first collaborations eight years ago (it has run six of those eight years) and they have taken on other community and school engagement art projects. Craig has also secured numerous Vancouver Foundation Neighbourhood small grants — one funded the purchase of the Mystery Box ingredients — such as beehive-building projects and canning collectives in her Sixth Avenue neighbourhood where remnants of old Vancouver still exist. Aging character homes still stand next to polished head offices of local companies, next to 50-year-old low-rise office buildings.
“We do a lot of things to keep our neighbourhood feel even though we are in this funny zone of business,” said Craig. “In my house there are four units and we’re all friends. Next door is all friends. We have a lot of friends here and we try to take care of each other.”
As Craig and Ballhorn disappeared into the Tin Can Studio for an hour to count the tasters’ ballots for the 20 pie creations that saw Joyce Ng win Best in Show for her strawberry balsamic black pepper number, the tasting arena transformed into a neighbourhood picnic with neighbour and local musician/artist PrOphecy Sun providing a buffet of salads while her toddler daughter, Owl, discovered the microphone and sent noises of distorted yelps bouncing through the area. Once the pie kings and queens were crowned, the block party morphed into SIX FEST with bands playing on the porch of Craig’s home and the people partied into the night, bellies full with pie and salad — in that order.