Attending Penngrove’s “Biggest Little Parade” on July 4th built up an appetite that only the Penngrove Picnic could fill, and so we spent the middle of the day stuffing ourselves with pit beef, BBQ chicken and 4H Zerts (at $1 a piece, you can’t get just one dessert.) If we had planned better we would have worn our “eatin’ britches” but with the loosening of belts we rolled over to Humble Pie to see what all the fuss was about with their first ever “Strange Pie Challenge.”
I should mention that I have tasted a lot of strange things in my day. They usually revolve around meat or deZerts, rarely wandering into the “insect” or “brains” regions. Things that used to be considered “strange,” such as bacon-topped or infused Zerts, seem to have made their way, cautiously, into the main stream. Just the other day I enjoy a scoop of bacon gelato at Powell’s in Petaluma. While passing through Portland last summer we ferreted out Voodoo Donuts because I had heard great things about their odd combinations. Frankly, putting breakfast cereal on a donut is not all that odd in my book, but Humble Pie’s Strange Pie Challenge definitely pushed the limits.
We arrived at Humble Pie to find their quarters tight, yet comfortably packed. Everyone was so friendly and inviting that we wanted to squeeze in and be a part of Penngrove history. Having already stuffed ourselves at the Penngrove picnic, we planned on only spectating but once we saw the lively choices and the livelier crowd, we grabbed ourselves some forks (no sissy knives and 1/8th-sized slices for this crowd) and prepared for the worst (and best.) All were welcome to judge, if brave enough, and our own Heather Irwin (of the Press Democrat’s “Bite Club”) was in attendance as a judge and a Strange Pie challenger.
The general public was invited to submit their “freakiest, oddest, most non-traditional, (and yet still delicious) pie!!!” Contestants were required to share their ingredient list, although honestly, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was strange about each pie. I had noticed some very odd pies right off the bat during my pre-judging warm-up stretch, which involved walking around the room several times in order to formulate a battle plan. My plan was to get in early, go for what was most appealing, and then sit back and let my stomach clear some more room while everyone else did their tasting. I would then go back in and try the questionable pies, like the ones with rhubarb in them. I have to admit that along with eggplant, rhubarb is one of my least favorite things, and I am known for eating some very questionable foods, like SPAM and Algood (PB&J all mixed in one jar.) Oh sure, you can make rhubarb taste decent by chopping it into tiny pieces, pouring a lot of sugar over it, and calling it a strawberry-rhubarb pie, but that doesn’t make it appetizing in my book. As my gradpappy used to say, “Put enough sugar on s**t and you can make anything taste good,” but that doesn’t mean I am going to like it. (Ok, in my defense, I never actually tried the rhubarb and red pear pie at the Strange Pie Contest, but the GF says it was wonderful.)
And so the tasting began…
As often happens, people hung back, waiting for someone else to make the first move…or else they were afraid of what they had seen during their pre-tasting perusal. Never shy, bad at following instruction, and rarely having met a pie I didn’t like, I was the first to wade into the diverse and strange selections. The judging was split into three categories, Sweet, Savory, and Freakiest. My game plan immediately fell by the wayside because some of the more interesting (and disgusting) combos were getting rave reviews as I compared notes with others. We complimented our favorites and critiqued our least favorites, in good fun, for not just thinking up such horrific things, but Frankensteining them to life. With the exception of one pie, they were all quite interesting.
With ingredients like candied peppers and chocolate, chocolate cream pie with rose whipped cream, “the club” with french fries, bacon, and mayonnaise, “lunchbox” with chocolate, berry, peanut butter and potato chips, and assorted pies of aromatic bacon, salmon jelly beans, life savers, pickles, and yogurt, many of us judges were surprised at some of the wonderful combinations. (To me savory and salty with sweet are some of my favorite combos – chocolate covered pretzels, prosciutto and fig jam, teriyaki pineapples… hold on, I’m heading to the icebox.) All the pies with bacon were well done and well worth a taste. A more mainstream trend, spicy and sweet, came in a beautifully presented and tasty candied pepper and chocolate pie. The sweet entrants stood out with a wonderfully fresh rose infused pie, although my vote for “sweet” went to Heather Irwin’s “Lunch Box” pie, with ingredients of PB&J, potato chips, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. It was flavorful enough to be served in a fine restaurant. Apparently the rest of the judges agreed and awarded it champion of the “sweet” category. Go Heather! My choice for “savory” went to the bacon covered mac-n-cheese bite size pies. Although they were more of a quiche than a pie, since I kept going back for more I figured they deserved my vote for something. The winner of the “savory” category went to “Club Sandwich with Fries Please,” which had everything you would find in a club sandwich, including mayo, all topped with french fries. The “Freakiest” pie ended up being the only pie that was not interesting or tasty. It was plain old gross and actually brought one of the judges to the brink of puking. The pie, dubbed the “Cream of Freak Pie” claimed hot sauce, creme, Nescafe, cheetos, and mango as its ingredients. I found it to be nothing special but most of the other judges called it gross, disgusting, and vile.
Miriam, one of the Humble Pie owners, gave an honorable mention to the Candied Pepper Chocolate Pie. It was an incredible creation and garnered the most total votes, with ballots in all three categories, but did not gain a majority in any one and so was kept from the podium. As a fitting tribute and consolation prize, the Candied Pepper Chocolate Pie will appear on Humble Pie’s menu in the near future. Next year maybe Humble Pie can add a “Best of the Best” category.
As mentioned in my previous blog (Parade, Picnics, Pies, and Fireworks) my favorite of all these strange and freaky pies was a concoction turned in by a suspicious older gentleman. The crowd was fairly young (compared to him) and he turned in what could have easily been thrown together that morning from leftover condiments in his fridge. I was tempted to ask him, prior to my tasting, where his inspiration came from to mix yogurt, peanut butter, and pickles, but if this was in fact a practical joke he was playing on us young whippersnappers, I didn’t want to ruin it by finding out beforehand. The first to try it, I turned to see what the creator’s reaction would be but he was chatting with other tasters. Whether it was meant as a joke or not, I didn’t care because I loved it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the mix of savory and sweet won out again. The pickle slices on top were the perfect companion to the semi-sweet pie filling of peanut butter and yogurt. Later, I found out that he had been eating pickles and peanut butter since he was a kid and chuckled when I revealed to him my suspicions. For being the oldest person in the room (by at least the twice the age of anyone else), he was surprisingly spry. In his spirited bright red shirt, he was enjoying the tasting as much as the rest of us, feeding off and into the energy of the room. With only one ballot left, he received my “strangest” vote, although I would have felt fine casting all three ballots for his creation.
The event was a huge success and I commend Humble Pie for inviting us to join them for the fun. On the drive home the GF told me that it was the most fun she has ever had…and she is not shy on fun. The competition was fierce, the camaraderie was great, and the pies were tasty and creative. Some were clearly going for the gross-out factor, but those were obvious and could be avoided, if one chose to. I rarely back down from a food challenge so I tasted them all; the good, the bad, and the ugly and learned two things: Often the nastier it sounds or looks, the better it actually tastes, and Penngrove’s Humble Pie is a great place to visit. We have added it as our newest family tradition, sandwiched between Penngrove’s parade and picnic and Petaluma’s evening fireworks show for our future Fourth of July celebrations.