On the cusp of the summer solstice, a line of parked cars hems the shady street leading to Barbara Swell‘s Haw Creek home. At the top of her gravel drive, vintage aprons strung together on clotheslines wave in the breeze like prayer flags to welcome visitors to an annual gathering where the guests of honor are of an attractively edible nature — the Asheville Retro Pie Contest.
“In general, I don’t really like contests; they can be so divisive,” says Swell, welcoming the crowd to the private, late-afternoon affair. “But this one, well, pie is what brings us all together.” The 100 or so friends and family members — many dressed in retro attire or wearing fancy, old-fashioned aprons — have traveled from as close as across the street and as far away as Italy and San Francisco to attend Swell’s 14th annual event.
Swell, who writes cookbooks and teaches classes about old-time recipes and cooking techniques, had the idea to host a pie contest in 2003 when she was working on her book The Lost Art of Pie Making — Made Easy. “I had all these friends who said, ‘I’m a really good pie baker,’ and I just thought I’d get them all together,” she says.
That first gathering of friends and family brought 42 pies to Swell’s large and welcoming backyard, but recent contests have featured about 100 pies of all varieties — sweet and savory, traditional and experimental. And “the quality of the pies has really improved a lot over the years,” says Swell. “People have really determined that they’re just going to get better and better and make a really good pie — one that’s interesting and tastes good. They have really upped their game.”
The rules of the contest are simple. All pies must be scratch-made, including a homemade crust. And guests must each sign up for a category to judge. In addition to classes for fruit pies, cream pies, meat pies, gluten-free pies and vegetarian pies, there are more creative categories, such as First Pie Ever, Men’s Pies, Science Pies (a double fruit pie shaped as a Venn diagram won this one for 2016) and Authentic Historical Pies. Children are encouraged to participate with a Youth Pies category.
While the votes are being tallied, attendees are released to taste as many pies as they please. Swell lays the ground rules for this much-anticipated moment at the beginning of the event: Everyone should keep things neat and share the bounty by cutting tiny pieces rather than whole slices.
She also urges everyone to appreciate the hard work that went into all those homemade crusts. “Have a little crust and a little filling, so you can appreciate the whole gestalt,” she says.
By sunset, the winners are being announced one by one while wine is sipped and children play. Honorees come up to choose a prize from a mish-mash of vintage aprons and bakeware, books, glassware and other items donated by guests.
Swell finishes by asking if there’s anyone who thinks they should have won but didn’t. “Come on up and pick a prize,” she says. More than competition, the focus is on having fun and being together.
Swell’s concept has sparked at least one major spinoff. The annual Good Food Pie Contest in Los Angeles, which celebrates its eighth year in October, was created by “Good Food” podcast host Evan Kleiman after she read Swell’s pie book and, inspired, attended the Asheville Retro Pie Contest to see what it was all about. And Swell hopes others will take her idea and run with it, too.
“After spending many years as a child and family therapist, I saw all too well the cost to families and relationships of a too-busy life,” says Swell. “It’s worth taking the time to find the joy in preparing good food for loved ones shared at a common table on a regular basis. The pie contest aims to bring folks together — reminiscent of an era before cellphones and electronic gizmos snatched our ability to just be in the moment — around the celebration of an iconic American food.”
Barbara Swell teaches pie-making classes in Asheville and at the John C. Campbell Folk School. For details, visit logcabincooking.com.
Photo gallery from the 2016 Asheville Retro Pie Contest by Cindy Kunst: