The weather outside was unseasonably warm, a balmy sixty-four degrees in early November, and the pies inside the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club were even warmer in spirit. Pie has the longstanding reputation of bringing Americans together, perhaps better than any other food. The New York Times, as noted in an op-ed from 1902, even went so far as to attribute the success of the American people to their love of pie. The annual South Side Pie Challenge is a prime example of just how special this food is.
Founded in 2012, the South Side Pie Challenge is a baking competition with the goal of celebrating and encouraging the rich diversity of Chicago’s South Side. Close friends, Julie Vassilatos and Kate Agarwal, cofounded the event after Kate participated in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest. Disappointed by the homogenous nature of the attendees and participants, the pair took it upon themselves to celebrate the rich community that they’re proud to call home.
The rules are simple. Each contestant may enter one pie into one of four categories: fruit, nut, sweet potato/pumpkin, and crème. You must drop off two pies the day of the event, one to be tasted by the judges, and the other to be sliced up and sold to the public at three dollars per slice. With a whopping fifty-four pies entered this year, the competition was fierce. The judging period, which took place a few hours before the event, was open to the public and consisted of an evaluation of the pies on four criteria: visual appeal, crust, filling, and overall taste. Aesthetics were considered, and crust flakiness examined. After some deliberations between different groups of judges, scores were tallied, and winners were declared. Natalie Wright won the fruit category with “Pomme Pomme Pie”; Kate Baldwin claimed the title for Nut Pies thanks to her “Fancy Mixed Nut Pie”; Katie Maher-Lipinski’s “The Great Leslie” won her the ribbon for sweet potato and pumpkin pies; and Lisa Samra was crème pie champion, her “#imwithher” defeating the competition.
Maya-Camille Broussard, Ben Rogers, Kirsten Esterly, and the other judges of this year’s Pie Challenge showcased some of the unique parts of Chicago’s South Side the event celebrates. Other panelists included local bakers, restauranteurs, culinary school instructors, and even a Food Network chef. The participants and attendees of the event also showcased the mosaic that is Hyde Park. The neighborhood, as well as Chicago as a whole, has a reputation for being segregated, and increasing tension between the University of Chicago and the local community has done little to mitigate that. However, all boundaries and differentiations seemed to crumble at the South Side Pie Challenge.
A year before the organization’s first event, Vassilatos blogged about her experience attending the pie competition on the North Side. “The crowd skewed white, young and […] male,” she wrote. She and Agarwal sought to make an event that was the opposite of that, something that was more “South Side-y,” as she put it. And the two women accomplished just that. Looking at the crowd in attendance on the day of the event, it was clear that this was not the North Side.
The South Side Pie Challenge is much like a great pie. “[The crust] has to balance out the pie,” explained Broussard, who won two ribbons last year and is the founder of Justice of the Pies, a local bakery specializing in sweet and savory pies, tarts, and quiches. If you have a tart pie, you need a savory crust, and a quiche benefits from a crust with just a little hint of sweetness––there shouldn’t be too much of one flavor in a pie. Everyone who came or baked for this year’s challenge, much like the ingredients of these desserts, complemented one another, creating a cohesive whole greater than the sum of its parts. A mix of local South Siders, people from other parts of the city or state, and students at the UofC just a few blocks south were in harmony with one another, coming together for the beauty that is a delicious, homemade pie.
Cohesion is not the only way the South Side Pie Challenge benefits the local community. Agarwal and Vassilatos, when they created the competition, made it a point to donate almost all of the proceeds to benefit South Siders. It was only natural that they chose to donate to the Hyde Park and Kenwood Hunger Programs. In 2015, they managed to raise over $4,000 for the organizations at the event.
The purpose of the contest is not to have a cutthroat competition to see who can bake the best pecan or pumpkin pie, though that aspect of it did not go unappreciated. Agarwal and Vassilatos set out to unite the South Side and Hyde Park community around a common love of warm, delicious, not-so-nutritious (not that it matters) pie, and to bring even more positivity to this area of Chicago. There was no hierarchy or best type of pie, nor was there any prescribed type of pie to make, such as apple or holiday-themed pumpkin. Everyone chose to be involved with the Pie Challenge out of a wholesome love for the dessert. Beyond the awards for best pies, the real celebration of the event was of the community: the people whom the wide range of pies represented, the people who came to the challenge, those who participated, and the unity of the South Side that pervades the South Side Pie Challenge.