As the Juneteenth festivities were getting underway at Emancipation Park, about a hundred folks got together across the street at the El Dorado Ballroom for a midday pie social. The event was organized through Project Row Houses as a way to close down its recent show "Matter of Food," and several of the featured artists were in attendance. Participants were invited to bring a pie along with a handwritten recipe to be entered into a competition. It was, in fact, the fourth such contest in four months, but the only one devoted to pies.
Toni Tipton-Martin and Luanne Stovall, the artists behind "Hearth House" at PRH, initiated the "Peace through Pies" project in Austin and have hosted several pie socials through the years. This was the first for Houston.
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We were impatient to try all the pies, but we had to wait for the judge's panel to take the first bites. They included Chef Tarsha, who runs the Ecotone garden and teaches healthy cooking in schools and communities; sisters and entrepreneurs Andrea Spears and Rosharon Cotton, who recently opened Not Jus' Donuts down the street and who donated several pies for the event; and Michael Pribich, a New York artist whose installation at PBH interrogated the refined sugar industry, citing its bloody history and its Houston-area outpost in Sugarland's own Imperial Sugar.
When the winners were announced, the entrants were made to stand before the crowd in order to be critiqued by the panel, as in a reality show. Chef Tarsha explained the critique is necessary because the aim is to make us all better cooks and for us to learn from experience and from others.
So second runner up, Assata Richards's lemon meringue pie (though the meringue was a thing of beauty in itself), was a bit runnier than it should have been. Assata revealed that she used fresh lemons, which earned applause. The contest winner, Shanta Kinson's astonishing buttermilk pie, was also undercut by being too runny, maybe too fresh out of the oven, without the benefit of gelling in the fridge. It didn't help that the overcrowded venue was quite warm to begin with, on a hot day, with sunlight streaming through the windows, and all of us fanning ourselves. Add to that the personal warmth we shared, the inevitable result of an abundance of pies.
The audience favorite were the second prize winners, middle-schoolers Dujuan Whyte and Gerrick Walker, who presented a half-dozen small "bakeless" strawberry and mango tarts, lathered in cream and dusted in powdered sugar. Dujuan's mother Journey Allen - a teen mentor, PRH resident, and an artist - prompted the boys to enter the contest. Gerrick was especially pleased with the recognition, because he'd like to be a chef when he grows up. To their credit, the tarts were innovative and delicious.