The cream of the crop Waves of whipped cream, cold crusts displacing traditional pies at national championships

The National Pie Championships in April, 2014, at the Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel and Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. provided

The Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel and Convention Center, a dog-eared Orlando complex popular with tourists who can't scrimp their way into a Disney stay, is big by every measure. There are 1,338 rooms in the hotel; 250,000 gallons of chlorinated water in the kidney-shaped pool and 150,000 square feet of floor space in the convention center.

And yet, at last month's National Pie Championships, the event's logistics coordinator was feeling squeezed. She had to cram hundreds of coconut cream pies, key lime pies, peanut butter parfait pies, lemon meringue pies, blueberry cream cheese pies and chocolate pudding pies into the walk-in cooler dedicated to the American Pie Council contest, and she fretted whether they'd fit.

"At least two-thirds of our entries are refrigerated this year," sighed Jo Moore, who's worked the annual event since 2003. "Even the judges were saying, 'Enough with the whipped cream.' "

The cupcake frenzy that consumed the first decade of the millennium inflamed pastry partisanship, with bakers and eaters bickering endlessly over the merits of cake and pie. Cake came to stand for elegance, luxury and celebration; pie meant tradition, honesty and comfort. The debate received official sanction at last year's Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, where The New York Times' Kim Severson and CNN's Kat Kinsman donned housedresses to spar Lincoln-Douglas style over the desserts.

Early in her address, pie defender Kinsman led a spirited round of "Roll pie!" knowing her allies were the most anxious members of the audience. Because even with gourmet cupcake shops across the country succumbing to flawed business plans and trend fatigue, the fear that cake might forever eclipse pie remains very real.

From the looks of the entries in the National Pie Championships, though, something still more sinister is now afoot: In the competitive arena, where pie has happily existed since the early 19th century, when farmers' wives started toting their creations to county fairs, pie is gradually becoming cake.

After the entries in the contest's amateur division are judged, the winners are announced at a ceremony that caps off the first day of the Great American Pie Festival in Celebration. More than 40,000 people attended this year's weekend-long party, which fuses a standard-issue crafts fair with a supermarket-pie tasting bazaar.

During the day, the event stage is devoted to sponsored demos: the 3-month old film "Labor Day," which climaxes with a steamy peach pie-making scene, delegated its food stylist to address aesthetics; and non-pie performances by comedians and baton twirlers. But just before dusk, it becomes the site of ribbon distribution, with two little girls in crinoline-flared sundresses hemmed by fabric crusts handling the hostess duties.

Many of the same names are called multiple times. John Sunvold of Winter Springs, Fla. won the apple, cream and chocolate cream divisions. Grace Thatcher, who came from Ohio to claim an upset victory in the key lime category, took four ribbons. Lori Panchisin received just one prize, a white ribbon for her blueberry crumble, which fully satisfied the first-time entrant. "I didn't tell anyone at work I was doing this," she admitted.

Win or lose, after the ceremony, all of the pies are returned. The judged pies aren't labeled, so competitors have to rifle through pastry racks of honorees and also-rans to find their submissions. Perhaps dissuaded by the cockroach reportedly circling the waiting pies or bellies already bulging with sugar ("Just give me a burrito, I'll be happy," moaned one competitor), a few bakers opted to trash their concoctions.

Not so Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin, Atlantans who this year entered 14 pies, including a West Indies wedding pie, a Normandy apple pie, an upside-down key lime pie and a root beer float pie seeded with Pop Rocks, the only ribbon-earner in the bunch. They meticulously lined up their pies for a spoon-assisted postmortem. "The gooseberry didn't set well," Taylor said, shaking his head.

Another competitor whisked her pies straight past the pair's somber debriefing: "We go home and eat them with wine," she said. "Any kind of wine."

Seeing the pies en masse, it's impossible not to be struck by their collective reliance on whipped cream. There's whipped cream in the usual places, piped around the edges of chocolate pies and scrawled across the top of pumpkin pies, but there's whipped cream everywhere else too. There are peanut butter pies blanketed with whipped cream rosettes; pineapple pies buried beneath tightly spaced whipped-cream buns and pecan pies with heights doubled by whipped cream layers.

"The amateurs do tend to over-garnish," Moore allows.

But it's not just the amateurs reaching for whipped cream. "Suzy Homemaker trying to be fancy," Jim Whaples, chairman emeritus of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said dismissively when a whipped-cream peaked red velvet pie with a devil figurine reached his professional division judging table.

It's impossible to know whether contest trends are a fair reflection of the American pie scene. Just as competition barbecue bears little resemblance to the smoked meat sold in roadside pits and prepped for family gatherings, contest pie is likely sweeter, gaudier and more chemically enhanced than pacifist pastry. The competitive streak at the pie championships runs bright and wide. "We need to have a throwdown on this," one competitor declared after learning a fellow competitor on her shuttle bus swore by jalapeno powder in his enchiladas. "I don't know how, but we need to have a throwdown." So it's no surprise participants resort to attention-getting, photogenic tricks.

Still, a need to win only partly explains the scarcity of lattice-topped cherry pies. Longtime bakers say the whipped cream wave also results from the baroque decorating tactics celebrated on shows such as "Ace of Cakes" and widespread crust-making angst. Many of the whipped cream pies are built on a cookie-crumb base, which can't be overworked or tainted by the off-flavors of fat.

"What I've found is a lot of people are afraid of pastry crust, so they do cold crust," says Orlando's Evette Rahman, who won Best in Show for her "Sensational Strawberry Cheese Pie." Six of her pies were chosen as category winners in the professional division. "Baked crusts are crazy, but the more you do it, you get into a rhythm."

Rahman learned pie-making from her mother, but says the steps didn't become second nature until she opened a bakery last year. "This year, it was very strange, I actually practiced less and won more," she says. "I think people are looking for an old-fashioned crust."

"I don't want to offend anyone with this," says judge Jim Kline, the president of a Pennsylvania-based bakery consultancy. "But they've become almost formula pies."

The formula, according to Kline, involves cream, crumbs and a showstopper ingredient, such as the green chiles which overwhelmed one entrant's otherwise "spot-on" apple pie. "Everyone's trying to do 'bam!' " he gripes. (At the National Pie Championships, pies are graded on appearance, flavor, mouth feel, crust and aftertaste, but creativity counts for nearly 10 percent of the score, so the impulse is reasonable.)

Kline says he's seen the same problems infect 4-H baking contests. But he senses the patience of his fellow judges, who remember the single-crust fruit pies that reigned a decade ago, is starting to wane.

"The pendulum will be swinging back, because I think there are enough people saying 'Wait a minute. You're not in a cake competition,' " Kline says. "We've got mediocrity. How do we deal with this?"

That question isn't rhetorical for Rich Hoskins, chairman of the American Pie Council.

"We're fine with some creativity," Hoskins says. "We look for it. But we don't want to see the classic apple, the classic cherry-style disappear, and they are getting to be less and less in competition."

For example, the number of strawberry-rhubarb pies submitted in the professional division has dwindled from an average of a half-dozen to one, a statistic that baffles Hoskins. "Everybody loved strawberry-rhubarb when I was growing up," he says.

Hoskins isn't highly concerned about tropical fruits and hot peppers displacing the fillings that were traditionally familiar in the Pie Council's hometown of Lake Forest, Ill., located about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. "There is an influx of Latinos who want jalapenos in pie," he says. "Even today, it wouldn't be my favorite, but we recognize we need to be flexible and moving with our population."

He continues, "But you have two inches of whipped cream, and you wonder what other flavors could have been put in that space."

Beyond the taste considerations, Hoskins says the practice is also at odds with the council's latest strategy of pitching pie as a semi-healthy treat. "The more fruit you put into it, the more healthy the pie," he says. "We had at least three guys here sharing new techniques for making pies more healthy."

Although Hoskins won't reveal how the board plans to instigate a baked crust revival, he says, "Something we're discussing is what kind of measures we can institute to get (competitors) to understand having the old classic pies is what's historically driven the industry. This is a pie event. We believe pie is the iconic dessert for America."

The competitor who may have best represented the hoped-for future of competitive pie was a graduate student and think-tank staffer from New Jersey, who stood out from the throng of round-faced blue-ribbon winners clad in capri pants.

Mike Soszynski has a skateboarder's bearing and a wiry moustache that would bend into a handlebar if he felt like greasing it. When he accepted the white ribbon for his gluten-free apple pie, he was wearing raggedy cutoff dungarees; a "bomb the music industry" T-shirt and a black cyclist's cap.

Soszynski drove down for the contest after coming across it online. He didn't have money for a hotel room, but lucked into the last shift in the kitchen suite provided for on-site baking, which meant he had somewhere to sleep. He planned to carpool back to Jersey immediately after entering his pies - he'd found a driving partner on Craigslist - but had to delay his departure until after the awards ceremony. "I need my pie tins," he explained.

In previous years, Soszynski wouldn't have been eligible for the contest: A gaming-related state law kept New Jerseyites out of the championships. But a recent rule change allowed Soszynski to enter the category he predicted would be least competitive: Special Dietary (a category that Hoskins says the council wants to emphasize in coming years.) He made his pie crust from rice, chickpea and coconut flours.

"I had a gluten-free pie," another competitor said with a barely contained sneer when she encountered Soszynski in the parking lot. "Good to see so many guys winning."

Compared to other championship pies, Soszynski's entry was shaggy and plain. But it harked back to the pies he savored at a now-defunct cafe on the outskirts of Glacier National Park, and the pies he made when he took over the cook's job at Project Vote Smart's ranch in the Montana Rockies. Soszynski firmly believes fruit pie culture is still thriving in the rural South and Mountain West; he's eager for the American Pie Council to change course and connect eaters with it.

"The fillings truly made me sad," Soszynski says of the pies sliced for the Great American Pie Festival. "I mean even if the filings were decent, the crusts were dry or not really there. Crust is important."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.