by Nathan Warner
Nationally recognized chef and pie connoisseur John Michael Lerma rolled into Zimmerman Thursday to judge Reading Frenzy Bookshop’s “Zimmerman Area’s Best Pie Contest” with all proceeds from the pie auction going to local food shelf, Passing the Bread.
Lerma is a regular on the Food Network and “Twin Cities Live,” has several cookbooks in bookstores, and lives part time in Italy, where he hosts and escorts culinary vacations, among other things.
Growing up in Grand Forks, N.D., Lerma learned the art of cookery from his grandmother, whose passion is still the foundation of Lerma’s obsession with food.
“Much of what I cook and bake has a memory of my grandmother associated with it,” Lerma smiled, “which is one reason I love recipes, because they evoke these great memories at every step of the way.” He says it’s a delicious and elemental way to keep the memories alive.
Nine pies from Zimmerman-area residents were presented for Lerma to judge, ranging from key lime to chocolate truffle. Lerma sat at the table, sampling a small sliver from each pie, before painstakingly grading it on overall appearance, crust, filling and integrity. Crusts were graded by their tenderness, texture and flavor, while the fillings were graded on ooze factor, flavor and color.
“I promise all my comments will be constructive,” Lerma assured the bakers with a chuckle. He said one of his pies earned only one word from a judge a few years ago and that was “revolting.”
“If I had just been starting out, that feedback would have crushed me,” Lerma said, “so I’m never too critical.” That isn’t to say he’s never eaten something he considered revolting, alluding to a time when he was once served a pie at a judging competition with fish heads sticking up through the crust, and he still refuses to eat peanut butter pies.
The first pie to be sampled was a French meat pie made by Bill Potrament, president of Passing the Bread, which elicited a “wow” from Lerma as he savored and scored it. With no further sign of favoritism, Lerma gave each pie his full attention, answering questions from the audience and reminiscing on his experience as an hour flew by until it was time for the results.
Mark Barnier, a well-known piano tuner from Elk River won the judging competition with his chocolate truffle pie, which took him three hours to make. The win also entitled Barnier to a lifetime membership with the American Pie Council, which hosts its National Pie Competition every year in Florida as well as a gift basket from California Raisins, a gourmet pie dish, and a cookbook.
“There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch,” Lerma said, warming up the audience for the auctioning of the pies, which raised $530 for Passing the Bread with Lerma’s own Vidalia onion pie going for $200 in an aggressive bidding war that heated up the bookstore.
The next-highest bid was $75 for the French meat pie that went to Zimmerman City Council Member Ron Mathison.
“I just love small towns,” Lerma smiled. “You’re all so generous!” He said he was very pleased with the bid for his pie, mentioning that he’d just auctioned one off to a charity in Park Rapids for only $125.
“We will be able to purchase almost $2,000 worth of food from Second Harvest Warehouse with the money raised at this event,” Potrament said afterwards, “which will help us feed the 200-plus families that we serve on a monthly basis. That is huge for us!”
Before anyone could leave the bookstore, Lerma made sure they heard his method for freezing pies. “Be sure to wrap the pie in plastic wrap, placing it in a sealed container in the freezer,” he told the audience. “They can be stored for a few weeks this way without any ice crystal formation and they’ll be ready for Thanksgiving.”
Lerma has two cookbooks out currently, “Garden County” and “Garden County Pie.” His next cookbook is on Italian food. “The Italians love pies,” he adds, “they can’t get enough of them, but then again, who can?”
To learn more about John Michael Lerma and the art of pie-making, visit www.gardencountycooking.com.