- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
All roads lead to Adamant. At least that’s what it says on the T-shirts sold in the tiny village, pop. 48. It should be amended to “all dirt roads.”
The thin byways snaking through Calais serve as a battery of routes to the Adamant Cooperative, where the circuit dead ends. Those roads are well traveled, especially on the late May day when the co-op holds its famous benefit event, the Adamant Blackfly Festival. Each year, people from all over Vermont descend on the mosquito-netted community for a “blackfly fashion show,” “blackfly ‘Jeopardy,’” “blackfly golf” and other insect-related activities billed as “more fun than thought humanly possible.”
A crucial part of the gathering: the Blackfly Pie Contest. I didn’t become a food writer in Vermont to say no to judging a pie contest, so when organizer Alice Blachly called and asked for my services, I was ready. “There is only one prerequisite,” Blachly warned me. “You have to like pie.” Done.
On May 22, the day of the festival, hilly Haggett Road was lined with vehicles ranging from antique British cars to farm equipment. One could look left or right and see picture-book waterfalls. A tent set up on a hill was visible over a creek filled with bathing children.
Inside the tent, I found items put up for a silent auction, including an antique meat grinder, lightly worn clothing, a promise of dinner cooked by a co-op member; a display of papier mâché hats, chairs with resting cats built into the backs; and, finally, a line of seven pies.
At 2:30 p.m. sharp, the other judges — Vermont Public Radio commentator Willem Lange, Adamant community member Andy Christiansen and Winooski actor Jack Bradt — joined me at the judging table. Because of faulty audio equipment, the emcee, Vermont Statehouse curator David Schutz, had to shout to be heard by the crowd of approximately 50.
In a bellow, he requested that the judges introduce themselves to the crowd, then announced the initial pie. Entries were anonymous, but each pastry had its own attached name — this one was called “Swatted Pie” — and ingredient list. Here, the inauspicious first line was “1 pkg. Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust.”
Judges were asked to evaluate the pies on two criteria: taste and creativity. “Swatted Pie” certainly had the latter going for it. The blueberry dessert was displayed with a yellow paper swatter on top, emblazoned with a poem about never swatting a blackfly perched upon a pie. Apparently, it was too late. The dessert was flattened, with stray blueberries strewn on its tray.
A pie with a narrative? Sounded like a winner. Better yet, despite the store-bought crust, this one tasted good. The blueberry filling had been added after the crust was baked, resulting in a bold, fresh berry taste, a far cry from the saccharine jam that fills many attempts.
Next came a tart, blood-red rhubarb pie, titled “Blood-soaked Bug Baffler Pie,” which we later learned was made by Blachly herself, and then a lemon-custard “Giant blackfly” pie was sliced up for consumption.
Despite the sweet’s big name, judges were handed minuscule slices, and one spectator, Calais author Rowan Jacobsen, pronounced them too small for fair evaluation. But they were big enough to demonstrate that the creativity of this entry far outshone its taste. The otherwise conventional confection was topped with a sugar photo of two little girls screaming as they fled from a giant blackfly. Thank you, Photoshop.
An actual blackfly would have found Pie No. 4 particularly attractive. The oblong crust was loosely based on a Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie, with a rich, chocolaty molasses filling resembling a dense brownie. The sweet was decorated to resemble the festival’s resident bug. Skinny licorice legs and biscotti wings protruded from its dark abdomen, and it looked primed for human blood.
The next notable “pie” would have been more correctly called an assemblage of pudding cups, decorated with licorice antennae and M&M eyes. Before it was served, one portion was loaded into a potato gun and shot into the air. The fly survived its performance art, but the judges were served flightless samples.
Pie No. 5 was a localvore entry composed of rhubarb and parsnips, and No. 7 was a gently gingery strawberry rhubarb, but they just couldn’t compare with the big guns.
When the tasting was over, each judge’s scores were fed into a computer and tabulated. The big winner? No. 4, “Blackfly Molasses Pie,” made by Helen Labun Jordan, an agricultural development coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and board member of the Adamant Cooperative.
Blachly’s rhubarb entry and Sarah Vowles’ “Swatted Pie” were also named tops for taste. The McKenna-Thiemann family’s “Giant Blackfly Pie” and the aptly named Dr. Seth Frisbie’s “Flying Blackfly Pie” were recognized for creativity alongside Labun Jordan’s.
The real winners? The judges, who got to sample all the delicacies gratis — blood sucking bugs be damned.