Despite Saturday’s rain and gray skies, the Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department had a sweet turnout for their seventh annual Sweet Potato Pie Bake-off at Saracen Landing. Bakers from Pine Bluff, White Hall and North Little Rock each presented their best sweet potato pie to four local judges.
The bake-off usually runs in conjunction with the Fall Festival, which includes a 5k run, but this year the run was canceled due to the rain.
There were five contestants; Eleanor Louis from North Little Rock, Sue Edwards from White Hall and Carolyn Hampton, Mary Jimmerson and Tish Clark, all from Pine Bluff.
Edwards, who doesn’t like sweet potatoes, won first place using her own recipe.
“My mother made sweet potato pies, her own crust and everything,” Edwards said. “I don’t like sweet potatoes, but my husband and my children do, so I make sweet potato pie for them. When I first started making them, I called my mom and asked her how much of each ingredient I needed, but she didn’t really follow a recipe.
“She added a little bit of this and a little bit of that. As time went on, I just started adding things as I went along. It’s hard to tell someone how to make it if you don’t measure it, and because I don’t like it I have my husband to test it and he’ll tell me if it’s too sweet or just right.”
Louis walked away with second place, along with the people’s choice award.
“Seven years ago, we had Jimmie Lee Edwards with us, who was a part of the University of Arkansas Extension. She had so much knowledge regarding sweet potatoes. She would do a seminar and bring all kinds of sweet potatoes. She would do a class in conjunction with the farmer’s market, so one year we decided to do a sweet potato bake-off. After she passed away I decided to continue doing the bake-off in memory of her,” said Trudy Redus, assistant director of Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation and event coordinator for special events.
Participants brought two pies — one to be judged and the second to be sold.
The proceeds from the pie sales went to the Jimmie Lee Edwards Hope Scholarship. Winners of the contest receive a trophy, their name on Saracen Landing’s digital board, along with bragging rights as the best sweet potato pie baker.
Redus said they get a lot of knowledge about sweet potatoes from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s agriculture department and they try to get people who are knowledgeable about sweet potatoes to judge the pies. This year’s judges included Teresa Henson, nutrition outreach coordinator for the 1890 cooperative extension, Henry English, small farm project director, Teki Hunt-Winston, director of 4H, and staff members from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington was in attendance to test the pies with the public for the people’s choice portion of the contest but became a judge by default due to the absence of the fourth judge.
“I love a good sweet potato pie, not too loose, too tight, too seasoned — it has to be just right. Sometimes when I make them I hit the jackpot, and sometimes I don’t,” Washington said.
Louis said she prefers to participate in Pine Bluff’s pie contest because the emphasis is on the taste of the pie and not just presentation. Contestants are judged on the texture, consistency, taste and presentation. Each judge views the pies, then tastes each one individually, clearing their pallet after each pie.
Redus said they did not want to discourage anyone from entering the contest, so participants were not required to make their own crust. Other than the mentioned prizes, Washington announced to the contestants that they will have the opportunity to provide sweet potato pies for next year’s Juneteenth celebration.
“In doing our research on Juneteenth, we learned that the traditional drink that’s served is strawberry soda, and the desert should be sweet potato pie. For this year’s celebration, we went out and bought soda and had a caterer provide the sweet potato pie, but next year we would like to buy the pies from you. We don’t have a lot of money, but we would like to pay for them, for those of you that are interested.”
The 5k walk/run/dance has been rescheduled for Oct. 13. Contact Redus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (870) 536-0920 for more information.