Connoisseurs have already dubbed 2011 "Year of the Pie," and if the midwinter scene in one bustling New England town is any indication, the country's ever-devoted foodie brigades might just be onto something.
January 23 is known as National Pie Day, and in honor of the occasion, dessert lovers traveled over the river, through the woods and finally up Maine's snow-covered coast to the seaside hamlet of Rockland for Pies on Parade, a townwide celebration of just about everything related to pies in both sweet and savory incarnations. The local legion of "pie authorities," which includes area restaurateurs and owners of four stunningly restored Victorian inns, dished out about 700 pies to 500 guests who braved subzero temperatures venturing across town over the course of a Sunday afternoon. This translated into about 6,500 individual servings in 45 varieties -- everything from zesty lemon and raspberry tarts and individually-wrapped Whoopie pies, to a delectable butternut squash and bleu cheese tart -- in a mere four hours.
For some, Pies on Parade may seem like just another elaborate excuse to break a few New Year's resolutions, a point which organizers acknowledge. "If you look up wacky holidays, there is a holiday for anything and everything, from peanut butter to waffles," says Berry Manor Inn owner Cheryl Michaelsen, who helped launch Pies on Parade in 2005 and has been on hand ever since. As to why pies seem to be heating up as a restaurant trend, Michaelson simply shrugs. "I don't know what it is exactly that pie does, but it leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy," she notes as she dons a pie-shaped bonnet while serving up homemade blueberry, cherry, raspberry and apple slices to a busload of eager visitors.
Playing host to the world-renowned Maine Lobster Festival each August, Rockland already has an esteemed reputation in gastronomic circles, and to some extent, Pies on Parade seems partly conceived as that festival's wintertime counterpart. Though it's reportedly the biggest event of its kind in New England, Pies on Parade seems unlikely to challenge Rockland's long-established "Lobster Capital of the World" moniker. Still, it's another assertive gesture against those who dismiss Maine dining as consisting only of fried shrimp and lobster rolls -- though the aforementioned crustaceans do appear in both a seafood pie and a lobster quiche. Better still, the event also had a beneficent cause, with proceeds going toward the Rockland-based Area Interfaith Outreach Food Pantry.
The culinary world has certainly taken notice. In 2007, the Food Network's Bobby Flay visited the town for an episode of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, and immediately dubbed Rockland "Pie Town U.S.A." at the program's conclusion. As Iron Chef fans can attest, an endorsement from Flay goes a long way, and Rockland's pies have subsequently been featured on the Travel Channel as well as an upcoming episode of Dirty Jobs With Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel.
Celebrity accolades and charitable causes aside, other participants use the event simply as a time to honor family traditions. That's the case for Frank Isganitis, co-owner of the historic LimeRock Inn and one of the event's organizers. "As Italians, my family and I always ate our way through the calendar year," says Isganitis, who served up Pizza Rustica, a deep-dish, pork and cheese pie served both by his mother and grandmother around Easter, as well as the signature Key LimeRock Pie, a local twist on the citrusy favorite. But how does the New Jersey native, who moved to Rockland in 2004 with long-time partner PJ Walter, grapple with the prospect of serving a whopping 500 pie-eyed guests? "At the end of the day, pies is a four-letter word," he quips with a laugh.