Baking challenge as nice as pie

Thirty-two pies competed at the South Side Pie Challenge, with proceeds of the event going to charity.

By Marina Fang

“I was having trouble with the crust, so I tried a tart crust. Once that worked, it eliminated any doubts about crust,” Ysobel Gallo, 13, said about her pecan pie, an entry in the second annual South Side Pie Challenge.

At another culinary showdown, a seasoned baker might have commented on the distinctions between different types of pie crust, but the Pie Challenge, held Saturday at Ray Elementary School on East 56th Street and South Kimbark Avenue, brought out even Hyde Park’s youngest bakers.

Gallo said she heard about the contest last year but decided she needed a bit more experience before entering. “I got into baking more this year, so I felt prepared to do it,” she said.

Her pie ended up winning second place in the nut pie category, one of 32 entries in the Challenge.

The contest’s co-founder, longtime Hyde Park resident Julie Vassilatos, aims to bring out the best of the South Side. Two years ago, her friend and fellow Hyde Parker Kate Agarwal entered the Bucktown Apple Pie contest. Vassilatos and Agarwal then decided they wanted to start their own pie contest—with two major changes: expand the diversity of pies, and emphasize the diversity of South Side residents.

“I thought, you know what, this is really, really North Side, really white. It’s not very diverse,” Vassilatos said. “I want to shine a light on the positive things on the South Side.”

To add to the community nature of the event, Vassilatos and Agarwal chose to donate proceeds from the contest fees to a local food pantry, the Hyde Park and Kenwood Hunger Programs, noting the impact of the Great Recession on exacerbating food insecurity in urban areas.

“We went around and around [trying to find] some very worthy causes. I did a lot of research on hunger and food pantries. Those numbers rose and rose during the recession,” Vassilatos said.

She estimated that this year’s event raised about $1,500.

In planning the contest, Vassilatos engaged the support of Hyde Park businesses, among them Medici, Pizza Capri, and Harper Theater, all of which sponsored the prizes. She said the community aspect of the contest made it relatively easy to find sponsors.

“Most of these businesses are like, ‘Here, absolutely. Here’s a gift card.’ I mean, they’re completely awesome…. I’ve fundraised for a lot of things, but it’s easy and fun to do it for this,” she said.

Vassilatos estimated that the majority of contest entrants are Hyde Park and Kenwood residents, but felt that the two neighborhoods have “a wide reach that covers a lot of the South Side.”

The contest extended beyond those borders. For instance, contest entrant Mary Gehrke invited friends and family on the North Side to attend.

North Side resident Lana Tran heard about the contest through an interview Vassilatos did on WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate. She happened to be hosting a few friends, some from other parts of the country, and they decided to spend the day at the contest.

The contest also brought out UChicago students, including third-year Matt Kellner, who came with a group of friends after reading about the contest online.

“I figured we all like pie, and it’s a good way to spend a Saturday…. We’ll support the community if there’s pie involved,” he said.

In addition, members of Chicago Men’s A Capella (CMAC) performed throughout the event. CMAC President and fourth-year Daniel Comeaux said that this is the second year the group has sung at the event, citing an interest in reaching out to the community.

“We had fun singing for people with their pie. It’s for a good cause. It’s right here at home in Hyde Park. And there’s lots of good pie,” he said.