DUMMERSTON—Even if you missed the sign in front of the Dummerston Congregational Church announcing “Pie is Nigh,” the sweet, warm aroma wafting up from the church’s basement kitchen would tell you: Pie is coming.
For the two weeks leading up to the town’s famous Apple Pie Festival — held the second Sunday in October — groups of community and church members gather in the kitchen twice daily to pare, core, slice, and spice approximately nine bushels of Cortland apples each session, which then get stuffed into homemade pie dough and baked in a repurposed pizza oven.
At the festival — the church’s biggest fundraising event — volunteers sell the 8-inch pies whole and by the slice, with or without a slice of sharp Vermont cheddar or a scoop of homemade ice cream made by the church youth group.
Locals and tourists, including a large contingent of bikers in full gear, line up for their turn, sometimes walking away with a tall stack of whole pies.
It takes nine days of volunteer labor to produce the sweet treats. The goal: 1,500 pies. “That’s what the market will bear,” said festival organizer Bess Richardson.
Richardson and Cindy Wilcox “run the kitchen,” said event Chair Ruth Barton. “They’re old hands. They know baking.”
On cue, Wilcox, working at the pie assembly station, gives a fellow baker some advice on how to keep the pie crust from sticking to the table.
“You flip it over and flour the table,” Wilcox said.
“I’m chair in name only,” Ruth pointed out.
“Ruth is the person who finds everything we need,” said Richardson. “We say, ‘Ruth, we need more rolling pins!’ and she finds the rolling pins.”
In the back of the room, a few men sit at a table, operating an apple peeling machine. Merrill Barton is one of them. He’s been doing this for four or five years, he said.
A visitor asked if he always peels the apples. “If I can,” he said. “Some don’t like it, but it’s an easy job for me. I like machinery.”
After each session, Merrill rinses the peeler and lubricates it with vegetable oil, so it’s ready to go next time.
Between the peeling station and the baking section, approximately 10 people sit at a long table, preparing the apples. They core and slice each fruit, stacking the prepared apples on round, stainless steel pizza pans.
The peels and cores go to Read and Malah Miller’s pigs. The Millers own Dwight Miller Orchards, and this is generally where the pie festival’s apples come from. Read’s sister, Cathy, is a long-time member of the pie-prep contingent. Their mother, Gladys, was instrumental in organizing the yearly pie assemblies before she passed away.
During a recent pie-baking session, Cathy and Ruth worked together to successfully move one of the last of the morning’s batches of pies from the oven to the cooling racks.
None hit the floor this time, but Richardson noted, “every year, at least one pie falls on the floor.” “Last year we dropped two,” Cathy added.
The ovens hold 12 pies at a time, and are baked at 375-degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour.
On a recent morning, the last pie went into the oven at 11:45 a.m. For Richardson and the other bakers, though, their work was not yet done.
“Now we’re rolling pie bottoms for the afternoon session,” she said. Then, everyone cleans up.
In addition to rolling out dough, Richardson leads a Thursday afternoon baking session with local youth, most of whom are church members.
“They get off the bus right here,” in front of the church, Richardson said. “Their pies go into the collection,” she said, but the Sunday before the event, Richardson has them bake “their own little pies to take home.”
Does this mean Richardson gets to have lunch before welcoming the young bakers at the afternoon session?
“Somewhere in there, yes,” she said.
After every pie cools, it gets frozen to keep it fresh for the event. The church has two freezers, and the rest go to Green Mountain Orchards’ freezers in Putney. “They’re very gracious about storing our pies,” Richardson said.
The Friday and Saturday before the event, the pies come out of the freezer. About 300 of them come into the kitchen to get sliced. The remainder wait, bagged and ready, in the church’s pews.