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Hillsborough Cup A Joe pie-baking competition

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Every last Friday of the month, the Hillsborough Cup A Joe hosts a pie-baking competition to benefit the Hillsborough Arts Council.

I had the fortunate opportunity to judge last month's contest and gorge myself on almost a dozen renditions of strawberry pie. The winner: an innovative, creamy version topped with local berries (an automatic extra point on the official scoring sheet) featuring a salty pretzel punch in the crust.

Pie is a celebrated tradition of Southern gastronomy and, according to Arts Council board member and contest coordinator Blair Ackiss, an art.

"It touches on a very important part of Southern culture. It brings to attention that making pies (or any other food) is an art and one that can be easily shared with others," Ackiss says. "And it does not have to be elaborate. Sometimes we get pies that have 25 ingredients and the pie that ends up winning is the one that is most simple. I think there is a good lesson in that, of course."

When presented with the pie contest/ benefit idea by a chairwoman three years ago, Ackiss linked up with Brooke Erceg, then a manager at Cup A Joe. Erceg now owns the shop independently with her husband, Ryan Creery. The two women had already bonded over baking. Ackiss, who spent years as a baker in Chapel Hill, made Erceg's wedding cake. They now meet every March to plan the contest, which begins in April and culminates in a "Best of the Season" competition in September. The event works in conjunction with Last Fridays, Hillsborough's monthly art walk. There's even a live band during the judging. Every month has a theme; June cools off with icebox pie. The contest starts at 5 p.m. June 24, and winners receive prizes like cookbooks and local gift cards. Cup A Joe then sells slices during the art walk and the next day, at $3 each, with all proceeds going to the Arts Council. The contest encourages the use of local ingredients.

"One thing I have learned about this area: If you grow the food with love, if you make the food with love, it tastes better. You can taste the love," Erceg says. "Everything you need to make the perfect pie is right here. From Lindley Mills flour to Maple View cream and butter and our local farmers for their produce, eggs, meats, cheeses and fruits. We urge people to use local ingredients, because it makes the pie taste better, and they are rewarded for keeping their buck here. That's what makes Hillsborough special. We all support one another."

At the Hillsborough Cup A Joe, you're likely to find Erceg working behind the counter in a frilly apron and ready to chat pie over espresso. "When I was younger, after dinnertime at my grandparents' house, my grandma would bring out the pies and a pot of coffee. It was a ritual of ours for the longest time," she says. "The smell of the brewed coffee and the butter crust with the cooked fruit smelled so good. I think that's why I became a baker and coffee shop owner. I love the ritual of talking to people with a cup of coffee and great slice of pie."

To sign up, visit www.hillsboroughartscouncil.org/HillsboroughPieContest.html by the Wednesday before the event.

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