Phyllis Szymanek always wanted to be good at something. Now she's the best.
On April 25, Phyllis, of Riverview, won top prize at the American Pie Council's Crisco National Pie Championships in Celebration. Her winning dessert, Category Five Peanut Butter Pie, beat out 265 pies from across the United States and Canada to earn her $5,000 and, more important for Phyllis, the title of best amateur pie baker in America.
"I'm the only one out of four girls that doesn't know how to crochet or needlepoint," said Phyllis, 64, a retired Sam's Club food demonstrator. "My thing is baking pies."
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Phyllis' biggest fan is her husband, Andy Szymanek. During the years Andy worked on a railroad 120 miles from their home in Toledo, Ohio — where they still spend half the year — Phyllis would bake him caramel apple pies to share with his colleagues. Andy never even liked pie before he met Phyllis; he didn't care for the crust. But hers was different.
The keys to a good crust, Phyllis says, are Pillsbury flour and butter-flavored Crisco, which her mother, Theresa Duncan, started her on when Phyllis learned to bake around age 20. Phyllis spent decades perfecting her crust, tweaking recipes. By the time she was in her early 50s, Phyllis' younger brother, Tony, announced that Phyllis' pie had surpassed their mom's.
About 15 years ago, Andy persuaded Phyllis to enter the piemaking contest at the Lucas County Fair in Ohio — her first competition. Her peach pie won best of show and went for $240 at the fair's auction. She has been entering pie contests ever since. And winning a lot of them.
Two years ago, a reporter from the Toledo Blade asked Phyllis to count her ribbons. There were 89 — mostly blue. Phyllis has also won a few gift baskets, and she once got $200.
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Phyllis first heard about the national competition, now in its 15th year, five years ago when a woman from the American Pie Council met her at a Florida State Fair competition and encouraged her to enter. Phyllis applied the following year in several categories, and she had a few things to learn about competing in the majors.
That year, she and Andy stacked the pies in their car and headed for Celebration. En route, the pies got smashed. Only the one on top, a raspberry almond cheese pie, survived the journey. It took second place in its category.
Now, Phyllis and Andy pack each pie on ice, in its own box, with crumpled newspaper to secure it in place. They no longer stack the pies, and their diligence is paying off. At the nationals two years ago, Phyllis' Jammin' Banana won a blue ribbon in the Splenda category.
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Every year starting around Thanksgiving, Phyllis goes into competition mode, testing recipes every day. She'll try a bite to check the flavor, but she admits she doesn't have much of a sweet tooth. Neither she nor Andy is the primary taste tester. Andy is watching his weight, and besides, he's biased. So when Phyllis wants feedback, she goes door to door in their 55-plus community and passes out slices to the neighbors. Her children also weigh in. The winning peanut butter pie underwent three revisions.
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Phyllis started this year's competition preparation by tweaking a pudding recipe she liked; all entries must be original. Next, inspired by the buckeye candies popular in her native Ohio, she experimented with a peanut butter filling, chopped peanuts and vanilla wafer crust. When Phyllis — and her family and neighbors — were satisfied, she had her daughter-in-law type the recipe. Her son, David Shepler, dubbed the creation Category Five Peanut Butter Pie, because its taste was powerful, like a hurricane.
Phyllis entered six pies this year. On the way to Celebration, she had a good feeling about her Kumquat Tropical Delight, which featured kumquats from Dade City. Andy came up with the name.
"She's always said she wanted to win the big one," he said. "This year on our way up, I told her, 'This is your year, baby doll.' "
The panel of judges included executive pastry chefs, the captain of the 2009 World Pastry Cup U.S. team, food writers and everyday pie lovers. They evaluated the submissions on appearance, taste, "overall impression" and creativity. Of Phyllis' six entries, only her peanut butter pie won a blue ribbon and advanced to become one of the 15 finalist pies. Standing on stage with the several multiple-blue ribbon winners, she knew the odds were against her.
Phyllis had resigned herself to just being grateful to be a finalist. Then her name was called.
"I heard screaming," Phyllis said — that would be Andy and her son, daughter-in-law and grandson in the crowd below — "but I couldn't believe it."
Phyllis cried. Andy cried. And this time, all her fellow contestants congratulated her.
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Phyllis still tears up when she talks about that day.
"I haven't come down from this awesome high that I've had," she said.
She didn't have to give a victory speech, which is good, because she was speechless. After receiving the oversized ceremonial $5,000 check, Phyllis and her family retrieved her pie dishes and made the late-night drive home, too exhausted to celebrate.
The next day, Andy put the humongous check in the windshield of his golf cart and drove around the neighborhood publicizing his wife's victory. When they headed back up North last weekend, Andy put down the back seat of his car to make room for the souvenir. He also ordered 72 prints of Phyllis' winning moment from the contest photographer, along with a T-shirt that bears the same image.
Phyllis is already plotting her strategy for next year's competition, setting her sights on the pumpkin and raisin categories. Some past winners have turned pro, but Phyllis wants to remain eligible for the amateur division.
"I want to stay amateur," Phyllis said. "I'm not that good to be a professional."
Dalia Colón can be reached at (813) 225-3112 or email@example.com.