KALONA, Ia. — The blueberry brawl began promptly at 2 p.m. Central Daylight RAGBRAI time just outside Hills Bank.
At stake: honor. And the Golden Roller (which is exactly what it sounds like). And full bellies.
The annual pie-eating contest pitting journalists at the Des Moines Register against National Public Radio reporters in a one-slice-per-person relay race has quickly become a Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa tradition on par with sunburn and saddle sores.
And this year, our third go-round, it is with heavy typing fingers I must report the Register’s pristine record is broken. The Golden Roller is on its way to Washington, D.C., with the victorious NPR team.
“How did we do that?” a stunned Scott Horsley — the NPR White House correspondent when not wearing lycra — was heard asking after the crumbs settled.
“This has been so many years of dashed hopes, and to finally come through and win in a photo finish,” Horsley said, “I am emotionally drained.”
Oh, Scott, we all are.
The pie-eating contest was founded in 2015 when former Iowa columnist Kyle Munson challenged NPR’s No Pie Refused team to defend their name in an official capacity in a three-on-three battle. (They didn’t and the Register won with a clean sweep.)
Both sides agreed to a truce in 2016 as most of the NPR team was otherwise engaged in election coverage. But the contest returned with a fury in 2017 and once again, the Register claimed the Golden Roller.
I know, readers. I know. We are as disappointed as you are, but please be assured we gave them a run for their money.
The contest truly was a nail-biter all the way through, ending in a photo finish between Camila Domonoske, a breaking news reporter at NPR, and Michael “Meringue” Morain, the Register’s former arts reporter who now works for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
While Morain cleared his plate first, Domonoske — appearing not to chew a single bite — swallowed before the Register’s trusty closer.
“All credit goes to our anchor Camila and the miracle that she pulled off,” Horsley said after the battle. “She inhaled that pie and came from behind and it’s just amazing.”
NPR arrived at the designated battle field — a cozy street just off Kalona’s main drag — right at the appointed time carrying a banner bearing their team logo, a depiction of Groucho Marx set within a red, white and blue flag.
The Register, which acts as the home team, had organized the pies, set up the table, acquired the plates and the water bottles and whipped the crowd into a passionate frenzy by the time they showed up. (Just saying.)
Which gets us to the most important part: the pies. Reported to be delicious by all parties, the pies were baked by Hannah Helmuth, a member of the Gospel Light Fellowship church. The crust was an all-lard recipe with said shortening coming from Bud’s Custom Meats in Riverside.
Helmuth awoke at 5:30 a.m. to make the pies, which she said were firm, not deflated at all, and promised would delight the palate.
“My daughter helped me with them, and they’re always good when she helps,” Helmuth said.
The field was packed with impressive eaters on both sides. Trending news reporter Lihn Ta employed the scoop and shovel method of sort of pinching up all she could and injecting that mess into her mouth. Photo editor Michael Zamora used the pizza slice tactic, picking the pie up and biting tip to crust.
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Arnie Seipel, an NPR political editor, in an obvious homage to Iowa’s only president, used the “Hoover” method of not removing the pie from the plate, but instead sucking fruit and crust straight from the paper.
The Kerri Strug of pie-eating, Domonske, was nervous entering the competition, but said the crowd’s energy fueled her. Throughout the week, fellow RAGBRAI-ers had been sidling up next to her for details on the contest, so she felt the pressure of being an underdog.
She also attributed her win to a lighter breakfast.
This could have been where the Register went wrong.
“I can’t say I have been fasting,” Morain said before the eating began.
First in the audience was Will Roberts, 29, from Minneapolis, who made sure his team planned their Friday around being in Kalona at 2 p.m. for the contest. He was joined by dozens of eager watchers of from all walks of life.
“I get really excited about dumb food things,” he said, “like one time I went on a road trip to find McDonald s pizza, so, yeah, I was going to be here whether my friends wanted to stay for this or not.”
Roberts and his friends initially had a hard time finding the battlegrounds, he said.
“This is a big deal, so I was expecting for it to be on the main stage with bleachers and a P.A. system,” he said.
Next year, Will. Next year.
On the upside, a rivalry has officially been established, NPR reporter Don Gonyea said in an attempt to offer the losing side some semblance of hope.
“Each side has to win once for a rivalry, so now we have a real rivalry,” he said, flashing a devilish smile.
After his heartbreaking defeat, Morain was “morose,” he said.
“I thought I had it, but her pie disappeared,” he said. “The magic came from the other side this year.”
Morain and everyone on the Register team extended congratulations to the victors, but vowed to host a rematch on next year’s trek across Iowa. No Pie Refused accepted.
But, for now, they will bask in their glory.
“Lardy, Lardy,” Horsley said. “We just won the pie-eating contest!”