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Published January 14, 2009, 04:00 PM

Pie baking contest included in new cookbook

As a longtime summer guest on Lake Belle Taine, chef John Michael Lerma added a new ingredient to his role as a tourist – Park Rapids annual 4th of July Pie Baking Contest.

By: Jean Ruzicka, Park Rapids Enterprise

As a longtime summer guest on Lake Belle Taine, chef John Michael Lerma added a new ingredient to his role as a tourist – Park Rapids annual 4th of July Pie Baking Contest.

Now the event – and the history behind the library fundraiser – is included in his second cookbook, “Garden County Pie, Sweet and Savory Delights from the Table of John Michael Lerma.”

Beagle Books manager (and former librarian) Jennifer Willis Geraedts approached him in 2007, asking if he would assist with a fundraiser, the Park Rapids Area Library’s budget having been trimmed.

“I told them I would help,” he writes.

The request triggered memories of growing up in Grand Forks. He found television’s half-hour comedies inane, and his family was not yet attuned to the controversial subjects tackled by Phil Donahue.

So he headed to the library – finding “answers.”

The library proved to be a catalyst for his vocational and artistic evolution. “It was an exhilarating time because I had too many interests and not enough time to make all my dreams come true…

“So when this call to arms came from Geraedts, I thought about what we could do…”

A pie contest began to gel.

What if no one shows up?

Meanwhile, his role as chef extraordinaire was browning nicely. He was claiming wins at the National Pie Contest in Celebration, Fla. Minneapolis -St. Paul television stations - WCCO, KSTP and KARE - invited him to share his culinary acumen.

He met Paula Deen; they swapped books. He shared his wisdom with Willard Scott on the “Today” show.

His Vidalia onion pie and coconut cream dream pie were receiving raves and claiming medals in Food Network competitions.

“Pies have been good to me,” he said of his career base. “Nothing brings people together like pies.”

But a pie contest was uncharted territory. “What if no one showed up?”

He spoke with a representative from the American Pie Council who advised him to expect about 10 entries at the first Park Rapids event.

Arriving at the resort with partner Chad Olson, they headed into town for groceries, he recalls. Standing at the checkout counter, he spotted his mug, grinning at him via the Enterprise.

“That’s me!” he exclaimed.

“Yup, that’s you,” the woman at the checkout concurred. She told him the contest had spurred interest, “and asked if I was a celebrity or something.”

Olson informed her that he was a celebrity judge and she should enter a pie.

Entries doubled expectations in 2007, with 20 pies entered and $500 raised. Last summer saw the same number of pies, but $1,100 donated to the library.

New ways to dream

This summer, he’ll double his vacation time in the north woods - two weeks at Beauty Bay Resort. And he hopes to double the donation to the library.

“Park Rapids is almost better than Italy,” he said. Lerma leads a “culinary vacation” in a 17th century Tuscan farmhouse each fall.

“I’m thrilled with the grocery store inventory,” he said of the local markets.

But he’s not enamored with views spouted on the local radio talk show that “urges listeners to keep their children away from the library because they will become sick from all the germs on books, periodicals and media,” he wrote.

“Libraries are not liberal (or conservative) think tanks but venues to give communities new ways to dream.”

A visit to pie-adise

Plans for this summer’s competition call for some new categories, including “savory” and a “lifetime achievement award,” open to those 65 and over.

Lerma plans to sell slices of the entries this year.

His goal: raising $3,000. “I want the library to have every type of media available.”

The secret to pies begins with the start of it all – the crust. “Chill, chill, chill,” he advises. “Everything” - including utensils - “must be cold.”

And he recommends trying out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, citing his Captain Tony’s watermelon pie, a recipe created after a ride on a fishing boat on the “turquoise Caribbean Sea.”

Lerma’s next cookbook will focus on Tuscany, he said. And upcoming plans call for writing on foods created in the Depression era and paying a call on Minnesota’s “homemade pie capital.”

Braham, a, small city just north of Minnesota, calls itself “pie-adise.” Lerma, a member of the upper crust, is sure to be a welcome visitor.

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