As It Happens

A photographer went on a pie-eating tour, and the pictures are delectable

For photographer Maggie Shannon, a road trip of pie-eating competitions was a "lightning bolt" idea that combined her love of travelling, pies and county fairs into one perfect summer vacation.

'It was a very close-knit community, which felt really special that they let me in,' says Maggie Shannon

At the Moffat County Fair in Craig, Colo., Shannon saw some kids struggle to eat a whole pie. (Maggie Shannon)

Photographer Maggie Shannon says the idea of a pie-eating contest road trip struck her like a "lightning bolt."

She was playing a word association game to brainstorm a personal project — something outside of her commercial work in Los Angeles. She thought about travelling, which has been hard during the pandemic. And then she thought about pies.

"I love baking pies, eating pies and also county fairs," she told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

So Shannon combined all those things and created a quintessential American road trip, which was first covered by BuzzFeed News.

The photographer started planning her trip by calling the organizers of county fairs across Colorado and Wyoming. 

She says many counties aren't hosting fairs this year due to COVID-19 precautions. But Shannon found some organizers who were going ahead based on low case numbers.

They heard her pitch and invited her to capture their pie-eating contests, so she travelled with her husband throughout August.

"It felt very sincere," Shannon said. "It was a very close-knit community... [and it] felt really special that they let me in."

She says some of the most intense pie-eating competitors were children. 

"I saw a lot of 4-H kids," she said, referring to a national program for youth development. 

"There was a sheep show at Pagosa Springs, Colo., that county fair. So all of the 4-H kids kind of came into the tent with the pie-eating contest after they were done showing their sheep." 

Each fair had its own way of sourcing the pies, she said. 

The Archuleta County Fair in Pagosa Springs, Colo., had volunteers measure one pound of homemade custard into pie tins, which the contestants ate up with their hands behind their backs. (Maggie Shannon)

The Archuleta County Fair in Pagosa Springs had volunteers measure one pound of homemade vanilla custard into pie tins with a big spoon.  

At the Moffat County Fair in Craig, Colo., the Village Inn diner chain donated pies, which Shannon described as beautiful, intricate and giant. 

"The kids picked their favourite pies and, you know, their eyes are really big. They were excited. But after a few minutes of trying to eat all of this pie, you can see their expressions start to change and they just get a little sad," she said.

"It was really cute to see the one girl at the end [who] just said, 'I didn't like that at all.'"

Contestants at the Teton County Fair in Jackson, Wyo., drink water or beer to help digest the pie. (Maggie Shannon/BuzzFeed)

Across each county, whoever ate the most pie won.

But sometimes, the rules had contestants hold their hands behind their backs. That's when Shannon started to see some pie-eating tricks.

"Some people, the pie would get away from them, so they would use their teeth to pull it closer, to get a better angle," she said.

"Another trick was to have drinking water — or for the adults, a beer —  I guess [because] drinking liquid helps get it down."

So far, the only adult pie-eating contest Shannon has captured was at the Teton County Fair in Jackson, Wyo. 

She says the photography project is still ongoing, as more counties have their fall fairs coming up.

She's loved the events ever since she was a kid, growing up going to the county fairs on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and in her mom's hometown of Gilbertsville, N.Y. 

There was no race to eat pie then, but Shannon entered her photos and her dad submitted his coffee cake to the annual contests. 

"It was always like a fun family tradition," she said.

She says she can't visit her family right now because her mother is immunocompromised. 

"Being able to go and meet all these great kids and communities ... felt really special, since I'm not able to go to the one in my hometown right now," Shannon said. 

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and Katie Geleff.

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