There’s a special kind of pie found only in northeast Indiana that costs $100 a slice.It’s an award-winning, secret family recipe that starts with two kinds of cherries and comes baked in its own hand-crafted commemorative ceramic dish.
But it’s not so much the flavor, or its flaky crust, or even the reputation of the artisan who meticulously weaves its lattice topping that makes this pie so desirable.
It’s the fact that you can only get it twice a year – and it’s not only bound to tickle your tastebuds, but enhance your reputation as well.The Spiece touch
Before Helen Witte’s "cheery cherry" pie made it into the limelight, it started out in the hospitality tent at the Wells County 4-H Fair livestock auction.
This was back in the 1980s, and the way Witte remembers it, there was a lull in the action one year when there were difficulties bringing animals into the ring. Exasperated, auctioneer Ray Shaw asked if anybody had anything to sell.
Lynne Adam, who helped organize the hospitality tent feast in those days, nudged Witte and said, "Helen, why don’t you bring one of your pies out there and see how it does?"
To their surprise, the pie brought $27.50. The money was donated to the local 4-H Foundation, which raises money for scholarships and building maintenance. A tradition was born.
Then one year Tom Spiece showed up. This was long before anybody ever heard of Spiece Fieldhouse, back when the Wabash businessman was known as "the Jeans Man" from his over-the-top TV commercials. He created quite a stir, tossing free T-shirts to kids as he made his way through the fairgrounds.
When Witte’s pie was paraded around the ring, Spiece bid it up to $700.
"I thought, ‘My God, there aren’t even 700 cherries in that pie!’" Witte recalls. She was even more astonished when he "sat right there and ate it in front of everybody" as the auction continued.
Spiece never returned. But in the ensuing years an annual pie-bidding competition emerged among former State Rep. Jeff Espich, local businessman John Roemke and longtime Bluffton News-Banner editor Jim Barbieri, who always devoted several pages of the paper to auction photos.
"I know Jim always tried to bid the price up as the money was going to a good cause," said Barbara Barbieri, whose husband died a decade ago. "We ate a lot of Helen’s pies over the years. They were really cherry-filled and yes, they were good."
He especially enjoyed sharing the pricey pie with employees and family members, Barbieri said. "I think he got a big kick out of them costing so much."
A twin bill
The morning of Thursday’s auction, Witte had 18 pies underway at the 4-H kitchen. Most were destined for the hospitality tent, but two were being prepped for their starring role.
Why two? In the early days, she explained, "I ran a pie out to the runner-up bidder to thank him, because it takes two to make an auction."
The auctioneers were not pleased. "If he wants that pie he’s going to pay for it!" one declared.
And so another tradition was born: The second pie invariably goes for the same price as the first, with both "winning bidders" getting photos in the newspaper.
Witte refuses to divulge her secret recipe, but she does point out a few key ingredients: sweet and sour cherries, crushed pineapple, tapioca. Lard for the crust. Oh, and this year she started with grandson Luke Lael’s leftover cherry pie filling, which won grand champion in the judging ahead of this week’s Allen County 4-H Fair.
Lael, who’ll be a junior at Homestead this year, was following in the footsteps of his sister Katie, an incoming senior who won grand champion last year.
"And our mom won grand champion" with the same recipe at the Wells County fair a generation ago, he says. "So it’s kind of a family tradition."
Witte, who competed in yeast breads rather than pies during her 4-H days, said the judging was tense. "I’ve never seen a judge fiddle with a crust the way that judge did the other night."
The funny thing is that after all these years, using a recipe that dates back decades to when Witte’s mother donated pies to the Allen County 4-H Fair, Witte now finds herself picking up a few tricks from her grandkids.
It was Katie who suggested Witte insert toothpicks sprayed with baking grease to keep the auction pies’ woven edges in place during baking. Later, she asks Witte to hold off on ladling filling into a "very berry" pie so she can first sprinkle the dough with cinnamon and sugar.
"Well, that’s a new one for me," Witte says. "Gives it that elephant ear taste, I guess."
Witte’s been scrambling to get the auction pies in the oven by 10 a.m. so they’ll be done in time for her to go home and clean up before the auction.
She doesn’t quite make her goal, but comes close enough.
"Whew!" Witte bends over and rests her hands on her knees. "Thank you, God!"
The magic number
This year for the first time, in part because of the presence of a special guest, Witte’s pies are to be auctioned off before the livestock.
Shelly Bingle, executive director of the Indiana 4-H Foundation – which last year honored Witte at the Indiana State Fair for having raised $27,000 over the years from her pie auctions – has made the trip from West Lafayette to witness the spectacle.
The winning bid on the first pie, for $800, goes to Tony Johnson of Johnson Seeds. It’s a lot of money for a pie that’s not so different from those he could eat for free over at the hospitality tent, but it’s a very public community investment. Besides, he has extra motivation: His wife, Sherry, served as local 4-H Foundation president for six years. It was her father who auctioned off Witte’s first pie nearly three decades ago.
After the photos are taken, he hands the pie back to Witte, asking if she’ll put it in the fridge so he can get back to the auction.
"Is it OK if there’s a piece missing when you go to pick it up?" someone jokes.
Witte tries not to show it, but she’s disappointed. Last year the winning bid was $1,000.
Was it the heat? Or the Adams County 4-H auction, which was held the same day this year? Did the early bidding throw people off?
Two other traditional auction items, a pair of silver coins that in past years have brought several hundred dollars apiece, sold for $150 each this year. Witte says that Gene Gerber of Meyer Building, who paid $800 for her second pie, told her he was still standing in line to get his number when the bidding began.
Any local business owners who missed the pie bidding will have another chance in September, when Witte’s pie will be auctioned off during Ossian Days.
Bingle, who carries Johnson’s pie over to the 4-H office for Witte, helps puts the afternoon’s events in perspective.
"Helen is such a high achiever, always reaching for a higher goal," she said. "I think $800 for a pie is pretty amazing."