July 23, 2019

A Piece of the Pie

July 2, 2015

Two World Record Cherry Pie Tins In Northern Michigan Belie a Sad Truth: the Record Is Held In Canada

One reason Oliver, British Columbia has held the Guinness World Record for the largest cherry pie for 25 years is that baking a pie big enough to break this record might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The tin used to bake a one-time world record pie sits proudly on the southern edge of Traverse City, just as the tin used to bake Charlevoix’s record-setting pie sits at its border, but these records are no more. Trevor Tkach, executive director of the National Cherry Festival, said there’s been talk about taking the record back, but there are big obstacles and no concrete plans.

A CURIOUS FIRST

Charlevoix holds the first record for largest cherry pie, one that dates back to May 15, 1976. However, while there are many cherry orchards around Traverse City, this isn’t the case around Charlevoix.

“We have very, very few, if any, cherry orchards up here,” said David Miles, director of the Charlevoix Area Historical Society.

Of course, this isn’t to say the town’s world record pie wasn’t a big deal.

“Oh my gosh. Was it a big deal? You should see the pictures,” Miles said. “If I can remember right off the top of my head, there were 7,000 people who attended and they served 10,000 pieces of pie.”

Dave Phillips owned the Grey Gables Inn on Lake Charlevoix. That winter, he was considering different ways he could celebrate the country’s upcoming bicentennial and also promote his restaurant. A busboy gave him the idea that it would be cool to be in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”

There was something in the air in 1976. From people stuffing as many goldfish in their mouths as possible to Bruce Jenner setting a world record in the decathlon, people had Guinness fever.

Phillips soon settled on the perfect idea: baking the world’s largest cherry pie. Cherry was supposed to be George Washington’s favorite, it was a dish already served at Grey Gables, and he happened to know cherry growers in Traverse City.

So, Phillips got to work and, at first, most people thought he was joking, Miles said. Phillips was not joking; he not only pioneered world-record pies, he also pioneered a focus on local foods. Phillips vowed to use only Michigan ingredients: cherries from Michigan orchards, sugar from Pioneer Sugar in Bay City and even salt from the Detroit salt mines.

THE FINISHING TOUCH…FROM A HELICOPTER

Phillips and a team of volunteers captured the world record with a pie that weighed 17,420 pounds.

Not surprisingly, this was an industrial operation. The crust mix was taken to the 3,700-pound pie tin in a Redi-Mix cement mixer and spread with lawn rollers, and the pie filling was hauled to the location by dump truck. A crane was then used to hoist the pie into the brick oven, built by the Medusa Cement Company.

“Everything was brand-new, so the health department would sign on,” Phillips said.

The pie was topped with a carefully placed lattice crust and Phillips, a culinary school-trained chef, hovered above it in a helicopter to sprinkle sugar on top.

It took two beauty queens and Detroit Lions star Herb Orvis to slice the dessert; they used a gigantic knife specially fabricated for the day.

Phillips said the head of Chef Pierre asked him to set the record in Traverse City, but he declined; he wanted the publicity for his business and for Charlevoix. It worked. He received a letter from President Gerald Ford expressing his regrets for his inability to attend. Phillips was featured in newspapers and magazines around the world and interviewed for an Australian radio show.

“A friend of mine was in Taipei, Taiwan and he said he read it in the China Shipping News: ‘A restaurateur from northern Michigan makes world’s largest pie.’” Phillips said he doesn’t mind that Traverse City took the record away from him in 1987, even though he doesn’t believe they really did.

“A pie’s got to have a bottom and top crust,” he said. “The unfortunate thing with Traverse City was they poured the filling into the pie tin and then they put the top crust over it.”

TC’S BIGGER PIE

That enormous Charlevoix pie didn’t sit well in Traverse City, where people thought the record should be theirs.

“I know Traverse City was incensed that we were in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records,’” Miles said with a laugh. “It was a light-hearted jealousy, but we got there first.”

The story of Traverse City’s world record pie is less clear-cut, and many of the people involved are no longer alive to reference. Undisputed is the fact that it was baked on July 25, 1987 in a pie tin manufactured by the Jacklin Steel Supply Company that was 18 feet across and 26 inches deep. Chef Pierre employees led the effort, along with hundreds of volunteers and companies like Elmer’s Crane Service, which helped erect an oven at the Traverse City Open Space.

Surprisingly, the Traverse City pie was not baked as part of the National Cherry Festival; the record was set to coincide with the National Governors Association conference at the Grand Traverse Resort and the state’s sesquicentennial.

The governors conference was a big deal.

It attracted people like Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, Lee Iacocca, Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin and General Motors Chairman Roger Smith.

Despite its staggering size, the 28,000-pound pie still turned out to be less than required for the throngs that turned up to eat it. It’s estimated that 35,000 people were served, though some people undoubtedly went through the line more than once.

PIE PRODUCTION LINE AT THE OPEN SPACE

Ron Brzezinski was a supervisor at Chef Pierre and he helped bake the monster pie.

“I’m not sure who actually came up with it, but it was a group effort with the cherry processors. All the ingredients were donated,” he said.

Brzezinski recalled that a dessert cup filling line from the Chef Pierre plant was transferred to the Open Space in order to serve the pie. There was a pipe in the bottom of the pie tin and the filling was sucked out in a tube and squirted into small cups. Party crumbles were sprinkled on top. The filling line was the same one the plant used to make dessert cups for KFC, Brzezinski said.

To get the filling into the pie in the first place, a fire brigade line of volunteers transferred 510 buckets of filling across the open space.

“I dumped some of the last buckets of filling in before they put the top crust on it,” said Bob Karczewski, a group leader at Chef Pierre in 1987.

Karczewski helped assemble the pie, but he didn’t get to taste it. His shift at the plant started at 1pm that day.

“I didn’t get to see the finished product because I had to run the croissant line later that day,” he said. “It was a really neat experience. It’s something you don’t get to do; it’s once in a lifetime, generally.”

Karczewski said he’d support another try for the record in Traverse City, though he wouldn’t be able to help this time.

“I think it would be pretty neat if they did. I’d watch,” he said. “With my disabilities, I wouldn’t really be able to pitch in, but it would be really great.”

‘IT TASTED OK’

When the people of Oliver, British Columbia planned to set a record, they wanted to make sure the record would stand.

“I just felt that if we were going to set the record, we’d have to make it large enough so that there was no dispute,” said Bob Ellis, member of the Oliver Rotary Club who hatched the idea to set the new record there in 1990.

Ellis had been trying to settle on a good fundraising idea and it worked. People paid money to eat portions of that record-setting pie.

Oliver’s pie trounced the former record holders. It weighed 37,700 pounds, including 32,000 pounds of cherries, 3,500 pounds of sugar and a pinch — 16 pounds — of salt.

“It tasted OK,” he said. “The criteria that Guinness had is that it’s edible, which means that as long as the people don’t get sick, it’s OK.”

The town of Oliver may be in Guinness, but they’ve got no pie tin on display.

“They were shortsighted,” Ellis said. “I would have liked very much to have had it. There was an area in town that would have been perfect to set it up.”

Ellis is surprised the record still stands, but he also knows how hard it is to break.

“I had thought that somebody in Michigan might have wanted to get that record back and done something about it,” he said, “but, you know, when we did this, we had to do a lot of asking for stuff. Everything was donated.”

ONCE MORE FOR TRAVERSE CITY?

That fact that the record is lost is not lost on some.

“We’ve kind of been kicking around the idea of pushing a campaign to bring that back to Traverse City,” said Tkach. “Do I think we can do it again? Sure, potentially, we could make it happen again, but it would take a lot of generosity to pull that off.”

Next year will be the National Cherry Festival’s 90th anniversary and Tkach said they want to plan something special. However, Tkach said discussion of gigantic pies has revealed an unfortunate truth: to bake a pie large enough to break the current record would cost a lot of money, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“And that doesn’t even take into consideration the hundreds of hours you’d need from volunteers,” he said.

The 1987 push for the record was led by Chef Pierre, a company with local roots. Today, that same pie factory is owned by Sara Lee, a subsidiary of Hillshire Farm.

Tkach was only 10 or 11 years old when the record was set in Traverse City.

“I lived in Traverse City in 1987 and I saw that pie,” he said. “This is who we are. We’re the Cherry Capital of the world. We’re proud of it and we should have the world record.”

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