One slice at a time: The South Side Pie Challenge raises money to combat food insecurity in Hyde Park

Rain splattered to the concrete on the first Saturday afternoon in November as the Garfield 55 bus drove past the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club. It was cold enough to need to wear something more than a sweater, but warm enough to make a parka feel like it was a bit too much. Outside of the Club it was quiet, only rustling leaves and car engines filled the air.

The inside of the Neighborhood Club was buzzing, filled with laughter and music. Knives clinked to pans as volunteers rushed to cut slices into 69 pies before what one of the co-founders described as the “hoard of people” burst through the doors of the Club’s gymnasium at 2 p.m. to try a slice.

Courtesy of Marissa Nelson

Julie Vassilatos and Kate Agarwal started the South Side Pie Challenge in 2012 after noticing the North Side of Chicago had more baking competitions than the South Side. Saturday, Nov. 4 was the Fifth Annual South Side Pie Challenge.

Agarwal had previously competed in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest on the North Side. One year, Vassilatos covered the event for her food blog and came up with the idea of creating a competition for the South Side.

“[Kate’s] the kind of crazy person who will go with your idea and run with it,” said Vassilatos. “So we did it the next year and were like who knew you could do that, have 52 pies, raise a couple thousand dollars for a cause and have a fantastic time?”

Guests of the Challenge wait in line to get a piece of pumpkin pie. (Photo Courtesy of Marissa Nelson)

Vassilatos and Agarwal noticed the Bucktown competition donated proceeds to charity and decided they would like to do the same. After searching through various organizations in the Hyde Park area, they decided the Hyde Park and Kenwood Hunger Programs fit best, given the competition’s direct connection to food.

“You know what, the South Side has nothing like this,” said Jan Holt, a judge of the challenge. “You know, Hyde Park is becoming very gentrified, unfortunately, but there are a lot of people in Hyde Park that are low-income and need help. A lot of organizations in Hyde Park do support a lot of hunger programs and community organizations so this is just another great way to give to the surrounding community.”

A worthy cause

Contestants could enter pies in four different categories: nut, pumpkin/sweet potato, creme or fruit. (Photo courtesy of Marissa Nelson)

The fundraising event donates all proceeds to the Hyde Park and Kenwood Hunger Programs.  Run through Hyde Park Union Church, the programs began in 1981. The volunteer-heavy center serves over 700 young people and their families. The Hyde Park and Kenwood Hunger Programs is one of 700 centers that receive food deliveries from the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

According to “A Place at the Table,” a documentary about the effects of hunger in the United States, 22 percent of children live in poverty and 50 million Americans experience food insecurity. According to Feeding America’s ‘Map the Meal Gap’ Study, one in seven people in Cook County this year will experience food insecurity, which is when people do not have continuous access to healthy food. “The Hyde Park and Kenwood Hunger Programs tackle the food insecurity found in the nation and the local community. Because PayPal checks are a bit delayed, all donations have not been counted yet,” said Vassilatos. At this point, though, the Challenge has raised $4,500.

Courtesy of Marissa Nelson

The sense of community and responsibility to help other Hyde Park residents keep people coming back to the South Side Pie Challenge year after year.

“It’s a great neighborhood event,” said Kirsten Esterly, a seasoned judge of the Challenge and the manager of the restaurant Medici on 57th. “It’s raising money for a great cause, but it really brings the community together. [The Medici] donates a lot of the supplies and different things to this event and other neighborhood events so we just get to know people that way.”

Behind the slice

Courtesy of Marissa Nelson

Every year the South Side Pie Challenge invites community members to judge the four pie categories, including fruit, nut, sweet potato/pumpkin and creme. Two judges are assigned to each category. While tasting each pie, the judges discuss their opinions with one another, but score each pie independently. Together, each pair chooses the top three pies in their category.

“Then we taste the four winners and we all vote together on who the winner is,” said Holt.“It was really hard to pick the final winner because every pie in every category was outstanding.”

One contestant, Rebecca Luttrell, baked a Chocolate Dream pie that consisted of a bottom layer of chocolate ganache infused with orange peel, chocolate mousse with triple sec in the middle and whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top.

“I’ve done all four categories over the years,” says Luttrell. “I’ve been faithfully entering for five years now and just having a blast.”

Courtesy of Marissa Nelson

Kaylan Agarwal, a senior at Kenwood Academy High School and the eldest son of Kate Agarwal has been slowly increasing his role in the South Side Pie Challenge since he was twelve years old.

“Well, a big part of the [South Side Pie Challenge] was kind of a familial thing. She [Kate Agarwal] kind of roped me, my brothers, and my dad in. I’m very detail-oriented so she made me help with the graphic design for the nameplates and all the little things that a 12-year-old kid can do. Since then, I’m a lot more involved with the planning of it, the managerial stuff behind the scenes, but mostly just volunteering here.”

Agarwal has entered the competition each year, winning a first place prize for Barking Up the Right Tree, a creme pie he co-created with Summer Baptiste.

“In my case it was very last minute,” Agarwal said in response to the process of baking his pie. “It was really fun though, the whole time I was very set on the common goal of doing it not just to win but also to help the community. I think that’s a really good cause and baking isn’t just for winning, it’s for the community.”

At the end of the Challenge, empty pie pans filled the tables where there were once full pies. (Photo Courtesy of Marissa Nelson)


Additional editing and reporting by Marissa Nelson and Lydia Kim

Header image courtesy of Marissa Nelson

Music courtesy of Brian Smith. To listen to “Happy,” click here.


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