Pumpkin wars: Deconstructing pie


Kai Ryssdal, Lisa Napoli and Bob Moon prepare to apply their gustatory talents to the pumpkin pie competition.


A test plate.


Judges Lisa Napoli and Bob Moon.

Photos by Jane Lindholm, Marketplace

KAI RYSSDAL: This is a program on business and the economy. So at a time when many of us are busy with shopping and cooking and getting ready for a household full of guests, we thought we'd take a look at the finances of something that, well, theoretically anyway, comes from the heart. The pumpkin pie. Factor in the cost of labor and ingredients, multiply by the pleasure of your guests, and you're left with this. Does spending hours on a fabulous pie make economic sense? To find out we recruited three of our producers here at Marketplace. We had them bake pies with varying degrees of difficulty and levels of effort. We've got our own panel of celebrity judges, too.

Lisa Napoli's here. Hey, Lisa.

NAPOLI: Hi, Kai. It's an honor.

RYSSDAL: And a pleasure, one hopes.

NAPOLI: And a pleasure.

RYSSDAL: And Bob Moon. Hi, Bob.

PERSON: Hey, Kai.

RYSSDAL: Alright, so here's what we have. I'll lay it out for you and then we'll get to the tasting. We have three slivers of pumpkin pie before us.

Pie A is straight from the can, pre-bought-crust pumpkin pie. Recipe right on the can of pumpkin. Twenty-five minutes of labor plus baking. $8 worth of ingredients. We found a study from a 2005 salary study done by StarChefs.com. They say the average hourly wage for a pastry cook is about $12.06. So that means total labor and ingredients for Pie A is about $14.

Pie B is a homemade version of the classic. Slightly more work and made from scratch crust. Some extra nutmeg-grinding and other activities. Labor was an hour and a half. The ingredients were 9 bucks. Total cost on that one: $27.

Pie C, I'm told, is actually what's called a triple silken pumpkin torte. Very frou-frou name. This one took about four hours to assemble. Cost a whopping 40 bucks in ingredients. Cost is $88. You can only hope it's worth it.

So, here we go. The pies are in front of us. This is a blind-blind. Double blind I think is the statistical term here. We don't know which pie it is, we don't know who baked it. Have a bite of pie number one there, it's the slice on the left. Yes, ma'am.

NAPOLI: It's really beautiful. It's very tall.

RYSSDAL: It's very tall. It's got a layer in the middle, what looks like cream.

NAPOLI: Very tangy.

RYSSDAL: Is that good or bad?

NAPOLI: To me that's a good thing.

RYSSDAL: Bob?

MOON: Mmmmmm.... It's not what I would recognize as a traditional pumpkin pie. It's good!

RYSSDAL: Alright, let's move on here. Slice number 2 on your program. Give it a try.

NAPOLI: This is very orangy. Very classic pumpkin pie-looking. Mmmm. Very pumpkiny. Very spicy.

MOON: Pumpkin pie, definitely, but kind of plain.

RYSSDAL: Boring, even?

MOON: Kind of boring, yeah.

RYSSDAL: Oh, yeah ... crust is mushy. ... Yeah. OK. Alright, fine.

Moving right along. We'll get to the last one.

NAPOLI: It's sort of a graham crackery color. Cinnamon-latte-y color.

RYSSDAL: And I will tell ya, it smells more like a pumpkin pie than the rest of them do. I think this one smells really good.

NAPOLI: Oh, yeah. This is great.

RYSSDAL: Really?

NAPOLI: This is, this is great.

MOON: Mmm. Very nice. Some nice spices in there.

RYSSDAL: It's drier than the other two. Oh, but it is good! The crust is, uh — I'm going to offend somebody here — but it's ... it's almost cardboardy. It's not delectable. But the filling itself I like. . . . Anyway, so there we have it.

Three pies. One of which out of the box; one of which a little bit of time, effort and love; and one, this four-hour shebang.

Lisa, which one do you like?

NAPOLI: If it was really Thanksgiving, I wouldn't choose, because I'd eat all three. But since it's not, I would say I'd go for the third one.

RYSSDAL: Alright. Bob?

MOON: Yeah, the third one tastes like Thanksgiving dinner to me.

RYSSDAL: Yeah, I'll go with that — even though I didn't like that crust very much. I think, overall, the third pie we tested does win the vote.

So, here we go. I'll lift up the plate, have a peek at the bottom, where they wrote which pie is which. The lucky winner is Pie B, for those of you keeping track at home. That is the homemade one, with crust from scratch and a little bit extra in the filling. Moral of the story: No need for an $88 extravaganza to impress tomorrow. Just a little bit of love, and a little bit of elbow grease.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Bob, Lisa, thanks a lot for helping out.

NAPOLI: Thank you.

MOON: Thanks.

RYSSDAL: I would say it's hazardous duty here. Here we go. I'm gonna have some more. We need a cup of coffee, too.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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