Eyes on the Pies: Ireland contest heats up friendships

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Keith Eckert, left, and Bob Meadows watch Kurt Brescher, all of Ireland, roll out his pie crust while baking for the St. Patty's Bake-Off at Eckert's home in Ireland on Friday. Meadows started entering the bake-off about ten years ago and after years of losing to the grandmothers who swept the competition, decided to start a men's pie division. The friends gather every year the day before the competition to bake. "We do this because it gives us an excuse to get together," Meadows said. "It's not about the pie, it's about your community." 


IRELAND — Friday night, on a slice of Dubois County countryside in Velpen, three dudes were whisked together in an annual tradition that blends both their masculinity and deep friendships.

They drank beer. They cracked jokes about each other. And they made pies.

For nearly a decade, a small group of guys have gathered the night before Ireland’s St. Patty’s Day Bake-Off to roll out their dough, pour in their filling and heat up their potentially award-winning pastries.

The pie night group has morphed over the years, and Friday’s get-together consisted of host Keith Eckert, Bob Meadows and newcomer Kurt Brescher. The first iteration of the group formed back when the bake-off organizer made it their goal to increase male participation.

“I told them, I said, ‘You know what, I think you need to have a men’s category,’” Meadows recalled of a conversation he had with festival leadership. “Because we’re tired of getting our [butts] kicked by Grandma.”

Kurt Brescher of Ireland works on his pie crust for the St. Patty's Bake-Off at the home of Keith Eckert in Ireland on Friday.

More than anything, bragging rights are on the line. Sometimes, one of the pie nighters will win the men’s division of the contest, which is part of the Ireland St. Patrick’s Celebration. But if not, that’s OK, too.

“It’s a friendly competition,” Brescher, who had never baked anything before Friday, said as he whisked his pumpkin pie filling. “That’s all. It’s about learning. I learned from my neighbor — this cat can bake.”

He was referring to Eckert, who has a reputation for turning out top-notch pies. After the food is judged in the Ireland contest, the winners were auctioned off, with the proceeds going back to the festival committee. Eckert’s coconut cream pie took first place in the men’s grouping Saturday and sold for $42.

The guys — who are all in their 50s and 60s — hang out when they’re not cooking, too. Once a month, Brescher hosts an informal “therapy night,” which is a meeting that brings in his friends for laughs and good-natured ribbing.

Brescher was involved in a life-changing accident a few years ago. It affected him physically and mentally, and he said being surrounded by his friends and neighbors during the recovery process helped.

“I have a bunch of friends that come to my house, in my shed, and we talk about anything,” Brescher said. “Any kind of problems. Any kind of joys, any kind of happiness, any kind of whatever. We talk about anything.”

Keith Eckert of Ireland bakes for the St. Patty's Bake-Off at his home in Ireland on Friday.

Talking brought him closer to his friends. Friday night, they encouraged Brescher to give baking a shot for the first time. He wasn’t intimidated by the challenge.

Before the process was over, he joked and drank with the veteran chefs, while keeping his family’s “old-school” recipe secret and laying out his goals to be better than store-bought.

“I believe there’s pumpkin pie, and there’s really good pumpkin pie,” he said of the dessert he was concocting. “There’s a difference. You can either go easy, or Grandma’s good pumpkin pie. I’m heading for Grandma here.”

In addition to carefully creating pies on Friday, the guys fried fish, put down a few cold ones and hung out with their wives and family and friends, who had acted as an audience while the men baked.

“The poorest people have money,” Brescher said. “The richest people have friends.”

Becky Buening of Huntingburg, left, and Margaret Brescher of Ireland sample Keith Eckert's extra pie filling at his home in Ireland on Friday. When the group gets together, the women spectate and taste the filling but aren't allowed to give advice.

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