CARBONDALE — Rick Johnson never intended on entering his first national pie-baking competition.

His mother, who lived in Minnesota, wanted to enter the contest but didn’t want to travel to Florida alone. Johnson decided to accompany his mother, purely for support.

Two weeks before the entry deadline, though, he got the urge to throw his own hat in the ring and submitted a recipe of his own.

“We’ve been hooked ever since,” he said.

This year, after five years of finishing second or third place in his category, Johnson brought home the big one, capturing first place in the apple pie category of the American Pie Council Crisco National Pie Championships with his Smoken Hot Grilled Apple Pie.

“It was vindication for all the work we’ve done through the years,” he said. “Every year, I’ve placed, but I’ve never gotten a first.”

Baking has been a family tradition since Johnson was a child, joining his mother in the kitchen and developing his own skills.

His now award-winning pie would never have been possible without the experiences of the past, including his first attempt at a competitive recipe, affectionately known as The $200 Pie because of the investment he put into the ingredients.

He’s simplified things a bit, yet complicated with them in other ways, with the Smoken Hot Grilled Apple Pie. It’s a freeform apple pie put on a grill and topped with nuts and cream-cheese frosting.

While in Florida preparing his contest entry, Johnson’s wife tried convincing him the topping was too much and that he should let the pie speak for itself.

“I kind of proved her wrong on that,” he said, laughing.

Now, with a national championship under his belt, Johnson’s eyes are set on another championship prize that has eluded him: the Murphysboro Apple Festival pie competition.

“I’m coming this year, and we’re going to try to win it,” he said.

Through the past five years, the annual trek to the national competition has become a family outing, and Johnson has started to see the seeds planted in another generation of bakers, as his 7-year-old nephew has started entering pies in state fair competitions.

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