A Small Pie Shop
When my two children were young, we baked together. And while we baked, I told them about my dream of opening a pie shop, which the three of us—Jennifer, Matty, and myself—would run. It wouldn’t be our own place, I’d tell them as I stood on the gray-and-red-tiled kitchen floor of our white clapboard house in Berwick, a small town in Northeast Pennsylvania, watching the two of them try to cut shortening into flour. No, just a corner of someone else’s store. A couch, a coffee pot, a few pies we baked the night before. While they were at school, I’d go to our shop down on Front Street, with its stately old brick buildings. And when the pies were all gone, I would put up a Sold Out sign and return home. Then, after their homework was done that night, we’d gather around the old Formica-topped pedestal table in the kitchen and bake for the next day.
That was the dream: a little pie shop in the corner of a store.
I started baking with my kids when they were toddlers, just as I learned to bake standing on a chair at my grandmother’s side. It was the late 1970s, and I didn’t have a stand mixer back then, or even a food processor. Instead, my kids and I made piecrust the old-fashioned way: Everything was dumped into an old pink-and-bluestriped ceramic bowl that was big enough for two pairs of tiny hands and my pastry blender. The kids would perch on chairs around the table while we baked, and invariably dusted the whole room (and themselves!) with flour. While the pie was in the oven, I cleaned up the kids, scraping dough off the backs of their hands with a butter knife. I had to spend nearly as long a time as it took to bake the pie cleaning everyone. It was a mess, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Making pie wasn’t just a pastime or a hobby in Northeast Pennsylvania—it was part of the fabric of life. There were pies after church, pies at family picnics, pies in the big glass case at the counter of the diner, pies upon pies at the holidays, and even pie, rather than cake, at birthday parties. Getting together with a bunch of people? Bring a pie!
A lot of the fruit we used for summer pies was grown nearby, but we never announced that the ingredients were local—it was just the way things were done. Everyone had a garden patch in Nescopeck, the town near Berwick where I grew up, and lots of people sold their produce out by the side of the road, at a little stand with an honor box to stuff cash in. (No one was ever there to ring you up or count out change, but no one ever seemed to take advantage.) We had to drive across the river to Berwick to go to a grocery store, so it was a lot more convenient to grow a bit of our own fruits and vegetables and shop at the roadside farm stands instead—not to mention more delicious. You could get a bunch of rhubarb that was already cleaned and ready to chop up for pie or grab a little basket of peaches.
There was always something that could be baked up in a crust.
When my kids were a little older, we left Pennsylvania and moved to New Jersey. It was still pie country, but pie was usually something you made and enjoyed at home, rather than a dish that you might bring to a potluck or a church event. I was living away from family, and trying to make new family where and when I could. So I would still bring pie to an event, and it would be a huge hit because people weren’t expecting it. I was always the one who brought the pie, the Pie Lady.
Over the years I baked thousands of pies, but the small pie shop didn’t happen. I’ve reinvented myself many times, working in a factory, then as a nurse, while doing the never-ending work of being a mom. My kids grew up, and our family spread out across the country.
Jennifer still lives on the East Coast, where she is raising Jordan, my only grandson, and Matty moved to California. While Jennifer is now quite happy to make pie with a store-bought crust and canned filling, Matty has always loved to bake from scratch. Whenever he’d come home to the East Coast for a visit, we’d make pie together, just like we did years ago when he had to stand on a chair to reach the countertop.
In 2010, during a Thanksgiving get-together at a hunting estate in Michigan, Matty and I did what we always do, baked and baked. The whole extended family was staying in cabins scattered around the huge property, and for three days we made pie after pie in the cast-iron kitchen stove in the main lodge: pecan, lemon meringue, chocolate with graham cracker crust, double-crust apple, cherry, blueberry, coconut cream, custard, shoofly, and pumpkin. At Thanksgiving dinner, everyone insisted that I ought to open a pie shop.
My son and I talked about a pie shop whenever we baked together, but always as a joke or a dream for the distant future. That November, however, the idea became more real as we watched everyone enjoy the abundance of pies. We talked about a shop again, and this time, we decided to take the plunge. My son wanted to call the business Pie Hard, which would be followed by Pie Hard with a Vengeance. But we ultimately landed on the Pie Hole, a reference to my habit of telling the kids to shut their pie holes when they were growing up.
Like so many other people, I had lost a lot of my retirement savings when the stock market tanked in 2008, a year after I retired from my job as a nurse. I didn’t have enough to live on, but I did have enough to invest in myself. We decided that we’d open in Los Angeles, where Matty lived, which presented a more lively retail market than Berwick. Unlike Berwick folks, a whole lot of people in L.A. would be very happy to buy a homemade pie.
Then came the moment of no return. I flew out to L.A. in March 2011, where I met my son’s friend Sean Brennan, who had experience opening restaurants. He became not only a co-owner but also like another son to me. I cashed out my retirement savings and opened a business account. Matty and I were finally going to have that small pie shop we dreamed about.
We opened the shop in Los Angeles’s Arts District, which is a far cry from old-school Front Street in Berwick, with its Newberry five-and-dime and Montgomery Ward (both long shuttered). Instead, the Pie Hole counted converted warehouse loft spaces, galleries, and boutiques as its neighbors. With its wooden tables, butcher-paper menu, and hip, tattooed staff, the bakery fit right in. And although it looked a little different from our old vision of a couch, a coffee pot, and a few homemade pies, we’re very much that family-run shop at heart.
I still swear by my Grandma Moe’s crust, which is the foundation of nearly every Pie Hole pie. The family recipes are our building blocks. At the Pie Hole you can eat the kinds of pies you’d find at reunions and church lunches in Northeast Pennsylvania. The Blue Ribbon Apple Pie (page 44), for example, is my grandmother’s recipe, which won the blue ribbon at a New Jersey State Fair in the 1980s. Others, like our Spiced Hot Chocolate Pie (page 131), take a classic cream pie and update it with flavors you probably don’t expect to find in a pie. Our Maple Custard Pie (page 194) has become the favorite of my mother, Elaine, who scoffed at the idea before she tried it.
Whether you’re eating my family recipes or the inventive, modern pies we serve alongside the classics; whether you’re ordering a slice in a Pie Hole in Pasadena or Hollywood or Tokyo or somewhere in the Middle East, you’ll be in a comfortable, friendly place where you can enjoy a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. We have never lost touch with this ideal, which is at the heart of the business. Now, with the help of this cookbook, you can enjoy the same experience in your own home.
In a way, running the Pie Hole is like those days when I made pies with my kids and cleaned off their dough-covered hands. The one thing I keep telling the team is this: pie is messy. If a slice of blueberry pie is oozing filling out of the sides rather than sitting on the plate like a perfect, pert triangle, that is perfectly okay. Life is messy, and that’s what makes it good. Everyone at the Pie Hole knows that, and it’s become our motto or mantra. Our director of operations, Bianca Molina, the Pie Hole’s longest-serving and much loved and respected employee, even had it tattooed on her in the official brand font: Pie Is Messy.
It’s something that we’ve all come back to time and again over the years. Like when Thanksgiving is a few days out and it seems like there are a million more pies that need to be baked, and then
a whole pie gets pulled out of the cooler to be sliced, only to end up splattered all over the floor. Or when a member of the team is obsessing over a slice of pie for a guest, I’ll bring it up again: It doesn’t have to be just so, because pie is messy. “Pie is messy” is a reminder that not everything has to be perfect in order to be good, or even great. And it applies beyond the particular business and stress that comes with running a bakery. In fact, pie making has saved me repeatedly throughout my life, before the Pie Hole came into existence. It has made tough times more bearable, good times even better, and family closer. Whether you’ve never baked a pie or have baked hundreds, my hope is that this book will help you make your own wonderful memories and maybe even give you a boost when you need one.
Copyright © 2023 by Rebecca Grasley with Willy Blackmore. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.