A Commonplace Book of Pie (Photo:
A Commonplace Book of Pie (Photo:

Two years after my piece ran in Gastronomica, a friend introduced me to Kate Lebo via the letterpress zine A Commonplace Book of Pie. Kate Lebo was an MFA student at the University of Washington where I worked so I looked her up in the directory and invited her to coffee.

That first coffee turned into lunches a couple times a year, often at various haunts on University Way. We talked about food, writing, and, of course, pie. I introduced her to the editor of Gastronomica, and they later published her poem “Rhubarb.” I cheered her over kabobs when Chin Music Press offered her a contract to expand her zine into a book. It was released to the world in October 2013.

Kate toured heavily to promote the hardcover A Commonplace Book of Pie. She invited me to co-host an event at the University of Washington bookstore that would primarily be a conversation like the many we shared since meeting.

The evening was terrific fun. Our easy banter mixed well with a full house. Students from Kate’s brought pies they baked for attendees to sample while waiting to have their book signed. Chelsey Slattum, Kate’s publicist, even slipped me a business card for Chin Music Press publisher Bruce Rutledge.

It sat on my desk for four months.

Chelsey reached out in April. Bruce wanted to meet. He had been in the audience that night and later read my blog which, by that time, now had more than 50 entries.

Lunch was scheduled for May 6, 2014 at the Banana Leaf Café, blocks away from Kate’s event that started it all

Thanks, Kate.



the biking piewalla


A dabba presents the perfect container for baking, transporting, and eating single pie servings. (Photo A.V. Crofts)
A dabba presents the perfect container for baking, transporting, and eating single pie servings. (Photo A.V. Crofts)

This post originally appeared at  Washington Bikes/Bicycle Alliance of Washington.

I sold my car two years ago and my bike became my ride.

The shift came with all kinds of freedom: parking, traffic, and buckets of savings on car insurance, gas, and maintenance. I also get to eat like a horse and burn it off on my commute.

But for all the benefits, a few challenges presented themselves when four wheels become two. One of them involved dessert. Pie, in particular.

As a pie maker, the safe transport of a freshly baked pie on my bike has particularly vexed me. Seattle’s hills are not gentle on a pie.

The answer, I discovered, was a dabba.

Dabbas, the stainless steel stackable lunch boxes most widely used in India, have starred in recent films like The Lunchbox or the documentary The Dabbawallas, featuring the astonishing network of 4,000 delivery men (dabbawallas) who deliver more than 100,000 lunch boxes daily to offices across Bombay.

Many years ago, friends gifted me with a personalized dabba from Bombay. Until lately it was a patient presence in my kitchen, awaiting action that never came because my leftovers required a microwave’s touch.

One morning I had a flash of inspiration: what if I baked personalized pies in each of the dabba layers? What if, after they baked and cooled, they were stacked, tucked into my bike basket, and served as is at the dinner party?

Look, Ma. No pie pan.

The inaugural pies were a mixed berry trio of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. This particular dinner party was an intimate affair, so I baked off three individual pies in the oven in their dabba layer and let them sit until they came to room temperature. I then assembled my dabba and hit the road.

My first transport test was the five miles from my home to the University of Washington Seattle campus. I checked the pies upon arrival at work—perfect. They remained unscathed from the elevation gain from the Burke-Gilman Trail to the Upper Fremont dinner party destination, where I triumphantly handed over the dessert dabba to my hosts. We ate them under an outdoor canopy. All that was required was forks.

That’s one of the keys to reveling in the biking life: it might take me longer to reach my destination, but I’m happier (and hungrier) when I get there. Especially when I arrive with pie.

food as medicine

I have two friends who have recently spent time tending to their fathers in the hospital.

In one case, it was an unexpected illness that landed my friend’s father in the ICU. I opened my computer one morning to learn that she’d been at his bedside for three days continuously.

I texted her immediately to tell her that whatever I could do, I would do for her.

She replied:

Pie always helps.

Now that’s one smart friend. And a wise one: ask for what you need. Later that day, I wrapped up a freshly baked pie and drove over to Seattle’s Pill Hill neighborhood, where we conducted a hand-off outside the hospital.

Later that day I heard from her again.

What kind of pie is this?
We’re sharing it with a couple in the ICU with us.
They are from Wisconsin.
They thank you.

An ICU wing becomes a community that seeks strength in the face of fragility.

My second friend’s father had a different hospital experience: his visit was planned months in advance and was for a specialized operation. My friend traveled across the country to accompany her parents through the process and help get them settled back in their Wenatchee home.

She stayed with me the night before the operation, and she was due to the hospital before dawn. In the wee hours of the morning as she readied herself, I puttered in my kitchen, packing a picnic she and her mother could enjoy over the course of what was going to be a long and emotional day.

Fresh bead.
Chocolate. (Of course!)

Fast forward three days later. My friend returns from Wenatchee, her father happily healing, and presents to me a bounty of hot yellow peppers and tomatoes straight from her parents’ garden. Dinners the last two nights have featured a large plate of fresh sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, salt, pepper, and olive oil.

Food heals, but it also binds.

This is one of the many reasons I love to give it.

super PIEs instead of super PACs

One month ago, a friend and I threw two political fundraisers for hundreds of people. We called them “Super PIEs not Super PACs” and showcased the exquisite pie talents of poet and pie maker Kate Lebo, of Pie School fame.

We raised FIFTY-EIGHT times what the fundraiser cost us to produce. We raised tens of thousands of dollars. As I’ve written in earlier posts, pie is currency.

And if you have the equivalent of Kate’s pies in your bank account, you’ve got the strongest currency out there.

One week ago, I wrote this on my Facebook timeline:

I have never had an abortion.
But I voted to protect my right to have that choice.

I have never been married in the eyes of either state I call home: Washington and Maine.
But I voted to gain that right.

I have never felt pressure to hide my religious beliefs.
But I voted to preserve the separation of church and state.

I have never known what it feels like to be a man.
But I voted to make sure I earn as much as one.
I have never chosen to have children.
But I voted for a world in which I would want to raise one.

Pie for all and all for pie.

pie as currency

As I’ve written before on this blog, pie is my superpower. But lately as autumn nips at the heels of summer, I realize it’s more than that: pie is a form of currency. 

For starters, I use pie as payment to guest speakers in my classes at the University of Washington. I started this tradition last year and plan to continue to bestow pies of all kinds on those souls good enough to give me and my students a chunk of their Saturday. I’m quite proud that I can commute by bike to campus while balancing a pie.

Dangling the promise of pie isn’t reserved exclusively for guest speakers. I shamelessly appealed to Kristin Hersh’s appetite by offering her a wild blackberry pie in exchange for an interview she generously provided me a week and a half ago. I can say with confidence she would have been happy to talk with me without a pie, but it felt good to me to give her one of my creations, when I’ve loved so many of hers. I bake the way she plays guitar: I put my whole self into it.

Finally, tonight was the second annual “Pie in the Park” fundraiser in Casco, Maine, one of my summer stomping grounds. For $2 a slice, you could have your choice of pie (whipped cream optional) and then lounge in the cool grass while the band Mr. Moon crooned haunting harmonies. I brought the apple pie photographed above to donate to the cause and ended up sampling blueberry, strawberry-rhubarb, cherry, and apple.

If I were an ATM machine, I’d dispense slices of pie.

how far does your pie have to fly?

Photo by Greg Coomer

Pie is my superpower.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, this is my superpower season. There is never a bad season for pie–it’s one of the only reasons I’ll run an oven in August–but November is when pies claim center stage and take a deep bow to thunderous applause.

And the photo above?

I’ve taken to enticing guest speakers to my class with the promise of a pie. Call it a “pie-ment” instead of a payment. No one has declined my invitation yet. My last speaker arrived on a motorcycle, having forgotten the edible gift that awaited. A few well-placed bungee cords later, and that pie was flying down the highway.

The only thing better than homemade pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, is homemade pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving where the primary ingredients are produced by farmers in your community. Look no further: the Eat Local Network (brainchild of Melissa Borsting) assembles a box of bounty that includes all you need: from a pie pumpkin to a turkey.

All items are sourced from within 125 miles from Seattle and will turn you into the superhero of your holiday gathering.

delicious density

Everyone has their obsessions. One of mine is lake swimming.

My lake obsession shares space with pie, corduroy pants (any shade of brown, if you please), and the television show Friday Night Lights, to name a few.

Much of my summer was spent thinking about swimming or actually swimming in the lake photographed above. I swapped my urban lifestyle on the West Coast for a rural existence back East. Lakes become a form of entertainment, my exercise, a part of my social life, and border on a religious experience.

Regardless of which coast I’m on, I spend a good chunk each Sunday that I can with my nose buried in the New York Times. (Yes, I still get the Sunday paper tossed to my front porch. Six days a week of virtual news is enough for me. Give me inky fingers and the satisfying thwack of cracking open a section at least once a week.)

Today, while thumbing through the Sunday Review section I stumbled on this Op-Ed article by Ryan Avent, economics correspondent for The Economist. How does this article relate to gastro-cultural?

Brilliantly, it turns out.

Avent uses the example of a thriving Vietnamese restaurant scene to illustrate how urban density provides job creation and economic growth. As Avent explains, dense urban areas have a consumer demand for not just one Vietnamese restaurant, but many. This in turn provides job opportunities for more chefs and waitstaff, not to mention a larger customer base for food suppliers who provide the bean sprouts, limes, and rice noodles that Vietnamese restaurants rely on.

Here in Seattle, I have a choice of no fewer than nine Vietnamese restaurants a ten minute walk from my office. My Maine village doesn’t boast a single restaurant, just an ice cream stand that serves decent fries and shuts down after Labor Day Weekend.

Nine months of the year I find the density of Seattle delicious. But for the other three months, fewer choices feed my appetite just fine.

“pies are yummy for breakfast”

Pies have been pigeon-holed as a dessert. Sure, there are gems out there that provide savory pie enthusiasts a reason to live (Pies & Pints, in Seattle, is one of them), but for the most part, pies are something we wait patiently for as we move through course after course of the meal. As the capstone moment of meal, they often push my feeling of comfortably full to one of sweet agony.

I can’t resist.

But what if we moved pies to the front of the line? One of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving is breakfast the day after, when I’m known to slice of a wedge of pie that is too large for a traditional dessert plate (I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in this post’s title). With a whole night of digestion behind me, my stomach has room to spare.

The Carpenter-Winch family has taken the “day after” tradition one step further: pie for breakfast served for 80. The Boston Globe featured this pie happy family and the breakfast bonanza they bake for each year at their intentional community in Cambridge. The scope of the festivities might be novel, but happily the culinary tradition of cold pie for breakfast is not.

New England was historically full of farming families that were so engaged in clearing ancient forests and removing glacially deposited rocks that ended up as fences that they could have eaten pie morning, noon, and night–and there’s documentation to support that they often did. From the vantage point of my cozy dining room and blazing wood stove, my life seems pitifully indulged.

Perhaps I’ll dust off the rake and round up stray leaves in my yard today. But first, I think I’ll have a slice of pie.

the gift of grandmothers

Tomorrow night I’m headed to a fundraiser dinner for a local nonprofit. I was asked to contribute a pie to the dessert auction, which I just assembled in my kitchen and popped into the freezer for a blast of cold before baking it off tomorrow. Flakier crust is the result, I’ve been told.

For those of you not fortunate enough to have experienced a raucous dessert auction, it goes something like this: line up the lip-smacking confections on a table, with a grand total of desserts that matches the total number of tables in the room. Each table them collects bids in a competition to surpass one another, with the table raising the most amount of money winning the distinction of getting to choose the first dessert–and then so on down the line. Depending on the event, it can be a bit of a frantic race, with tables dispatched in such a rapid fashion that it becomes a bit of a wild dessert dash.

I’m no fool–I know that in these harried moments of split-decision making, my pie will likely lose to anything chocolate. It doesn’t matter if it’s a torte, cake, or mousse pie–chocolate will always trump.

But while the table that ends up with my pie may at first believe it to be a settlement to their stinginess, they will soon learn otherwise.

You see, that table will have hit the jackpot.

Why? It’s not simply that I can make a tasty pie. It’s because my grandmother makes a damn good pie and I studied hard with her over many a tutorial afternoon. Anything redemptive about my apple pie is because of Gramanne, as we grandchildren all call her. My crust will never shatter at the touch of a fork like hers, and my apples will never quite cook down to the soft pillows of sugar-cinnamon glazed goodness that hers always achieve. But they come close enough.

So here’s to grandmothers.

Speaking of our often mighty matriarchs, Seattle-based food writer Pat Tanumihardja knows the gift of a grandmother in the kitchen. She’s written a book about the transfer of Asian cooking traditions from generation to generation entitled, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens.” Savvy readers may recognize that Tanumihardja’s mother is none other than Juliana of Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen on 65th in Ravenna.

from pye to pie

This morning I got up early to bake a blackberry-nectarine pie for a dinner party I’m attending tonight so I’ve got pie on the brain. In all honesty, I’ve always got pie on the brain. I love pie.

The Harwich Historical Society in Massachusetts recognizes that there are folks like me out there and they are capitalizing on our devotion. Eastham’s Wicked Local (gotta love it) reported yesterday that this coming Sunday is the Harwich Historical Society’s 13th annual Harvest Pie Sale, with all proceeds benefiting the HHS. The article includes choice quotes about pie along with a nod toward the historic significance of our iconic dessert.