If you had told Heather Richie a few years ago that she'd be using pie to tell stories she probably wouldn't have believed you. As an M.F.A. candidate, her interests were documentary films, not desserts. And yet here she is, the founder of Pieways, a project that unites oral history and pie made with locally sourced ingredients. Just like in a CSA, people can sign up for Richie's Community Supported Pie and receive one pie per season, with each season costing $24 a pie.
Richie's taken the scenic route to where she is today. Before she was either an M.F.A. student or dessert-documentarian, Richie was a huge Southern food enthusiast who was ready to try anything that would get her up close and personal with authentic, heartfelt food. She tried starting a garden for FIG chef Mike Lata; that ultimately failed. She worked with the Legare Farms Education Foundation. She managed the Mt. Pleasant Towne Center Farmers Market during its first year in 2011. "I had a bunch of those kind of things. They incubate neat ideas when you're doing them," Richie says.
She also got involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group devoted to studying and documenting the South's food culture. That sounds much drier than what the Alliance's work actually is. Although the group could be called academic, it's a populist kind of academic, emphasizing the importance of all food culture, be it high, low, or somewhere in between. They stage things like Cake vs. Pie debates and produce a podcast called the Okracast, not to mention hosting a major symposium each year.
The Alliance also offers a series of workshops on documenting Southern foodways, which Richie devoured. So far, she's the only person to complete both the Alliance's Oral History Workshop and the Film Storytelling Boot Camp. "I'd show up at these workshops and just be way more enthusiastic — I mean, everyone was enthusiastic, but I was really enthusiastic," she says.
Richie had tried making documentaries earlier when she was in her 20s, but she was stymied by the technology. "I'd bought the software to try and do these short documentaries, but it really went to waste because I just didn't know how to use it," she says. "It's not the type of thing you can just look at and pick up. All it took was someone showing me the first time."
As if all of that hasn't kept her busy enough, Richie entered an M.F.A. program in Literary Nonfiction at Sewanee University in 2012, as well as a Documentary Studies certificate program at Duke University. And out of all these experiences, Pieways was born.
The pie-centric CSA merits some explaining. Richie doesn't bake anything herself. Instead, she coordinates with a local bakery that creates a seasonal pie out of local ingredients. Then Richie makes a short oral history documentary on one of the ingredient suppliers.
For the first season this past May, subscribers received a Strawberry Sour Cream pie with strawberries from Ambrose Family Farms, Anson Mills pastry flour, and Botany Bay Carolina Sea Salt. Richie filmed her oral history on the sea salt, releasing a five-and-a-half minute film featuring the voice and story of Botany Bay Carolina founder Bertha Booker, South Carolina's first sea salt maker in 150 years. You can see the film on Richie's website, communitysupportedpie.com. "It's not a gimmick to sell pie," Richie says. "It's a vehicle for storytelling. I'm just organizing the purchase of the pie."
Because of that, Richie's emphasis is on finding excellent stories for her oral histories, rather than on keeping to a strict filmmaking schedule. The idea is to release four per year, but only if four good stories emerge. She also plans on spotlighting core ingredients — salt, eggs, milk, etc. — before branching out into produce. Bakeries will be featured as well.
That said, she has a few ideas for people and products whose stories she already wants to tell. "We could have a chocolate pie, and I'd like to go up to Johnny Battles [of Sweeteeth Chocolate]. Brown's Court Bakery — I think they have a story to tell. If you're doing a blueberry pie, Blue Pearl Farms, they're a story worth telling. But I'm trying to do, not just a blueberry pie, but like a blueberry goat cheese pie — I want people to feel like they're not just donating out of charity to this story, but they're trying something different," Richie says.
In a way, Pieways has been about Richie writing her own story, too. After years of experimenting, she's discovered how she wants to become a part of the South's food culture. "It's like with the garden for Mike Lata — I'm not a farmer. I worked at Brown's Court and a few other bakeries, and I'm not a baker. Why do I keep coming back to this industry? Finding my place in it is what this is all about," she says.
And in one of those strange, serendipitous turn of events, Richie's pie CSA began within days — no one's sure whether before or after, and it doesn't matter anyway — of Charleston's other pie CSA. This one is from the Cake Farmer, otherwise known as Amy Robinette.
Now, with Richie's and Robinette's pie CSAs popping up so close to one another, one could imagine a this-town-ain't-big-enough situation arising. However, there are a few things in their favor — people here can't get enough of homemade, locally sourced, artisanal food products, and we're pretty darn good at supporting our own makers and bakers. But the Cake Farmer and Pieways are very different from each other. The Cake Farmer CSA is a traditional CSA: participants sign up for either three or six months and decide whether they want to receive a pie weekly, biweekly, or monthly. With the Cake Farmer — yes, she bakes cakes as well as pies — the focus is wholly on the desserts. Robinette bakes every one herself, and focuses on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.
She started the Cake Farmer back in November, after a life-changing run-in with red food coloring. She'd been making wedding cakes for years and had an order for a cake that was supposed to be Nebraska Cornhuskers red. "After about six bottles of food coloring, I just got repulsed. It tasted so metallic, and so unnatural," she says. "So I scrapped the whole thing and made another one with cocoa powder and beet juice. The color wasn't dead on, but it tasted awesome. I just decided, why not do it? Why not go the healthy route?"
Now in both her cakes and her pies, Robinette tries to use wholesome ingredients like fresh fruit and honey (although if you want a cake with bright blue frosting, she will still do that for you). A graduate of Lowcountry Local First's Growing New Farmers apprenticeship program, Robinette knows the local farm scene well, and sources her ingredients — from eggs and milk to berries and veggies — from them whenever possible.
That's especially important for her CSA. Each week, or month, depending on what level participants choose, Cake Farmer CSA members receive their choice of a sweet or savory pie made with whatever's freshest from local farms. That could be blueberries from Blue Pearl or Black Pearl Farms, or tomatoes from Spade & Clover Farm, or corn and okra from Lowland Farms.
And these are not your simple, single-flavor concoctions — we're talking peaches and cream, peaches and blueberry with caramel, and a salty pluff mud version made with salted chocolate. On the savory side, she's done a farmer's veggie pie, fava bean and asparagus, and a vidalia onion, zucchini, and chevre.
Needless to say, Cake Farmer CSA members are pretty enthusiastic. "They get really amped about hearing what's coming up," Robinette says. "I kind of have a heads up about what's coming in, so I let it leak out — 'Hey, we're probably going to get some okra this week or some peaches.' And people are like, 'Ooh, I definitely want peaches.' It's fun. It'd be hard to take that away from them, even though it would make my job easier."
The Cake Farmer CSA is going better than she could ever have planned. For her first season, Robinette had 27 people sign up out of 30 available spots. But that's only a small part of her larger goal, which is to run a completely sustainable bakery with its own garden and beehives. While she is getting her hands dirty on a daily basis, as she runs the McCrady's rooftop garden as well as her own business, the CSA is keeping her pretty busy.
But that's OK with Robinette. "This just fits right now. I haven't been this happy before in my life."
As we all know, happy bakers make yummy pies.