It's no surprise that a couple of local bakers turned to making pies when they found themselves idle, having left or lost their jobs. For Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Artisan Bakery and Shelia Duncan of PieBird, the decision to turn on the oven and roll dough was a reflex spawned by the need to do something with their hands.
That each of these women has separately grown a business based on the quiet lure of pastry and fillings is notable. Their enterprises expanded slowly from home ovens to catering kitchens and now to personalized shops. At the end of this month, Scratch will open at 111 Orange St. in downtown Durham. PieBird will follow close behind at 618 N. Person St. in Raleigh.
Suddenly, the area has a pair of shops selling handmade pies, constituting something of a mini-trend. But there's nothing trendy about the pies themselves. Unlike the tricked-out, sugarcoated cupcakes that have spawned little bakeshops and blogs across the country, pies are not about extravagance or a sprinkle-infused nostalgia for childhood. Adorable as they may sometimes be, pies have deep roots and purpose.
Pie was born as a way to cook meats without losing their juices to the bottoms of ovens or the flames of an open fire. Pie was the ultimate preserver, keeping foods fresh between layers of crust before the dawn of jars, cans, ice or refrigerators. A precursor to Tupperware, it made food tote-able and was a trusty handheld snack. Farmers used to take thick slices with them into fields where they worked. Filled with the vegetables or fruits that grew in those fields, or meat from animals that grazed or flew nearby, pie was a display case for all that was local and in season. Today, pie is still practical, a classic that's there when you need it. This is why Lawless and Duncan are ready to reinvigorate the pie's image in the Triangle.
Lawless, the brains, the brawn and the baker behind Scratch, is already known for her pastries. Her seasonal pies have made her a fixture at the Durham Farmers' Market, where she consistently sells out of goods before the day's close (try getting a mini pie or empanada after 10 a.m.). They have earned her the distinction, thanks to mentions in Gourmet magazine and just about every local pub, as the best baker in town.
For Lawless, pie was never a plan. In 2007, shortly after she had left her post in the pastry kitchen at Durham's venerable Magnolia Grill, someone at a Southern Foodways Alliance foodie gathering asked her what she hoped to do next. She opened her mouth, and out came the word "pie." Southern Foodways events bring together top-notch chefs, academics and food lovers to cook, eat and revel in Southern food. Lawless spent that weekend cooking alongside restaurant owners and award-winning chefs like Hugh Acheson of Atlanta's Five and Ten. She was unhappy to report that she wasn't working in those days.
So she changed her story over the course of the event, moving from "I'm a mom. I'm not doing anything" to "I'm going to see if I can get into a farmers market and sell pies."
It was a response that surprised even her. "I hadn't really put much thought into it, other than I loved making pie.I loved the process of pie," Lawless says, adding, "That dinner, I just felt like I had to say something and I said that."
For Duncan, the notion to make pastries was equally intuitive. About a year ago, in her mid-50s and having lost her job as an interior designer for a large tile company in Raleigh, she wasn't sure how to start a new career. So she posted flyers in her neighborhood advertising homemade Thanksgiving pies in hopes of making a little money. It worked, and incredibly well at that.Before she got home, she had a list of orders.
"There were people literally chasing me down the street that day," she remembers.And so the Triangle's second pie-based business came to be.
PieBird's new home reflects Duncan's background in design. Inside, the place pops with bold blues and greens that are printed on retro-inspired signage. Blazing yellow and orange tiles recall the previous tenant, Conti's Italian Market. Not sold on the tiles, Duncan removed more than half of them to expose the brick walls. She has long loved the space. Her grandparents used to make pilgrimages to the building, once home to one of Raleigh's original Krispy Kreme outlets, from where they lived in Wake Forest. According to Duncan, they would eat an entire box of doughnuts in front of the shop before placing another order to take home.
PieBird's menu will offer lunch and dinner, featuring sweet and savory pies plus salads, soups, beer and wine. Expect classic pies like the chicken-pot next to featured fillers, including chicken, brie and cranberry or North Carolina corn and shrimp.
Scratch will also straddle the line between sweet and savory. The flexibility to create dishes within that spectrum assured Lawless that she wouldn't tire of pie as a genre.She's also found inspiration in the inherent structure of pie.
"The more limited and confined you are creatively, the more you're forced to think outside of that," Lawless explains.And Lawless is creative—from her recipes to the tools she uses to bring them to fruition. Take, for instance, the "gigger," Lawless' term for a traditional fork with its middle tine straight up and the rest of its metal fingers folded inward. She uses it to mix water into dough.
Her new store, tucked along a walkway connecting Parrish and Chapel Hill streets in downtown Durham, promises to be a haven for the homemade, too. Lawless' partner, Charles Samuels, has handcrafted all of the cabinetry. Scratch will offer Counter Culture drip and espresso coffees next to grab-and-go breakfast and lunch items. For the first few months, look for some of the current menu standards like a honeysuckle and chess tart, bittersweet chocolate and sea salt pie, or carnitas and heirloom hominy-filled empanada.
Lawless plans to incorporate such items to ease her transition into a full-time business. Lawless will also hold onto her post at the Saturday Durham Farmers' Market, where she'll continue to sell pies. It was a local market that first gave her a start, and it is a local market that will continue to sustain her.
Scratch and PieBird use only seasonal fruits and vegetables in their baked goods, though maybe not for some of the reasons one would expect. "It seemed really natural and convenient to just get my ingredients from the other vendors," Lawless explains, then adds, "I honestly had no serious locavore intention. It really was a matter of convenience."
With that, Lawless reminds us that convenience doesn't have to mean compromise.Rather, it can be the good foods that are right around us, that are grounded in place and that make the most sense. Sounds like pie to me.