by Risa Nye
March 14 is π Day. You remember π (Pi) right? (Hint: It’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. For any circle, dividing its circumference by its diameter will give you exactly the same number every time: 3.14159…, π. Last year π enthusiasts were very excited to be able to celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime epic event on 3-14-15, at 9:26:53.) In any case, on March 14, the sets of math geeks and pie lovers overlap in a deep-dish, double-crust Venn diagram, piled high with whipped cream. In honor of π Day this year, I set out to explore the art and science of pie-making with a few of the local masters — all conveniently located within a several-mile radius of my house.
What do we talk about when we talk about pie? Take a moment and ponder the image that comes to you when you hear the word “pie.” Maybe you think of the all-American apple pie, a classic that brings back memories of a warm treat right out of the oven. Perhaps you conjure those holiday classics, like pumpkin or pecan. Or maybe you focus on the seasonal fruit pies, like cherry, blueberry, strawberry or peach, with their juicy insides bubbling beneath a golden-brown lattice. It’s hard not to cave into the desire to dig into a lemon meringue or chocolate cream when the option presents itself. At least, that’s how plenty of people feel, judging from the longevity of places like Nation’s Giant Hamburgers & Great Pies, Fatapple’s and the new influx of small-batch pie-makers like PieTisserie in Oakland and A Dora Pies in Berkeley.
I am delighted to be able to speak with Dale Power, CEO and president of Nation’s Giant Hamburgers & Great Pies, a Bay Area-only chain of restaurants. It turns out he’s been involved with the pie business since he was hired as a janitor in his teens. He worked for the same company all through high school and his years at UC Berkeley, and got seriously involved in managing the pie business after graduation. He started Nation’s in 1974. If you want to talk pie, Dale is your guy. His enthusiasm is undeniable as he talks about the upcoming specialty: fresh strawberry. He makes a convincing argument for going to the nearest Nation’s and getting one before the season is over.
It’s important to use only the best and freshest ingredients, which is why some pies (like cherry and strawberry) have a short season, Power says. The strawberries come from Monterey or Oxnard — strictly California-grown. The pie menu at Nation’s will vary during the year, but the constants (like π itself) are Apple, Berry, Custard, Banana Crème, Chocolate Crème and a few others. But just the ingredients aren’t enough to produce a delicious pie: “It depends on the loving care and pride of the bakers and all who are involved.” You can’t go strictly by the recipe, he says. Ingredients can change by the season— different apples at different times, for example. So using the highest quality ingredients available, along with proper storing and handling—and that loving care— combine to produce delicious pies all year ’round. I ask how Nation’s will celebrate π Day? He laughs and says, “I hope we’ll sell a lot of pies!”
Local pie-maker — and another Bay Area native — Jaynelle St. Jean began offering “random acts of sweetness” a few years ago by handing out slices of her homemade pies at her mother’s house in San Francisco, recreating a homey, modern version of pies cooling on a window sill. She now owns her own pie shop, PieTisserie, near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. From the beginning, she says, making pie and giving it away made everyone feel good: “It gave me peace of mind.” She plans to celebrate π Day with a few specially decorated pies, along with her March menu, which includes Yam Ginger, Chocolate Cream Pretzel, Banana Cream, Black Bottom Walnut, Grapefruit Custard and Meyer Lemon Custard, among others. Can’t decide on just one? You don’t have to: you can construct a whole pie in thirds by selecting three different kinds.
When I ask Ms. St. Jean to name a crucial pie ingredient, her answer is, “Patience.” This reminds me of what the great Marion Cunningham once wrote: “Even if your first pie crust is not quite as light and flaky as it will be after you’ve made a few more, your first attempt will surprise you… Just get your hands into the floury bowl, follow the instructions, and don’t court failure by worrying.” Words of wisdom for the now and future pie-makers: add patience along with the butter, flour, salt and water.
On my quest to learn more about how pie providers plan to honor π Day, I make a point of visiting Fatapple’s Restaurant and Bakery in El Cerrito. The original location for Fatapple’s was Jack London Square back in 1969. Then came the move to Berkeley, along with a bunch of Jack London memorabilia. Now, the primary production site is in El Cerrito, and the original owner, Hildegard Marshall, comes in every day. I miss her, but am able to have a conversation with Caryn, the restaurant’s manager. What’s π Day like at Fatapple’s? “Lots of people come in for pie!” the manager says. Last year was epic, with many customers sporting their special π T-shirts. Mathematicians and scientists from nearby UC Berkeley were among the celebrants. The manager credits math teachers for helping build excitement around π Day by “bringing geometry into the realm of fun.” Is Fatapple’s prepared for π Day? “We’re already taking orders,” she says with a smile.
Known far and wide for their Olallieberry pie, Fatapple’s has a robust roster of all-season offerings: Chocolate Cream, Banana Cream, Lemon Meringue, Apple and Georgia Pecan. Summer specialties include Raspberry, Blueberry, Three-berry, Fresh Peach or Apricot-Olallieberry. The Three-berry (blueberry, raspberry and blackberry) will be available by the end of March. When I ask the manager what she thinks owner Hildegard would consider the essential element of a good pie, she answers, “You have to have a good crust.” And when you make pies with the freshest ingredients, she adds, customers can tell the difference.
My final piece of pie research brings me to A Dora Pies. Preparations for π Day, baker Ellie Tandeta tells me, are in the works. They’ll be ready with extra pies and extra staff. I don’t exactly ask for the secret of her beautiful pies, but I learn right away that the crust recipe is from the owner’s grandmother. No further questions! Unlike the other places I visited, the pies at A Dora Pie are more family-style and rustic-looking. The edges are hand-rolled, and they double-bake the crusts. All the produce is prepped on site, and baking goes on all day long — which accounts for the heavenly aroma inside the shop. The most popular choices are French Coconut (featuring a buttermilk coconut custard) and Key Lime; year-round offerings include Chocolate Silk, Lemon Meringue and Apple. Also on the roster when I visited: Pecan, Apple Crumb and Rhubarb. If the sweet stuff doesn’t appeal, they also make individual chicken pot pies and vegetarian/mushroom pies. “A good pie takes time and care,” says baker Tandeta. And perhaps it requires a secret family recipe for the crust.
Of course, you don’t need a special occasion to have pie, but why not join the fun and enjoy a slice of something wonderful on π Day?
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.