In recent years, good old fashioned pie has certainly made a comeback. While it hasn’t yet reached cupcake-levels of popular obsession, the lure of lemon meringue, apple cobbler and that Texas favorite, pecan, is reeling in food lovers.
No passing craze, though, are local pie makers, the Texas Pie Kitchen, who stand at the ready to appeal to your sweet tooth with a mission that truly makes the non-profit organization stand out. While churning out the sweets, Texas Pie Kitchen provides job training to low income adults with barriers to employment, defined as either a history of homelessness, criminal record, disability or a limited education.
Texas Pie Kitchen was originally started by happenstance in 2000 when social worker Jen Biddle (then a Waterloo Records employee) baked a pie for Lyle Lovett and the following requests from friends led Biddle to start a small pie-baking business. More interested in community development than in forging her own Betty Crocker empire, Biddle combined her baking gift with her passion for community building.
Through her contacts at social service agencies in Austin, Biddle got the word out to potential students and volunteers, and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) soon donated use of their kitchen. In 2009, Texas Pie Kitchen accepted its first student bakers into the training program, where they learn baking and kitchen fundamentals on the road to making some scrumptious homemade pies.
Students must apply for the program and commit to a four-month stint in the kitchen for five hours a week. They also receive five weeks of financial literacy classes after shifts. The classes, taught by the Financial Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, teach the students how personal credit affects them, how a checking account functions, and the basics of borrowing.
In addition to the finance classes, Texas Pie Kitchen offers an education in baking. When I visited last week, current student Chad (everyone goes by first name here) explained some of the rigors of participating in the program. “Now I know all the technical baking terms. We study vocabulary and review it at the end of every day.” In addition to professional baking terminology, students also learn proper measuring and scaling techniques, as well as essential recipe conversions.
TPK's kitchen manager is a young man named Lerrek who was also their first student and first graduate. Before beginning the program, he'd looked for a job for two years to no avail and had never baked. "I didn't think baking was something guys did," he joked. That's changed now, of course, and Lerrek describes pie-making the way an artist might describe their painting process. He explained his favorite pies to make are determined more by, "the start to finish work that goes into it, like rolling out the dough, getting the right consistency," rather than by his favorite flavor.
Texas Pie Kitchen recently raised funds to hire Lerrek as a part time employee, and he’s now charged with training new recruits. Lerrek reported that his new duties are more appealing than stressful, “It’s exciting to see new students come in and maybe they’ve barely touched an oven before, but a couple months later, they can make pies completely on their own.” At that point, Lerrek will challenge the student to make a better pie than he can. So far, no one’s bested him, but with a new crop of students beginning next month, he'll have some new competition.
Of course, Texas Pie Kitchen's mission may sound all well and good, but what of their pies? Can a community-focused entity churn out an excellent product? To taste Texas Pie Kitchen's confections is to answer with a resounding yes. They offer nearly 40 varieties of pie, including eight types of pecan. My favorite is their chocolate hazelnut, which is encrusted with a layer of hazelnuts that mask the chocolate filling. I'm also partial to the pumpkin pecan, a popular fall choice. Best of all, a 9-inch pie runs $16-18, which is less than many of their for-profit competitors, and they can bake your order low sugar or sans-gluten.
While Texas Pie Kitchen currently has no store front, its long term goal is to open a small operation in a low income area such as Rundberg. Biddle explained her desire to open in a neglected neighborhood fit with her community development philosophy of redistributing resources. "I've always wanted to put the pie shop in an area like that, so it becomes a community project where we're training folks that live in the same community and we're hiring them on and giving them jobs. So it becomes a business that's owned by the community."
The move to a storefront is a little ways off for the organization, as Texas Pie Kitchen's operating budget is supported primarily by donations and pie sales, but having patiently built the project piece-by-piece for eleven years, it's the sort of undertaking for which Biddle seems uniquely suited. "It's tough," she said when I mentioned her patience and fortitude, "but I feel like I was given this gift [for baking] for a reason, I should use it for some good."