April 17, 2011

Pie + Community Development=PieLab

In case you didn’t know, PieLab is a big deal. Iconic Southern food writer John T. Edge published a New York Times Magazine cover story on the center for design, community, and PIES in October. It was written up in Bon Appétit, Southern Living, and lots of other fancy-schmancy publications. But when you visit its storefront in rural Alabama, it’s just ordinary people baking and serving exceptionally tasty, all-natural pies. By hanging out for a meal, I think we only got a glimpse at what goes on beyond the pie though.
The PieLab concept was started by designers in the Northeast as a movement for “community and conversation, one slice at a time.” In May 2009, they opened shop Greensboro in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt; the region is named for its fertile soil and, thanks to years of slavery and then sharecropping economy, is now one of the most impoverished areas of the country. PieLab, along with HERO housing initiative, are out to empower the community to change that.

Hannah capturing our delicious pie lunch.
On Saturday, we ventured down past the normal Alabamians who spend their April Saturday drinking beer and watching Alabama football scrimmage in Tuscaloosa to PieLab. My team? Hannah, who just started One Bowl One Spoon, is one of those people with whom I easily jump into hours-long conversation about food and publishing, and her friend, Natalie, who is working on a childhood obesity-prevention grant in Birmingham. Needless to say, we had plenty to discuss on our way down.

We were so the crazy tourists walked in looking for the “full PieLab experience” and took pictures of everything, which made us less cool, but oh well. First up? Quiche-like herbed squash pie with a side salad. Amazing.

Normally restaurants kitchens seem extremely fast-paced and stressful. Not PieLab. Everything about it emanates a sense of chill that creates an atmosphere begging you to hang around for hours and discuss the world’s problems over piece after piece of pie.
When the pies start to run low, the employees start chopping apples and mixing graham crackers crust by hand to get more pie in the oven.
After touring Greensboro’s mostly abandoned Main Street and taking in the architecture of some awesome old churches and homes, we returned for dessert pie. We each took a bite of one and then rotated them around the table for the complete tasting experience.

The cheddar-apple pie had a flaky cheddar crust and a just-barely-sweet taste from uber freshly chopped apples. Apple pie doesn’t usually do much for me, but now I want to try my own rendition of this piece of scrumptiousness. The chocolate-pecan proved I should never have been skeptical about switching up a classic pie, even with chocolate. The ginger was a cool cream pie that tasted like Thanksgiving.  Not pictured: the peach cobbler I took home and devoured with ice cream after dinner like a pie-eating pig.

Next food field trip? We’re thinking strawberry picking.

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