Gina Hyams Author

Pie Interview: Queen Esther on Winning the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party Pie Contest, Learning to Bake on a Suzy Homemaker Easy-Bake Oven, Pie Crust as Waterloo, and the Connection Between Pie and Creativity

My friend Katherine Myers posted as her Facebook status the other day about how she loves it when procrastination works in her favor. This happens so often to me that I’ve come to believe that it’s somehow key to my creative process—that if I marinate a project long enough, when the time finally comes for me to really deal with it, I’ll have what I need and often as not, it turns out what I need wasn’t available during that earlier time period when I’d have been writing in a less adrenaline-driven sort of way.

The piece of the pie puzzle that I’d been pondering, but not acting on, was the contacting of pie contest winners to secure permission to include their recipes in my Pie Contest in a Box, which is due to my Andrews McMeel editor in a couple of weeks. I’d stumbled on many promising candidates during the course of my research, but there were still a few open slots. On a whim, I searched “pie contest” on Twitter and this message popped up:

“@queenesther I won the pie contest – “best savory” – at the roaring 20s jazz age lawn party today! *applewood smoked bacon apple pie* – yaaaay!
12:21 AM Aug 29th via web from Hamilton Heights, New York

This was every which way fortuitous, as I needed another savory pie recipe and this one sounded great and the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party on New York’s Governors Island is totally fun and represents the new face of pie contests. Then I clicked on Queen Esther’s Twitter profile, where she describes herself as: “Negropolitan. Artist. Hillwilliamette. Dazzling urbanite.” From an editorial standpoint, we’re talking gift from God. She was just what I needed to balance the Iowa State Fair peach pie contest winner, the California vegan gluten-free apple pie champ, and the Georgia rancher with his blue ribbon chicken pie.

Queen Esther is a singer and actress, in addition to being a prize-winning baker and, as it turns out, a phenomenal writer. Here is her pie interview. You’ll have to buy the kit next spring to see her recipe.

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Queen Esther performing at the Harlem International Jazz Festival, Apollo Theater, 2008.

Gina: How many pie contests have you entered and won?

Queen Esther: This is the first pie contest I’ve ever entered, and it’s the first one that I’ve ever won. I love to cook and bake, and entering contests is something I’ve always wanted to do – just for the fun of it.

Gina: What’s the scene like at the Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party? Did you go in costume?

Queen Esther at the 2010 Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party. Photo by Josh Lowenthal.

Queen Esther: The scene at The Roaring 20s Jazz Age Lawn Party is kind of like stepping into an ever-expanding time warp. The more you walk around, the more you take in, the more you see and do and explore, the further down the rabbit hole you fall, until it feels as though it really is 1920-something, and the people who aren’t dressed to the nines are the ones who eventually come off as though they’re totally out of place. It’s surreal – in part because there are so many participants who take it seriously.

Think of it. You, with your garters and stockings, your brightly colored paper parasol, your drop waist linen dress, your Marcellus waves in your hair, your vintage jewelry. You know quite a few of the tea dances and you take to the dance floor as often as you are asked to dance. The dress you are wearing is older than your grandmother. And the guy that you’re with, the one that’s wearing an impeccable seersucker suit and a straw hat tilted just so, you’re the ones who are in step with the now. At least that’s the way it feels when you’re surrounded by so many others who are dressed this way.

By the way: if you’re anything like me, it’s not a costume at all. It’s simply the clothes in your closet.

And that’s not all that’s happening at that party, that’s not the only element in the mix. There are vintage cars, vintage stores set up with all kinds of lovely things for sale, there’s a bake sale, tug-of-war contests, a hat parade, a bathing beauties contest, rumble seat rides, lots to eat and drink, dance lessons, a floor show, and a victrola that plays when the bands do not. And the bands play and play and play. There’s a big band and a smaller combo, all of the tunes faithfully in keeping with the original arrangements. Imagine all those songs you’ve heard in the confines of your little speakers, coming at you, live. It’s quite overwhelming, really.

Those picnicking hipsters who are gawking at you – they seem so unrefined, so ill-mannered, so clumsy, so…ordinary. Eventually, they recede into the backdrop and everything vintage comes into even sharper focus than before. It’s kind of trippy and so far for me, it’s never been a disappointment.

What did I wear? It was a vibrantly dark blue rayon dress with an ecru/ivory lace doily of a collar and a slightly a-line shape. I admit, it was more early 1930s than 1920s. The truth is, my body is anything but androgynous and I think it’s rather pedestrian to show up looking like a flapper. The 1920s was so much more than that. You’d be surprised to know how much research it takes to pull all the elements together and get the details right. I was recently cast as a jazz dancer in an episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and sometimes I do it up and go to 1920s soirees. I’m also developing a one-person musical about performer-showstopper/songwriter (and nurse!) Alberta Hunter that delves heavily into her early years in cabaret, so I’m beginning to explore the options.

Gina: Do you have any tips for pie contest competitors?

Queen Esther: Only one – be yourself. Make it up as you go along, and more of you will be in what you create than you’d dare to think.

Gina: What do you think makes the difference between a good pie and a great one?

Queen Esther: Individuality and a flair for the bold. Taking a risk and coming up with something that’s completely unexpected. Doing something different with something traditional.

Queen Esther with Michael Ingbar, an infamous presence on the NYC swing scene -- and one of the pie judges that day. Photo by Mindy Haywood.

Gina: Please tell me about your artistic career and baking history. Why do you love pie?

Queen Esther: I grew up singing in the sanctified church as the middle child and the only daughter in the semi-rural environs of the Deep South, with six brothers, a four-octave range and an IQ that set me firmly in the gifted program for creative writing as a five year old. After studying and singing classical music in a prestigious performing arts high school in Atlanta, I drenched myself in the live music/blues scene in Austin, TX, thanks to an NFA/ARTS theater scholarship. Eventually, I relocated to New York City, finished a BA in Screenwriting from The New School, and flourished in the downtown alt-music/alt-theater scene.

My work as a vocalist, lyricist, songwriter and actor/solo performer and playwright led to creative collaborations in neo-vaudeville, alternative theater, various alt-rock configurations, (neo) swing bands, trip hop DJs, spoken word performances, jazz combos, jam bands, various blues configurations, original Off Broadway plays and musicals, experimental music/art noise and performance art.

I was raised in a traditional Southern household  – with a large, loving, extended family in Charleston, SC that included grandparents and great-grandparents –  so I learned how to cook and bake at an early age. I distinctly remember that I had a Suzy Homemaker Easy-Bake Oven when I was a tot. Unbelievable but true –it baked little cakes with a light bulb. You could look through the tiny oven door and watch the cake rise and everything. And there was icing! I can remember making my daddy a cake. It looked like a miniature hockey puck. And he ate it! He said it was delicious – and believe me, he wouldn’t have if it weren’t true.

By the time I was 10, I was running the kitchen to my entire immediate family’s watchful and overly critical satisfaction – especially my daddy, who would sometimes stand over me and watch me do my thing.

My mother made the best cobblers, dumplings, sweet potato pies and biscuits –bar none. I distinctly remember all of us kids – and quite a few that we played with in the neighborhood – habitually bringing her mounds of blackberries that we would usually pick and eat in the woods after she once off-handedly remarked that if we brought them to her, she’d make something good. And she did. They were the absolute best blackberry dumplings I’ve ever had, then or now. It was so effortless, so delicious, with very simple basic ingredients.

And therein lies my very personal problem with pie crust.

My mother couldn’t tell me exactly how much of anything to use when she made pie crust because she never measured anything. She would throw shortening, flour and water in a bowl and the next thing I knew, she was rolling the dough onto that flour dusted kitchen table. My grandmother, on the other hand, wouldn’t tell me how to make pie crust. Even now, whenever I ask, she just throws her head back and waves me off, with a short high laugh. She declares that if they had Pet-Ritz when she was a kid, she wouldn’t know how to make it now. As far as she’s concerned, I should stick to the Pillsbury pie crust that rolls out, right into the pie pan ready-made, and call it a day.

But I can’t. I have to make everything from scratch. It’s my thing. Pie crust, as it turns out, is my Waterloo.

Gina: Do you think there’s any connection between your singing and your baking?

Queen Esther: Absolutely.

Baking pie is a great escape. It’s a lovely way to get lost in my own home. When I bake, something clicks and I stop thinking – and that’s when real creativity tends to emerge. I usually leave the kitchen fortified with strong ideas for some project I’m working on that’s already underway.  Or bits and pieces of lyrics. Or a melody that’s sticking in my head. Baking pie is a great way to keep those creative juices flowing.

Queen Esther

I couldn’t possibly eat everything I bake, so I’ve developed this bad habit of foisting what I come up with on so many beautiful people in my life because frankly, there’s no way I could possibly stay this size if I didn’t.  So far, I haven’t gotten any complaints. And sharing everything keeps my pie baking skills in great form.

Baking pie can also be a handy distraction.

On the Saturday that I went to the lawn party on Governor’s Island, I had an audition in midtown early in the afternoon for an upcoming Broadway show – the lead role for the musical Sister Act.  There I was on the subway, dressed head to toe in vintage clothing surrounded by sunburnt tourists of every ilk, with fresh hot pie in my lap. Now that was quite a picture.

The problem was that my pie had to be on the judge’s table by 3pm. The audition started at 1pm. With the slower weekend subway schedule and a boat ride to get to the island – albeit a short one –  it could take an hour to get there. And there was more. When I got to the audition before 1pm, the place was packed.  I almost left when I saw someone walking around with the number 200 – but that’s the number they started with, so I stayed. My number? 239.  The question floated over my head all day, in neon: Would I make it?

Surprisingly, I did – with a little help from my friend Mindy.

After a flurry of text messages, phone calls and hand-wringing, Mindy swept into the audition like a superhero, and as she changed into her vintage attire in the restroom, she reassured me repeatedly that she would get that pie to the island on time. Believe it or not, I finally calmed down. (A little.)

What about the audition, she said, almost laughing, as she left. Oh, that! I remember thinking.

Here’s the thing about auditioning that most actors know and very few actors can pull off. You can’t care all that much about it. If you care too much, you’re desperate – and that’s never a good thing. If you don’t care enough, you’re ambivalent. That’s not good, either. You have to care, but not really.  It’s a delicate balance. I think that pie helped me find it that day, and that allowed me to go into the audition with confidence, have fun and do my best.

Pie! Who knew?

Gina: Why do you think pie matters today?

Queen Esther: Cake is one thing, but pie is something else entirely.

When I think of desserts, pie is the ultimate comfort food. Simply put, there is something about it that says home. And although home means different things to everyone, I think that instinctively you are reaching for your idea of what home is, and for that comfort, with every bite, even if you didn’t have a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother that baked, like I did, or even if home for you was a negative situation.

In the aftermath of 9/11, so many people that I knew stayed home and basically nested.  When it was time to socialize, potluck dinners became the norm. Everyone seemed to intuitively want what a restaurant or a bar strived for quite often but couldn’t ever really provide – comfort.

Nowadays, things seem to be shifting gears towards a less complicated approach to living well. Everyone wants to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat clean food. Locally grown, organic produce and meats are all the rage, at least in my neck of the woods. When it comes to baking desserts, there isn’t much that encompasses the essence of this ideal more than pie does. It’s synonymous with nurturing and warmth and, well…love, I suppose. Perhaps this is true because making pie is so personal and because it can be served hot, and that warmth translates into so much more when it’s inside of you.

We all want to feel loved, don’t we. If it’s true that you put yourself in what you make and if there’s love in your efforts, perhaps inadvertently, that’s a part of what someone is experiencing when they eat pie.

I’d like to think that’s true of the pie that I make.

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