Monthly Archives: May 2010

Pie Interview: Author Debra Ginsberg on the Role of Pie in Her New Novel, the Inferiority of Cake, and the Revelation of Fresh Strawberry Pie

Debra Ginsberg

Debra Ginsberg is the author of the memoirs, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress (HarperCollins, 2000), Raising Blaze: A Mother and Son’s Long, Strange Journey Into Autism (HarperCollins, 2002), and About My Sisters (HarperCollins, 2004) and the novels Blind Submission (Shaye Areheart Books, 2006) and The Grift (Shaye Areheart Books, 2008). A graduate of Reed College, she has contributed to NPR’s All Things Considered, is a regular reviewer for Shelf Awareness, and works as a freelance editor. She lives in Southern California.

Debra and I share a dear mutual friend and we used to be represented by the same literary agent. We didn’t know each other until recently, though, when Facebook closed the circle. The other day she posted  the below photo of a star-topped blueberry pie that she’d baked. I could tell she was passionate about pie and she gamely agreed to an interview on the topic.

Debra's Blueberry Pie


Gina: Has pie played a role in any of your books?

Debra: It does play something of a role in my new novel (The Neighbors Are Watching – November 2010). Here, one of the “neighbors” is always trying to come up with these spectacular desserts, pie among them, but she’s a hopeless baker.

Gina: Why do you love pie?

Debra: What’s not to love??? Flaky crust and fruit–can you beat it? I think not! But if I were to investigate more deeply, I’d say that I’ve never really loved cake (in fact I don’t really like cake) because it’s too sweet, feels too cloying. There is something very fresh about a pie (well, a fruit pie anyway) and something so satisfying about that combination of crust and filling. Plus, I don’t eat eggs (or bake with them) and it’s quite easy to make wonderful pies without them.

Gina: Who taught you to bake?

Debra: Self taught!

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Debra: My sister and I convincing my dad to go buy fresh strawberry pie and then eating it en famille. I was a teenager and we’d just moved to Oregon. We’d never had fresh strawberry pie like that before–it was a revelation.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Debra: Cherry, if it’s made with fresh cherries. Cherries are my favorite fruit… But unless you make it yourself, it’s hard to find a fresh cherry pie, so the runner up is going to have to be apple or blueberry. Or peach. Or… you see where I’m going with this…

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?

Debra: Any one of those medieval English pies one hears about. Those people would put anything in a piecrust. Hello–four and twenty blackbirds?

Illustration from The Song of Sixpence Picture Book by Walter Crane, 1909

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest?

Debra: I have not, but I think it would be great fun.

Gina: Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Debra: I think if you manage to not make a public spectacle of yourself, it’s all good.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Debra: Lots of butter, lots of chilling, lots of patience.

Gina: What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?

Debra: I think it helps to be a perfectionist and to have the desire to make people happy.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Debra: Pie is like home. The farther we drift into this disconnected morass of technology, the more we need the simplicity, warmth, and connectedness that pie represents.

Same Meadow. Grass Still Growing. Goose Remains Happy.

Pie Interview: Mollie Cox Bryan on Conditional Pie Love, Mrs. Rowe, Southern Pie, and Pie for Breakfast, along with Expert Pie Judging Tips

Mollie Cox Bryan

Mollie Cox Bryan is the author of Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley and Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, which the New York Times named a “Summer Cookbook to Watch” last year. She grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania and currently lives with her husband and “two wild heathen daughters” in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she runs, reads, and writes.


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Mollie: First, I should say that I don’t love ALL pie unconditionally, just most of it.  I don’t like mincemeat and am not fond of shoofly. But the rest of dessert pie, I love because it’s delicious. I don’t have complicated reasons for loving pie. But what’s not to like about it—from a purely hedonistic perspective?

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Mollie: That is hard to choose. I made pies for years with my mom and Aunt Mart. Being at home with them making pumpkin pie is my fondest memory of it. But eating it with Mrs. Rowe is right up there with my fondest memories.

Gina: How did you become involved with Mrs. Rowe and what made her such a great baker?

Mollie: I wanted to write her life story (remarkable) so I approached the restaurant about the project, which was a biography that morphed into a narrative cookbook. I mean here was this woman who was raised in the hills with next to nothing and she built this multi-million-dollar restaurant, with very little education. I knew there was a story there.

Mrs. Rowe had an evolved palette and that made her an excellent baker and cook. It also made her tough to work for sometimes because she demanded excellence. She also had A LOT of practice and she herself would tell anybody that was the trick. But there are people who have a kind of “feel” for things like pie, for example. She had this finely tuned feel for piecrust, knew how it should feel against her skin, how it should smell, look, and so on. Of course, she’d been making piecrust since she was a child.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Mollie: Pumpkin, which goes back to my memory of baking pies with my mom, who made these incredible thick pumpkin pies.

Gina: What makes Southern pies special?

Mollie: It’s several things—the first is that classic Southern pies are always more sweet than other pies. I’ve discussed this with a lot of people and I’m sure one of the reasons for all the sugar is that it’s a great preservative. And with the Southern warm weather, preservation was an important consideration. I’m not sure if the Southern sweet tooth is anymore prevalent than in other parts of the country, or if that’s just another one of those Southern myths that have developed.

The other thing is that Southern pie reflects its region, just like pies of other regions. And we have this vast region with so many different kinds of crops to choose from when we make pie–think about Florida with its Key limes and eastern Virginia with their peanuts, for example.

Gina: What pies are best to eat for breakfast?

Mollie: I’m told that the Pennsylvania Dutch still eat shoofly pie for breakfast. But I prefer pumpkin. Also, any fruit pie, especially peach.

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?

Mollie: I think the watermelon pie in my book is probably the oddest pie I’ve heard about. When the restaurant owner told me he had this recipe for watermelon pie, I was skeptical. But after I saw the ingredients, it made sense and I wondered why it’s not more popular.

Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest? Do you have any competition tips for contestants or judges?

Mollie: Yes, I have judged. I think that contestants should keep it simple. The tendency is for people to fancy up a pie so much that judges are wondering what it is they are tasting. It’s difficult enough to make a perfect, competition-worthy pie. The pie that won the competition I judged was a lemon chiffon—deceptively easy, but elegant and refreshing after all the other extremely rich entries. Creativity is a good thing, but it should make sense.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?

Mollie: As far as technique, I’d say to keep it at one bite. It’s also a good idea to keep it in your mouth a little longer than normal. Let it roll around in there and get a good feel for the texture, as well as flavor.


1.     How the pie looks.

2.     The crust needs to hold together, as well as taste good.

3.     The flavor of the pie.

4.     And consider how well the pie represents its category.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Mollie: I think that pie often acts as a touchstone from our busy lives to a simpler time. Nothing takes you home like pie does. It seems to me that there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in it. The economy has left many of us reeling and pie answers a call of comfort without breaking the bank. Oh sure, you can get gourmet ingredients and make a wonderful pie, but in times like these, it’s great to know you don’t have to do that. Often you can make it with what you’ve got on hand. Simple, inexpensive, local ingredient-filled pies are a reasonable way to indulge. We all need a bit of that.

Same Meadow. Grass and Flowers Growing. Goose Still Happy.

Interview with Ellen Weissbrod: Director, Producer, Writer, and Editor of “a woman like that,” which will Premiere at the Berkshire International Film Festival

Ellen Weissbrod

Filmmaker Ellen Weissbrod merges her own coming of middle-age story with her pursuit of the truths behind the legends of 17th century female painter Artemisia Gentileschi in a woman like that. The documentary will premiere at the Berkshire International Film Festival with screenings on June 5th in Great Barrington and on July 6th in Pittsfield. For tickets, click here.

Although she has been making documentaries for almost 20 years, a woman like that is Ellen’s first personal, feature-length film. Her previous work includes the IDA nominated Face to Face, a portrait of 38-year-old conjoined twins Lori and Reba Schappell; the Emmy nominated It Just Takes One; and the Warner Bros. feature documentary Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones, which premiered at the Edinburgh, Toronto and New York Film Festivals. Roger Ebert named it as one of the best films of 1990. She has also made award-winning commercials for HBO and many music videos.


Gina: In the film, you say that researching Artemisia was like following a trail of crumbs that led back to yourself and your work. What is it about her story that inspired you?

Ellen: Artemisia was a painter and she told stories . . . primarily about woman heroes: Susanna, Cleopatra, Lucretia and Judith, among others. Artemisia’s greatness is in the one frame she chose to paint, how she re-frames the story. It is in these singular frames that Artemisia redefines the women’s stories, and reinvents their narrative arcs.

And Artemisia does this not just in her painting but in her own life; with the letters she writes to her patrons and in her self-representation – in the story she tells as she takes the stand against her accused rapist – over and over Artemisia re-frames her own story against the conventional narratives of her own time. Through this process, Artemisia empowers us all – myself included – to re-think and re-imagine our own trajectories – to reframe the stories we dream for ourselves.

As author Alexandra Lapierre says in the film, “if she dared, we can dare it as well.” And as Artemisia herself writes to a patron who has questioned her abilities, “You will find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman.”

In her art making, with her storytelling, I believe that Artemisia has left to each of us a trail of breadcrumbs to find our own way to become “a woman like that.

"Susanna and The Elders" by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610

Gina: How many years did it take you to create this film? Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers?

Ellen: I have been thinking about Artemisia’s story for 20 years. I first thought of making a narrative feature and wrote a script, although I did not have the tenacity at that time to make it happen. So when the show of Artemisia and her father Orazio came to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum, I decided I had to make it happen. So I guess it took me between 8 and 20 years to bring this to fruition.

To aspiring documentary filmmakers I would just say you have to figure out how to tell the stories you want to tell in your own way.

Ellen Weissbrod

Gina: Why did you make the title of your film lowercase?

Ellen: To me ‘a woman like that’ is part of a sentence – I want to be … a woman like that or I’ve got to find a way to be … or How can I be… a woman like that?

Gina: The quest to know Artemisia consumed your life for so many years. Now that your film is finally complete, what’s next?

Ellen: Like many filmmakers I have a lot of things on the back burner – but now the first order of business for me and my producing partner Melissa Powell is to get this film seen and Artemisia’s story known. We’re self-distributing, and traveling to museums, colleges, film festivals, independent theatres and bookstores, showing the film and talking about Artemisia and everything her work and life inspires in people.

"Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613-1614

Same Meadow. More Dandelions. Happy Wet Goose.


Happy Wet Goose

Same meadow. New flowers. Happy wet Goose.

Windy Meadow. Happy Goose.

Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Pie Interview: Shelley Handler on Spit Cups, Flaky Crust, and Drunken Cream

Shelley Handler

Shelley Handler is a three-decade veteran of the food business. The inaugural chef of the Chez Panisse Café, she cooked in restaurants in San Francisco and Italy, including the three-star Gualtiero Marchesi. She has taught throughout her career, serving for a decade as a chef-instructor at the California Culinary Academy, and as a chef in numerous Bay Area elementary-age after-school programs. She’s put her English degree to work since 1993 writing for food websites, magazines, catalogs, and the back of packages. She also lends her brain to food product development for large food corporations, and looks to put these skills to work on healthful, sustainable, earth-loving food and education for school kids.

I first met Shelley in 1974, when I was nine, and my mom and I moved into a commune in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district that was largely populated by members of Anna Halprin’s Dancers’ Workshop. Shelley was then living in the basement next to the primal scream room.  Coincidentally, my husband Dave met her not long after that, when he was playing in a New Wave band with his brothers called No Sisters. Shelley’s sister (whom Dave just told me starred in Devo’s Whip It video…now that’s some kind of claim to fame) dated the drummer (who was the only non-brother in the band). Shelley’s floated in and out of our lives ever since and remains a loyal friend to my mom. I’ve always admired her flair, smarts, and creativity.


Gina: Why do you love pie?

Shelley: I love it because what you see is what you get. And I love the flavor of a well-made, flaky crust, especially the toasty part around the rim.

Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?

Shelley: I can’t remember where it was eaten, but a deep-dish boysenberry pie–individual sized, single crust, hot, with vanilla ice cream, a la mode.

Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?

Shelley: Any pie with a delicate, flaky crust and tart fruit. I’m particularly fond of boysenberry or strawberry rhubarb.

Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard of?

Shelley: A timballo, a traditional Italian confection–deep, drum-like with a cornucopia of ingredients including pasta and sauce. It’s the central character of the iconic food movie Big Night.

Gina: Have you ever judged a pie contest? Any tips?

Shelley: I have not. That said, being a regular taster/judge of less lovely ingredients for the San Francisco Chronicle‘s product tasting and rating panel since 1999, I would suggest small bites, take time to breathe with your mouth closed to taste the nuances, and have a spit cup at hand for when you can’t swallow any more or run into a nasty sample.

Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider?

Shelley: The synthesis of crust and filling–the taste and texture of that place where crust and filling meet. The texture of the crust–is it tender and flaky, but still substantial enough to contain the fruit? Take a bite of the crust, a bite of filling, and then a combined bite–to take in the flavor and texture of each on its own and then the flavor/texture of the two in a combined bite.

Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?

Shelley: Ice water and mix gingerly–just till the ingredients come together.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good pie and a transcendent one?

Shelley: The quality of the ingredients and intensity of the flavor of the filling. The more distinct and nuanced the filling the better the pie.

Gina: Do you think great bakers are born rather than made?

Shelley: Due to the chemistry/science aspect of baking–accurate measurements and definite order of business, I think bakers are made. Perhaps inspired bakers are born, but I think anyone can learn to be a good one. I think kindness and thoughtfulness are good pie-making traits.

Gina: Is there a way to use alcohol in pie without having the kick burn off?

Shelley: The best thing for making pies with a kick is to use a baked crust and a cold filling, such as a mousse or pudding. Think drunken cream pie.

Gina: Why does pie matter today?

Shelley: Because of its honesty and simplicity, it seems like the pastry antidote to information overload. It is such an historic dish, and it links us to our baking predecessors. It’s also a perfect food for difficult times–inexpensive to make, comforting in process and flavor, and meant to share.

Introducing My New Glasses

My New Glasses

Thanks again to everyone who voted on my new glasses. I like ’em. This photo doesn’t quite capture the colors–translucent magenta and lime green. They’re made by a French company called Traction, whose design mission is to “combine Californian modernity and French refinement.” There you have it.

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