Pie Makes It Better


Just some of the many pies that are made on premises from scratch, and sold

Sometimes the way to a community’s heart is through its stomach:

The promise of PieLab.

Story and Photographs by Meg McKinney

From the first bite of luscious pie to the last crumb on your plate, followed by homemade raspberry lemonade, you know that your taste buds have been taken to another culinary realm when you visit PieLab, a non-profit community kitchen in Greensbora, Ala.

It’s a trip that you don’t want to end.  Your senses just may be swooning from the delectable pies, which are just $3 per slice, and can’t help themselves from wanting more.

And that “more” can be a piece of buttermilk pie accompanied by a glass of sweet buttermilk, or peach cream pie, or pecan pie— all available in mini-pie and regular pie slices.

The most popular pie on a recent trip was the peach cream. One bite stirred low, appreciative moans, followed by more bites, more low moans, and then, suddenly, the peach cream pie was sold out.

Their savory pies are popular as well. Garden quiche; bacon and cheese quiche; crawfish pie; balsamic-roasted tomato, bacon and spinach pie; and local goat cheese, caramelized onion and mushroom tart are some you may choose from.

Each crust is made by hand and rolled flat with a wooden rolling pin on a flour-dusted surface. Edges of the crusts are “prettied up” by crimping, Christi Talbert, PieLab director of hospitality, says as she finishes the edges of a crawfish pie with a whole wheat crust.

Making a pie crust

PieLab doesn’t scrimp on sweet variations, offering blueberry peach crisp, bread pudding and chocolate walnut brownies.

Tailgating football fans can order from a menu named Grid Iron Pies To Go. Along with the savory pies, there are pecan pies, pecan butter, pecan brittle, chocolate bourbon pecan pie, green apple pie with sharp cheddar crust and apple pie simply baked with sliced apples rolled in spices and sugar.

Every food sold to the public at PieLab is made like the pies—by hand, one recipe at a time,  and with as many local, fresh ingredients as possible.

PieLab has it’s own vegetable garden located nearby, which helps keeps expenses down. Ingredients are picked daily by interns and students in the job training program.

“Eggs are cheap,” explains Deborah Callia, PieLab manager, referring to the economically priced menu. “We grow most of the vegetables ourselves and don’t use pesticides. We get free seeds to grow the plants.” Callia points out a slice of warm, steaming garden quiche. “We pay for the cheese but only used a quarter-cup in the whole pie,“ she says.

Eggs are used often because they are inexpensive

“We work efficiently, so we can charge just $3 a slice,” according to O’Neal Crawford, director of housing. “It allows us to splurge on goat cheese for instance, and we purchase Higher Ground coffee.”

“We can splurge on fresh-squeezed lemons for lemonade,” she adds. “There are no processed foods. The students learn culinary skills and better food habits too.”

The recipes, so cherished in the world of pie, come from people in the community, according to Sara Williams, community director. “Some we developed, and some we just found,” she says. “We try to make seasonal pies as much as possible, too.”

PieLab.

What’s in this name? It’s a curious moniker that brings out questions, followed by descriptions, answers, more questions, and it all results in talk.

Lots of talk.

This is the genius behind creating PieLab, in Greensboro?

Say where?

Yes, Greensboro is 98 miles southwest of Birmingham. But the distance doesn’t stop Magic City folks from dropping by for a filling breakfast of savory pie and coffee, or serious foodies from checking out multiple pie slices for lunch, and locals from entering one of PieLab’s Bake-Off contests.

PieLab is a mere three years old and has become a destination for Hale County residents and anyone journeying to Tuscaloosa and Mobile.

. Ingredients are picked daily by interns and students in the job training program.

“What better way to show off Alabama than PieLab,” according to Franklin Biggs,  noted Birmingham chef and former owner of Homewood Gourmet. Biggs’s visit to Greensboro also included stops at Auburn University’s Rural Studio projects.

Going to Pielab was “a pilgrimage” for Biggs. “I heard it was a neat place, and it is,” he says. “I love the concept of using a bakery for economic development.”

According to Biggs, the pies are “very, very good, especially the cream pies. The peach cream pie was our favorite. Although the peach blueberry crisp would have been a tie, if we’d eaten it there.” Biggs took the crisp home, and it didn’t travel well.

Would Biggs go back for seconds?

“Absolutely, yes,” he says.

The talk is where PieLab serves as a focal point for a hard-pressed community that welcomes invigoration through new businesses, job training and growth.

The mission for PieLab is printed on cardboard postcards, stacked neatly on the same counter where pies are created:

“Pie + Ideas = Conversation.

Conversation + Design = Social Change.”

People drop by, they have pie, they visit, they talk. The talk results in them learning of job training programs, social needs, housing information and more.

While PieLab is the showcase, the real work goes on at a non-profit called Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, Inc. (HERO) and a design collective known as Project M. HERO is located a few blocks down Main Street from PieLab, and that’s where community members can find information about job training, counseling for home buyers, and information on affordably priced renovated homes.

People drop by, they have pie, they visit, they talk. The talk results in them learning of job training programs, social needs, housing information and more.

One of the current job-training programs teaches students to make bicycle frames from bamboo. Students learn to measure, cut and cure bamboo and to build frames. At a bamboo lot in Greensboro, I find a HERO manager, Andy Volpe, and the trainees measuring the diameter of a bamboo trunk with a caliper (the bamboo can’t be too young or too old) and using a pull saw to cut the bamboo and trim the short, spikey branches.

The bikes are made in a workshop, also located on Main Street, in a building that was a retail store. Curious pedestrians peek in the large windows and see bamboo frames in various stages of creation.

A finished bamboo, single-speed bike is on display, leaning against a white-painted, exposed brick wall. Each student learns to measure and cut the bamboo to final sizes for a bike frame. The next step is to cure the bamboo from a deep, fresh, green color to a golden yellow-brown using a blow torch. Safe work habits are taught at every step.

PieLab Bamboo BiCycle

Bamboo bikes and frames are sold to order. The bamboo frames are $650. The finished bikes are $900 for a single speed, $1700 for  a touring bike and $2000 for the top bike, a 20-speed.

Located on a side street is The Bunk House, a two-story residence. Such historic features as post-and-beam walls and hardwood floors were preserved in the renovation. Guests  of HERO and PieLab stay overnight at The Bunkhouse for a nominal donation. Upstairs, one finds contemporary silver-metal bunkbeds, and the living–dining-conference room on the first floor has a full kitchen.

It’s time for a break, and one must go back for more pie. Upon entering PieLab, one immediately notices the open space, sunny atmosphere and used tables and chairs, along with tall, movable partitions and storage units made from recycled goods. All are functional and practical. Visitors take pictures of the movable structures and furnishings.

A welcome resource

“I like the use of the old, wooden store counters,” Biggs says. He also likes the over-all design of the furnishings.

The practical, functional designs didn’t go unnoticed. PieLab was nominated for a James Beard Award for Design in 2010.

“We lost to the Guggenheim museum in New York,” Williams says with a laugh. “How do you beat the Guggenheim?”

PieLab’s work in Greensboro, and the quality of the pies, have also received positive coverage in the New York Times, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Birmingham News, Tuscaloosa News, Country Living and CBS-TV 42.  Not bad for a three-year-old non-profit business.

Want to make PieLab pies yourself? Manager Callia shares the recipes for peach cream pie, deep-dish apple pie and garden quiche at B-Metro.com. Additional pie and crust recipes are available in the PieLab Cookbook: The Dollop Report ($2, available through PieLab)

Jump right on in, with these recipes. See if pie really does make it better.

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