During the summer of 2013 I applied to sell rhubarb pies at the Brooklyn Flea.
For the crust:
2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup + 2 tbsp shortening
4-5 tbsp cold water
I am not a baker—or very domestic at all— but I have always loved rhubarb pie. Growing up in upstate New York, my mom would pick rhubarb from our back garden and pull the card from my Grandmom’s wooden recipe holder to make the pie from scratch. When I was little, we would eat rhubarb stalks dipped in sugar.
Since moving to New York City, each time I went upstate to visit my family during the summer, I would bring back rhubarb pies for my roommates and coworkers. Often I’d hear, “Wow, this is so good, but what the fuck is rhubarb?”
For the filling:
2 generous cups of (upstate) rhubarb
2 generous cups of (hand-picked) strawberries
1 tbsp flour
1-1.5 cups sugar, depending on tartness of the rhubarb
1 slightly beaten egg
If people are unfamiliar with rhubarb, I thought, then I have a potentially niche product. I could make something of it. The name came to me on the first try: The Upstate Rhubarb. Classic and efficient. I like to be literal and to keep up transparency. Strong name aside, I did not hear back from the Brooklyn Flea.
I think this had a lot to do with where I was personally and professionally. When I first applied, I had a full-time position and was seeking independence. When I reapplied, almost a year later, I had left that full-time job. I was working on creating my own schedule, working out the real priorities in my life. I wanted to do everything; to make all of my ideas happen at once. I also fell in love.
Mix the flour, salt, and shortening with a fork until little crumbles form. Add the water. Mix with (clean) hands until dough forms. Wrap and put in fridge (chilled dough rolls more easily than at room temperature.)
In March 2014, my boyfriend Hugh returned from a six-month hiatus in Australia. We were eating Shake Shack and people-watching on a cold bench after just visiting the Whitney Museum. I told him about the pies. “Go for it,” he responded. Hugh’s Polish grandfather has a saying, “you like, go for.” It’s better to try something out and fail then sit in discontent.
We were still getting to know one another. When Hugh took my idea seriously, I realized that I could pursue it further. He had my back. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t accepted in 2013. Hugh is a huge part of The Upstate Rhubarb. Sure, I am capable of lugging tables, setting up tents, and baking pies, but it’s much more enjoyable with someone I love.
Grab a 9 inch pie tin or pan.
I created a Tumblr. My brother mocked up a logo for The Upstate Rhubarb. I pushed send on the application, again. This time I received a response—an email with an invitation for an interview and tasting. The next steps were all a matter of doing: I ordered brown pie boxes, a stamp, custom napkins, and tablecloth similar to the one I had growing up covered with red roosters. Hugh and I started baking pies with the help of friends, experimenting with ingredients—more sugar, maple sugar, less sugar, muscovado sugar, organic eggs, balsamic glaze, and various shortenings.
After playing around in the kitchen, I decided to stay firmly rooted in the original recipe, exactly the way it was written, the way I remembered it first tasting as a kid. The classic, no-frills-way of letting the rhubarb speak for itself. I was so attached to the recipe that when Hugh suggested that we triple the recipe for a speedier process, I felt… weird. When we started churning out 20 pies a Saturday, I ceded.
Take dough from fridge; cut in half.
With the recipe down, I baked the perfect strawberry rhubarb pie and brought it in for the tasting, still warm from the oven, with vanilla ice cream and a white cloth napkin tied with twine. I took a cab to the interview in Dumbo with my friend Nicole—much needed moral support.
This recount won’t do it justice, but the interview was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It was like being quizzed by Jeff Goldblum and Action Bronson all on the level of commitment and potential scalability of The Upstate Rhubarb. I was equally terrified and psyched.
Roll out on wax paper or clean surface, using flour to help, half that dough for the bottom of the pie. You can place the tin over the dough so you roll out about 2″ wider than the tin.
A week later I received an enormous email detailing everything about Brooklyn Flea’s Smorgasburg, from the load-in process, to the vendor bathroom locations. Like that, The Upstate Rhubarb was born. I immediately signed up and starting studying for the NYC Food Safety exam.
Set the bottom in the tin and bake for ten minutes with wax paper and rice or pie weights. This step firms up the bottom so it cuts more nicely. (You don’t have to do this.)
I walked around the city with Hugh quizzing me on the correct temperature for cooked chicken (165°F). I scored a passing 82. Then it was insurance papers, a vendor license, DOH certified kitchen, and DBA for taxes—happily running to and from the financial district every time I realized I was missing a paper that I needed. At our first flea, we bought out the pie tins at Key Foods, had Square for taking credit card payments, and loaded a Zipcar like old pros—the true Brooklyn entrepreneurship.
My Grandad always had pie and coffee in the afternoons, so we thought we would sell coffee to go with slices. Brewing one pot at a time was an impossibility, so I will admit here that on that first day we brought our three-gallon mason jar dispenser full of Dunkin Donuts coffee. Karma, however, prevented us from selling any coffee—we were very kindly told that Brooklyn Roasting Company and Grady’s had that domain on lock.
Mix ingredients for filling together with a spoon. Add the filling to the pie crust bottom and roll out the other half of the dough for a lattice top, or set the dough on top and poke some aesthetically pleasing holes so that the pie can breathe.
The sense of community between vendors at the flea is a beautiful thing. It could have been competitive, but the market is curated by good vibes. We borrowed sidewalk chalk, ran out of forks, bartered for lunch, and laughed our asses off. We rented tents and tables from the flea, and purchased a hand painted “Pies & Ice Cream” sign from Brimfield made out of old benches. We eventually made it through health inspection with the help of Sunday Gravy; they gave us their hand-washing station to use. We sold out by three p.m.
Behind our pie stand, I was reminded at how pleasurable it is simply to ask someone “How’s your day going?” We had conversations and exchanged stories with customers. By the end of the summer we had a solid pitch about being from upstate—“and I’m not talking about Albany or Poughkeepsie!” We were honored to be serving up nods and grins of approval. Luckily we were placed next to Mighty Quinn’s; it turns out that strawberry rhubarb pie is the perfect pair to a brisket sandwich.
Brush the top with egg whites (helps to turn crust golden brown) and sprinkle with sugar.
In the fall, we sold s’mores. Hugh had baked marshmallows before, and thought that he could infuse them with strawberry-rhubarb. We reduced a variation of the pie filling to a thick pulpy goo, and swirled it through a homemade marshmallow mix, pairing it with the classic Nabisco Graham Cracker and Hershey’s Chocolate, and toasting it on site with a blowtorch. An instant hit.
My family got a kick out of the whole experience: my taking a food & health exam, and selling whole pies for $30 a pop when they go for about $8 at home. Mom sent us an apron adorned with a giant rhubarb leaf. Aunt Kathy sent us all the rhubarb she could cut. Hugh and I went upstate to pick our own strawberries and rhubarb. My friend Michael suggested, even demanded, that I make my own lard.
Bake at 420 degrees for 40 min—you’ll smell the pie when it’s ready. Watch if the top starts becoming too brown; just cover lightly or throw tinfoil over the top to prevent burning.
I have a newly found appreciation for my upbringing. I was raised to be, firstly, a good person and secondly, myself. But what does that mean? I’m sure many of us escaped our childhoods to seek out new identities and to craft our own experiences. But it always comes full-circle. I think that’s part of growing up. What I left is now what I treasure most, what have pride in, respect for, and for which I am grateful.
Living out a slice of my grandparents’ legacy means becoming closer to the type of people that they were, the type of people that my parents are. With so many options to be doing so many things, I think taking pride in what we do and trying—even if we don’t succeed right away—is the key ingredient.
If the pie oozes, no worries! It’ll become yummy, sticky, jam-like; or just clean up edges with a towel. Serve warm with ice cream.