Friday, November 2, 2018

When Desperation Begets Perfection - Hoosier Mama Pie Company - Chicago

Pie was never this cool. Not where I was from.  Not in rural Missouri.  Not in the 1970s.  Pie then seemed the default setting of middle-American culinary laxity and the thing you brought to church socials and offered to new neighbors and won in elementary school raffles.  Pie was the snooze button on culinary innovation.  It was old fashioned.  And it appeared on restaurant menus and family dinner tables like some artifact of a bygone era, always dolloped, it seemed, with the Pleistocene miasma of culinary decay.  It was emblematic of everything a child of that time and place didn’t want at the end of a meal.  Pie wasn’t Pop Rocks. It wasn’t Laffy Taffy.  It sure as shooting wasn’t Zots.  Pie was the foodstuff of octogenarians and culinary nostalgists.  It was soft food for farm people with leaky, Depression-era memories and bad teeth, and its ubiquity in our young American lives made it an object of ridicule and scorn for all the cool kids across the Show-Me state.  Because cool like this pie was most certainly not.

Not until the seventeen-year-old version of myself had chanced across Kerouac’s famous pie references in On the Road did I first get a whiff of pie’s inherent panache and élan.  Not until I had read Kerouac’s confession that pie was “practically all [he] ate all the way across the country” did I consider pie’s place in the pantheon of the culinary hip.  But it wasn’t until my accidental career as a thirty-year-old culinarian brought me into daily contact with some truly great pastry chefs did I truly begin to understand that pie is simple, and that simple is almost always really, really hard, and that the intricate interplay among butter, flour, and water in the making of pie dough is as ethereal as the rendering of gastronomic gold in an alchemist’s kitchen.  Pie is magical.  And no one—and I mean no one—is making better pie in the American Midwest these days than Chef Paula Haney and her crew of cool kids at the Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Chicago.  

Paula Haney is just the kind of chef that professional culinarians and food careerists like me love to love.  She is the once-nascent amateur turned celebrated virtuoso, whose rise to culinary acclaim came through years of fantastically hard work, making her bones (in the parlance of this industry), as she did, in some of the most demanding fine-dining kitchens in the country.  Haney is a chef’s chef.  A pro’s pro. A savant of the sweet stuff who walked away from the high-wire act of fine dining to pursue her possibly financially-ruinous passion for all-things-pie.  It’s a theme found in many of the winning narratives across this business, and it’s a central trope to most stories that speak to self-sacrifice on the path to culinary greatness:  the late-to-the-game, self-taught outsider who risks it all for a glittering, gastronomic prize.  And it's Haney’s daring, as well as her hard-won triumph, that has made her a much-beloved figure in the world of Chicago food.  

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Haney majored in journalism at Indiana University.  It was only when she failed to find work as a reporter—so the story goes—did Haney first take up a rolling pin in anger.  First as a five-dollar-an-hour baker for a Bloomington, Indiana, area coffee shop, and then, later, two hours to the north, in our shared big city of Chicago, as head pastry chef at Pili.Pili, One Sixtyblue, and, finally, Trio, with then-gastronomic wonder boys, Shaun McClain and Grant Achatz. But for all her prowess as a pastry chef, I believe its Haney’s non-culinary antecedents as a writer (e.g.: big, huge brain; sweet tooth for culinary context and gastronomic intertextuality between savory and sweet), as well as her origins as Hoosier-state native, that have all happily coalesced in producing what is easily the best desperation pie I’ve ever encountered, and what may very well be the best piece of pie in Middle America:  the Hoosier sugar cream pie.

For those yet unfamiliar with desperation pies—or “make-do” pies, if you’re from Missouri—they are the very definition of locavorism and seasonality in gastronomy:  they are what your deprivation-addled, pre-refrigeration-era forebears made for dessert when the larder was empty and local trees had stopped fruiting—when ingredients like vinegar and sugar, molasses and cream, were all that might be had for these hard-scrabble, seasonally-bound, intrepid early bakers.  Desperation pies are the very acme of thrift in baking, and they represent the high-water mark of making due—and making delicious—with whatever ingredients might be on hand. 

Chef Haney’s Hoosier sugar cream pie is the supreme archetype of the desperation pie and the best shot we mortals have at experiencing the Platonic ideal of godliness in pie.  Made with just eggs, cream, brown sugar, and vanilla paste, Haney’s Hoosier pie has the mouthfeel of a cloud and the savor of a custard that has politely declined the opportunity to become butterscotch.  It evokes the best in American gastronomic ingenuity, and it’s so deeply and ridiculously delicious that I found myself—fork in hand—pounding on the Hoosier Mama table with every miraculous, perfect little bite.

When desperation begets culinary perfection, it tastes like this.  I think Kerouac would agree.

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