Because I am a food critic, I receive regular and high-level counsel from sources not accessible to mere mortals: precious data about the wants and needs of the dining public, the desirous howls of the vox populi, distilled into pronouncements. Sushi is waning. Fusion is over. Comfort food is back.
These masters of marketing, these mages of demography and focus groups—the walls of their workshops plastered thickly with charts and graphs, desks a-scatter with spreadsheets and audience-response data—are wizards. They know you better than you know yourselves. Scrying the warp of potentiality, they know what will be hot and what will not. Using nothing more than a cracked bowl, the bones of a confit duck, and Bobby Flay’s tears, they can see the future. And at the dawning of the new year, all signs pointed in a single direction, so that when we critics went to palaver with the warlocks, we bent close, felt their curdled breath tickling our ears, and heard their whispered proclamation.
Pie is the new cupcake.
It was an exciting time. The iron-fisted rule of the cupcake bakers was coming to an end. A new era was dawning in the food world, a new king was being crowned. Pie! Of course it was pie! How could we all have been so blind?
I was particularly happy with this announcement because I have long suffered under the tyranny of cupcakes, just as I did under the flourless chocolate torte and the chocolate lava cake before them. I also knew there were pie bakeries in Seattle already up and running, getting a jump on this new trend and serving pies to the revolutionary masses. What could be more delicious, more comforting, more fresh and new than pie? What better food to knock the damnable cupcake from its frosted throne? Pie was going to save us all.
Dani Cone, owner of Fuel Coffee, was obviously also in on some of these musings about the resurgence of pie. And according to the creation timeline of her new Capitol Hill pie shop, High 5 Pie, she either got her information early or made one very lucky guess. She was already working on bringing a pie shop to life back in 2009. That was when she first started trying to attract investors to her concept, and by December 2010 she had the place up and running in a large, bright, high-ceilinged space on the corner of 12th and Madison.
High 5 has everything you’d expect from a pie shop owned by a coffee entrepreneur trying to ride the zeitgeist. There are plenty of hot drinks on the board, big windows looking out onto the neighborhood (and the Ferrari dealership across the street), a long counter full of bakery cases to display the goods, cafe-style seating for about 20, and of course pies. Pies in glorious variety. Pies in all shapes and sizes. There are full-size pies and smaller pies, petite pies good for just a couple of bites, Cutie Pies baked in muffin tins, pies made in Mason jars, and hand pies—staples of Southern pie-making history, of depressions and poverty, the pride of scratch-cooks and leftover-utilizers everywhere. High 5 caters as well, offering pie pops (tiny little pies on a stick), slab pies, and huge pies that will serve 40. There are fruit pies and cream pies, a few savory pies, and a board of specials that changes day-to-day, season-by-season.
But the one thing all these pies have in common? They are all terrible, with blunt, dull crusts that taste like chewing damp cardboard and fillings that are either overwhelmingly nasty or almost impossibly flavorless, with no sweet middle ground.
I was honestly stunned the first time I tasted High 5’s offerings, thinking that I must’ve been the one doing something wrong—showing up on a bad day, at a bad hour, ordering poorly, or worse. I simply could not believe how disappointing the product was. There were marionberry pies in the case that had bubbled during baking, oozing out their filling around the edges of the uneven crust and scorching to an ugly purply-black. I had a wild-berry Cutie Pie that had almost no fruit flavor at all and a crumble topping with a texture like eating a mouthful of sawdust, barely spiced with cinnamon. And the savory(ish) apple, cheddar, and rosemary hand pie that I walked out the door with was borderline offensive—the apples reasonably made, but then ruined by the tarry pine flavor of whole rosemary needles (so much fun to chew!) and a clotted-up gob of shredded cheddar, barely melted and settled in a ball in the middle of the thing like a prize buried at the bottom of a shit sundae.
I had to go back. I had no choice. No actual customer in their right mind ever would have, but I had to understand how someone could start a pie shop and keep it running without even a vague understanding of how to bake a pie. Cone gives all the credit for her recipes and their inspiration to her grandmother Molly, an apparent whiz with an all-butter crust, but this was just laughable. Even if I’d never tasted a properly-done pie before in my life, I would’ve known these were bad. It was as if no one in the shop had ever tasted one of their own creations.
The second visit was, if anything, worse. I ordered a s’mores hand pie, thinking that there was no way a professional baker could fuck up something that children make with nothing more than a pointed stick and an open flame. But when I bit into it, it was Candid Camera bad—so terrible that I found myself waiting for Allen Funt to jump out from behind the bakery and say “Hey, we got you! Smile, dumbass.”
For reasons I cannot even begin to understand, the bakers in the back had combined chocolate chunks and some scant tracery of marshmallow with crushed-up graham crackers inside the crust, which, when eaten together after baking, had the effect of chewing a wad of warm, gritty wallpaper paste sprinkled with chocolate chips. As in the apple-and-cheddar nightmare, the ingredients had settled unevenly, so that all the graham-cracker crumbs had become a solid plug of spackle at one end of the pie with the chocolate at the other and a tiny squirt of melted marshmallow having boiled out the top. And a cherry-almond hand pie was no better, coming off vaguely sour and occasionally nutty, but for the most part overwhelmingly bland, overcooked, and under-loved. The crust was dry and overworked, neither flaky or chewy but just limp in some places and rock-hard in others, and I found myself hating the thing like a kid being ordered to eat broccoli, resenting every bite I forced myself to take and silently staring daggers at the staff who’d given it to me.
You want to know how bad it was? To wash the texture and the sucking lack of flavor out of my brain, I ordered a slice of vegan apple pie and actually liked it. Apple filling is apparently the only thing this staff can handle with even a modicum of skill. I ate the apples out of the shell of the pie, left the crust behind, and walked out, never to return.
To start a pie shop, you need a recipe, an oven, some board space for mixing, and a basic understanding of the baker’s art. That’s it. Make them good enough and the smell of your pies baking will lift hobos off their feet and dogs will steal them right off your windowsill, if years of cartoon-watching have taught me anything. High 5 had the ovens and the space. It had recipes, passed down (at least according to legend) straight from Grandma Molly. What was missing were bakers who knew how to make pie. (High 5 has announced that they’ll soon be revamping their crust recipe, thus providing evidence that someone realized precisely how bad it’s been.)
But at the simply named Pie in Fremont, things were a little bit different. While not anyone’s definition of brilliant and certainly not producing pies with magical hobo-lifting aromas, compared to what I’d choked down at High 5, Pie’s pies were like eating rainbows in Candy Land.
Pie is small, close, cramped, and busy—a deep-but-narrow Fremont Avenue space with a big sign and a curve of bakery cases displaying their daily creations. Pie does small pies—about the size of a big muffin, with crusts curled like the petals of an open flower—and big pies, and balances sweet with savory better than High 5 does, offering them in roughly equal measure and in flavor combinations that people might actually want to eat. Rather than hand pies, Pie leans in the direction of the pastie or the pot pie—raised and covered pies about the size of a hand grenade and meant for eating on the run.
I ate cherry pie here that actually tasted like cherry pie, swimming with bright red juice and pieces of fruit barely contained under a lattice top crusted with sugar. I had a scratch lemon meringue with the whipped-egg fluff sweating syrup and floating atop a deep well of bright, tart yellow filling twined with bits of lemon zest, and some kind of chocolate-pudding concoction that was an absolute failure as a pie (because the minute the structural integrity of the crust was breached, all the filling just came pouring out), but which worked fine as a kind of edible pudding-delivery vehicle. A smart man would’ve just lifted it to his lips and drunk it down like an oversized shot. I tried to retain my dignity and ate it with a coffee spoon.
The macaroni-and-cheese pie was not great, but the concept was sound: finished mac-and-cheese baked inside an open-topped pastry crust. The crust here was excellent, a flaky container ringed on top with a halo of browned cheese. But the trouble was in the filling: The macaroni and cheese itself tasted dusty with roux and had a strange top note, like white wine used in too high a proportion. The steak-and-potato pie I ate alongside it, however, was very good—chunks of beef, nicely browned, mixed with roasted potatoes and strings of carrots, like a dry beef stew in a sealed crust.
I ate well at Pie and walked away happy. It wasn’t perfect, but after the High 5 debacle I was happy just to have something on my plate that didn’t feel like punishment to eat.As for pies overtaking cupcakes in the trend wars: not here and not yet. Marketing wizards be damned, Seattle just does not yet have anything that can assail the heights to which cupcakes were elevated over the past few years, and that’s really a shame. But as much as I hate cupcakes, I’d eat a hundred of them before going back to High 5.
Cherry pie $4.50
Beef pot pie
$4.95 Lemon meringue
$4.95 Mac-and-cheese $4.95
High 5 Pie
Cutie pies $3
Hand pies $3.50-$3.75
7-inch pie $14-$16
9-inch pies $21-$23