The World Needs More Pie

"Give a Piece a Chance." — Books. Blog. Pie Classes. And a Pinch of Activism.

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Teaching Pie Making in a South African Township

What? You thought I traveled all the way to South Africa for a vacation? Think again. I am not the kind of person who can sit on a beach for a week (though sometimes I wish I was). The purpose of my trip two and a half continents away from Iowa was two-fold. One: to take a break before the onslaught of my book launch. Turns out that even though I wrote the book a full year ago, launching it into the world brings up a whole new mess of emotions. And two: to test drive my next book, “World Piece.” The idea for this book is to bake pie around the world, sharing our American-style custom and learning about other cultures’ versions of pies (and believe me, every culture has one). And if I’m going to tackle the entire globe, I have to start somewhere. Why not start near Cape Town, South Africa where (a) it’s summer (while it’s snowing in Iowa) and (b) I have a good friend, Alayne, who would help me get immersed in the local scene quickly. So quickly, in fact, that a few hours after I landed Alayne had secured a pie class venue in the township of Kayamandi. For over 100 kids.

Kayamandi is a privileged township as far as townships go. (Remember, “township” is a euphemism for slum.) It is supported by various NGOs and with the vision, leadership and labors of local Stellenbosch resident Hannes Van Zyl, it has a clean and modern center for after-school programs. Hannes understood my approach to pie and its “therapeutic value” and arranged for me to spend an afternoon teaching my craft in the township.

My host (and good friend) Alayne not only helped arrange the class and took me shopping for pie making ingredients, she accompanied me to the class. (She also drove me because I’m still too terrified to drive on the left hand side of the road.) She took initiative and began the long process of peeling 16 kilograms of apples — which is 35 pounds.

The kids arrived and were excited to help. I have taught many pie classes and had to teach many an adult how to peel an apple. Not here. These kids knew how to use a paring knife and made the work go quickly.

I had trepidation about teaching this class because I didn’t think the South African kids would know what pie was, let alone be enthusiastic about making it. I thought the whole effort might fall flat and be a total bust. I was very wrong. Pie is a known entity in this country — they have meat pies and a sweet favorite called Melktert, which is a sweet custard pie. The kids’ enthusiasm was so great  I was lucky to have some extra adults on hand to keep them from jumping onto the tables. That said, I was blown away by the good manners and listening skills of these darling, incredibly well-behaved students.

Pie dough calls for ice water. Since we didn’t have ice cubes, we froze water in plastic bottles ahead of time. This was fine with me because one of my favorite points to make is: Pie is about improvisation!

Speaking of improvisation, I had to throw some of my pie-making mandates out the window. Namely, there was no way I could preach about not overworking the dough when we had so many kids wanting a hands-on experience and not enough work stations to accommodate everyone. They ALL wanted to help and I was not about to stop them!

Look at all those busy hands in the bowl of dough. Not one of them complained about getting their hands dirty. This was a first for me.

Yeah, that’s me (above) — one big blur because I never stopped moving long enough to have my photo taken. I ran from table to table answering cries for help. “Teacher, teacher, can you show us how to roll the dough” and “We need more flour” and “We need some help.”  I happily came running. Literally. At least it helped me (temporarily) forget about my jet lag.

The center supplied rolling pins — child-size ones, no less. I’m going to have to invest in some of those when I get home.

Happiness is 20 kids making one pie. Look at the flour on their hands. Look at the smiles on their faces. If this doesn’t make my 24 hours on 3 different airplanes worth the trip, I don’t know what does.

A perfectly placed flour hand print. A perfect smile. (above)

Adding the sugar to the apples…(above)

There was never a moment when apples were not being peeled or sliced. As the German saying goes, “Many hands make little work.” Everyone pitched in so willingly.

Who knew that the stand-out students would be the teenage boys? These guys took to pie making instantly and naturally. What was especially impressive was their teamwork. What you don’t see in the picture is the pie they made with all the leftover dough. It was huge, in a casserole pan, and I saw them fitting pieces of dough into the trough, working together, as if they were contestants on a cooking show. If they lived closer to Eldon, Iowa, I’d happily hire them for my pie stand this summer. I’m not kidding.

They made 12 pies total, plus the big casserole-size one. All apple. All delicious. All made with dedication and love.

This little guy above was by far the smallest kid in the class. But size doesn’t matter. He got an A-plus for his hard work. And he offered heaps of help to others, finding and fetching the cinnamon (one shaker shared by the whole room), sprinkling sugar, and did a good job rolling his own dough.

We didn’t have aprons so the kids’ school uniforms were covered in flour by the time we were done. None of the kids complained, but I wonder what their moms said when they got home.

The students never lost interest, even after the pies went into the ovens. Here (above) a group keeps watch over one of the two ovens we used. This was helpful as the ovens were on two different floors.

The group of teenage boys guarded their pies in the oven behind them, including the super-size casserole pie.

While the pies were baking a group of the kids (mostly girls) spontaneously formed a circle and broke into song and dance. I was running between the two kitchens and only got a brief taste of their music but it was so moving, so powerful, it’s just as well I couldn’t stay and watch. To know we were in a poverty-stricken area and to witness this expression of joy, this beauty, this celebration of life was almost too much to bear. It was a truly humbling and magnificent moment. I may have been the teacher, but I also learned a lot from these little human beings, so full of life and love.

Here we are in one of the two kitchens. The woman in blue (center) is Mpumi, who coordinated the pie class, with the rolling pins washed and ready for the next class. Yes, I’m teaching a second pie class tomorrow.

Okay, so these may not be the prettiest pies ever produced in one of my classes, but again, let’s remember the mantra: Pie is not about perfection. Consider too that we had 100 kids making only 12 pies and English is not even their first language. And I couldn’t give instructions in Zulu. But I don’t need to make any excuses or apologies for these pies. I was proud of each and every one of them — of every student and every pie.

Underscoring the politeness and outstanding manners of the kids, they all lined up, youngest to oldest, and waited patiently for a slice of pie. We had to make them wait because even after slicing it, it was still too hot to eat.

One girl was overheard declaring to Mpumi, “I’m going to tell my mom we are going to make this pie every day.”

The awning over the entrance to the center says, “Bridge the divide…” I’d like to think that my pie making lesson might help narrow the gap just a little more. I know it did for me.