Every apple season my parents would drive to the local farm stands of New Jersey, buy some fresh apples and make their delicious pie. My mom would cut the apples, and my dad would get to work crafting the pastry.
“I was one of seven kids, so I suppose they were just looking for an activity they could do together, just the two of them. I found it fascinating to watch. Try as I might, even after 40 years, I have never quite been able to make a pie like my parents’ apple pie.”
But Ken Haedrich’s quest to recreate his parents’ apple pie and their pie-making experience led to The Pie Academy. His website is like no other internet cooking forum. Although this Lowcountry resident (his home is on Hilton Head Island) has written 12 award-winning cookbooks and hundreds of magazine articles, lectured at the Smithsonian, appeared on a multitude of television shows including Good Morning America, and demonstrated cooking to live studio audiences across the country, Haedrich is most passionate about pie and his latest venture, The Pie Academy.
The Pie Academy is a comprehensive online resource and education center dedicated to the art of making pies. With a community of over 2,000 pie devotees, The Pie Academy’s success lies in its appeal to bakers of all skill levels. “If you are already an experienced pie-maker, you will be at home at The Pie Academy. More important, if you are a beginner and do not know where to start, you will find a welcoming place you can learn.”
Heeding the call to service
Haedrich developed his love of cooking in the last place on earth one would guess: the Navy. “I joined back in 1972 when I was just 17. I lived off base with a bunch of other men. We would divvy up all of the various essential household chores: taking out the garbage, cleaning the dishes, providing the beer and so on. I found myself gravitating toward the kitchen. Someone had to cook! At first I just made basic meals, but I started asking for recipes from the mother of one of my friends in the Navy. It may seem mundane, but using her recipes actually meant a lot to me.” And trading recipes would become the essence of The Pie Academy.
So how did two cooks sharing recipes turn into an online fellowship of over 2,000 people?
“In my twenties, I worked as a cook at a home for abused kids. Like many spiritually-rewarding jobs, the pay was meager. I started writing and self-publishing cookbooks on the side. After awhile, my work began to be picked up by publishers. I began writing for magazines like National Geographic Traveler, Family Fun, Better Homes & Gardens, and Bon Appétit. The problem with writing for print is that the audience is invisible. You cannot share ideas or hear immediately what people would like to know more about. I wanted to get back to the simple connection of two cooks sharing recipes. I wanted to create a community.”
Launched in 2012, The Pie Academy was a way to foster the connections that two cooks can have. Yes, a lot of visitors to the site are seeking simple information about how to make pies, but The Pie Academy provides more than that. It provides a setting where people can feel that they are a part of something. “Sure you can purchase a cookbook and work hard, alone in the kitchen trying to improve your baking, but there is a richer experience to be had at The Pie Academy. Nothing can replace the creative energy of people working together to make something great.”
What does it take to build such a large community?
“One of the things I do, which may sound crazy, is that I answer every email I receive. With such a large following, you can imagine that it takes some time. I spend at least an hour to two hours a day just answering emails. Often I hear people say, ‘I didn’t expect a response!’ But it’s super important. That is how you build relationships with your students and loyalty to the Academy. And one of my greatest pleasures is to hear people’s joy when their pie frustrations are fixed.”
More than just an online community
In October 2014, The Pie Academy sponsored its first Weekend Pie Getaway. “We rented the historic 1868 Marmaduke Hamilton Estate in Savannah for four days and three nights. Our time was spent on a loose curriculum of hands-on pie-making and baking instruction, along with enjoying the city. People flew in from across the country, and we had a blast. It was wonderful to finally put a face to all the online interactions the academy nurtures.”
Over Thanksgiving Haedrich asked The Pie Academy students to send him photos of their holiday pies with a personal anecdote on what it was like to make the pie. One that Haedrich chose to include in The Pie Academy blog reads: “Amy writes to say that she made two of these pecan pies from her grandma’s Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook from 1960, proof that good taste never goes out of style. She made this pie in her grandma’s kitchen in the family’s farmhouse. Of her grandma, Amy shared, ’She passed away many years ago but I feel her here with me when I bake here. As a girl, she cooked pies in a cook-shack out in the wheat fields of Eastern Washington, starting in about 1915.’”
This is the magic of The Pie Academy. More than just the instructions of a cookbook, it is a place where pie enthusiasts share experiences and craft homemade pies together, just like Haedrich’s parents did back in New Jersey some 40 years ago.