Hoosier Mama Pie Company
Paula Haney began jonesing for a pie–good old-fashioned, homemade apple pie–while working in the pastry kitchen at Trio under Grant Achatz, the wunderkind chef who now runs Alinea. Achatz was developing his style of whiz-bang molecular gastronomy, and although Haney loved her job–she calls it both thrilling and terrifying–it deepened her desire for something simple.
“I wanted to come home and have a good piece of pie,” says Haney, who’s 39. “And I couldn’t find any.”
She started developing recipes on her own, and in the fall of 2005, after a few years of serious baking and consumption, Haney and her husband, skilled apple peeler Craig Siegelin, founded Hoosier Mama Pie Company, baking at Kitchen Chicago, the shared-use kitchen in Ravenswood Manor. Painstakingly made–the double-crust apple takes three hours–a Hoosier Mama pie has the taste of something bygone, something you’d given up wanting. The pies, which cost between $18 and $21, are now sold at a half-dozen Chicago cafes and at the Green City Market (which starts up May 16); for varieties and locations, see hoosiermamapie.com. They’re also available by bike messenger, secured inside a cart made in Indiana by the Amish.
Haney grew up in Indianapolis, where, when she was eight or nine, she started making pies for her father. His preference was “apple, and nothing fancy,” but soon her creations got more elaborate. “I had to make the fanciest, most ridiculous thing I didn’t know how to make”–like a cake with caramelized sugar, she says. “I’m lucky I didn’t burn the house down.” After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Haney took a job baking at a coffeehouse in Bloomington. “It was so much fun, and I just kept saying, ‘All right, I’ll look for a real job in a couple of months.’ And that went on and on and on. And finally I was like, ‘If I have to force myself to find a different job, I should really look into this.”
In the mid-90s Haney moved to Chicago, where she was hired to work in the pastry department at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. The work was anonymous and monotonous. “I’d spend all day segmenting oranges or cutting the tops off of cakes,” she says. “But it was great training, and they were willing to put up with me knowing nothing.”
She learned fast: after a year or so she enrolled in the pastry program at Kendall College only to leave the school after landing the job at Trio. “I just got too busy,” she says. Haney was Trio’s pastry chef for six years. When chef Shawn McClain left to open Spring and was replaced by Achatz, she was the only employee who stayed on besides owner and front-of-the-house manager Henry Adinaya. “I said they kept me on because I was the only person who knew where anything was. But then they moved everything.” Finally, after years of six-day work weeks–“a 12-hour day was a luxury–that was a short day,” she says–Haney left. She worked for a year or so at Pili Pili and less than a year at Trotter’s to Go before launching Hoosier Mama. “Timewise I figured it couldn’t be any worse,” she says.
Like baseball, another iconic American activity, pie making has always lent itself to endless theorizing: a sizable percentage of cookbook pages in America are devoted to the intricacies of crust. Haney herself is adamant on the subject: “I really believe it has to be butter. I just hate shortening.” Before she started Hoosier Mama, she ransacked old cookbooks for pie recipes. Many of them “assumed everyone knew how to make pie,” she says. “They wouldn’t even tell you how to make the filling. They’d just list the ingredients and say, ‘Make the filling.’ Or they’d list the ingredients and say, ‘Make the dough.'”
But the old cookbooks still had the best recipes, she says. True to her roots, her first offering was a classic apple pie; she also makes pumpkin, maple-pecan, lemon chess, key lime, apple-quince, and chocolate, banana, and coconut cream pies, adjusting her menu seasonally. “When I was developing recipes, I was a little afraid: ‘Is anyone going to recognize what pie is supposed to taste like? Am I going to have to make something that tastes like a Jell-O pudding pie?'” she says. “But luckily we weren’t that far gone yet.”
In fact, many of her customers pass on what their mother or grandmother used to bake. Her neighbor gave her a couple of his grandmother’s old recipes for Christmas. “I get a lot of recipes,” she says–not that she necessarily needs them.
“I ran into a lady at Stanley’s the other day–I was buying a ton of rhubarb, the first rhubarb of the season.” Rhubarb is Haney’s favorite pie, although only strawberry-rhubarb sells. “And a lady walked up and asked if I was going to make pie, and I said yes, and she started telling me how to make it. At first I was kind of like”–she makes a mock offended face. “But she doesn’t know I’m obsessed with pie! What are the chances of that?” –Nicholas Day
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.