Correction: An earlier version of the article gave an incorrect date for the season opening of the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, where Lamothe will be vending. The opening has been delayed from April 12 to April 19. This version has been corrected.
Teeny Lamothe was acting in Chicago — and babysitting to make ends meet — when she realized she wanted to follow her bliss: pie. She was baking one almost every day (and holding regular pie parties to unload her bounty), so she contemplated applying to culinary school.
The hefty price tag stopped her. So did the fact that she wanted a narrow, not general, focus. Lamothe was after an education in pies and pies alone — not in the truffles, souffles and everything else that would come with a classical culinary curriculum.
The solution? She e-mailed the owners of pie shops and bakeries across the country, offering a month of free labor in exchange for the chance to learn about piemaking and running a small business. In fall 2011 she left her home and spent a year traveling cross-country, with stops in Seattle, Boston, southern Florida and in between. Branding her trip an effort to “save the world one pie at a time,” Lamothe used an Indiegogo campaign to bring in more than $3,000 to help fund her travels, wrote a Tumblr blog and got a cookbook deal. “Teeny’s Tour of Pie” (Workman) was published last month.
Lamothe, 30, moved to Washington after her tour and started Teeny Pies, baking up to 200 pies (large and small) every week at Union Kitchen. She sells them through Norman’s Farm Market, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in Potomac, Md., and the farm-delivery service Hometown Harvest. Starting Saturday, April 19, she’ll be vending at the weekly Columbia Heights Community Marketplace.
I talked to Lamothe recently about her journey, her book and her business. Edited excerpts follow.
How did you select the places where you would apprentice?
I wanted to learn from female business owners who specialized in pie. It’s one thing to own a bakery, and it’s an entirely different one to own a pie shop. I also chose locations where I had a free place to stay with friends, friends of friends, or often the parents of friends. There were a lot of semi-awkward interactions, but I felt like I was able to be a decent houseguest by providing pie.
What was it like working in, for instance, Greensboro, Ala.?
I worked at a place called Pie Lab, owned by an umbrella group called HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization). I think their main ideal is to reinvigorate communities. They owned the bike shop, the thrift shop and a day-care in addition to the bakery. It was a really big idea in a pie shop. They were teaching college-age students how to make candied nuts. Those nuts sold at Whole Foods, and the kids received some money for college from it. They also had former convicts washing dishes.
The town had a population of only 2,500, and it was the one place where I paid for housing. I stayed in HERO’s group housing, referred to as “the bunkhouse”; basically it was the occasional cockroach and me in there, but it was clean.
They specialized in a bunch of Southern pies I had never made before, like chess pie and lemon icebox pie. They have a lot of sugar. I made one friend there; social life there was mainly me reading romance novels from the library.
What were the most challenging aspects of the tour?
I was homesick for a lot of it. It was hard moving from city to city every single month. As soon as you have made friends and start to feel like you fit in, then you have to move. By the end of it, I was really tired.
In some ways, it forced me to start thinking about the future. It’s a really scary thing to decide to change your entire life. There were lots of moments where I wondered if I was doing the right thing for the right reason. But what I slowly started to realize is that the fear of not knowing what I was getting myself into was very easily overcome by the idea that I was having a good adventure and that I would figure it out in the end.
How did you first become interested in making pie?
Baking with my mom, the first lady to teach me how to make pie. During the tour, I went home for a month to apprentice with my mom. It was great. At that point I was very deep into recipe testing for the cookbook. She was totally down for turning her kitchen into a pie experiment lab. We made three different pies each week and got them down to the perfect version of themselves.
What’s your favorite pie?
Sour cherry. It’s the pie that I always requested as my birthday pie growing up, and I happen to think it’s the perfect combination of tart and sweet.
How did you get your nickname, and why did you decide to make “teeny” pies a focus of the business and book?
On my birth certificate it says Christina Lamothe, but I was born 21 / 2 months early, and I’ve been “Teeny” ever since. My mom is the only one who uses Christina — and only when I’m in trouble.
I integrated small pies into my business because that’s what I used to make in my childhood. I had every kitchen utensil that Mom had, only in miniature, and I would cook and bake alongside her in the kitchen. She would give me small scraps of pie dough that I would roll out with the tiniest of rolling pins before pressing them into “teeny” tins.
Right before I embarked on the Tour of Pie, my mom mailed me my childhood tins, and I knew from then on I wanted the individual-size pie to be on my menu if I ever started my own business.
People are besotted by the idea of a small, personal pie.
Where do you see your pie business going?
In the next five years, my boyfriend and I will figure out where we want to live. That may or may not be in D.C. We might try to find a city that has a much lower cost of living. The ultimate goal is to find a city that we love and open a pie shop. If that means spending another two or three years building a customer base from a community kitchen in another city, that’s a great thing. This has been a phenomenal learning experience.
Krigman is a freelance writer in Washington. Lamothe will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.