Writers Who Cook: Pandemic Pie with Shawna Kenney
In uncertain times, it can be comforting to honor the rituals that have nourished and grounded us over the years. And with so many people cooking at home these days, we thought we’d ask some of the writers in our communities to share favorite recipes and the stories behind them. We hope these recipes provide you with some inspiration, comfort, and company in your own home kitchen. If you’re a writer who cooks and would like to be featured in our series, please reach out to [email protected].
Today’s recipe comes from Shawna Kenney, journalist, author, and essayist with forthcoming work in the anthology Writers’ Stories in Motion: Healing, Joy, and Triumph from Peter Lang Publishing.
There’s a certain pie I’m missing. While living in coastal North Carolina for grad school, I learned a childhood friend from Maryland lived in Asheville, so my husband and I traveled clear across the state to spend Thanksgiving with her. She, her husband, and their two kids interlocked hands with us at the table and did the wave while saying their own sort of grace, ending with the mantra “Shanti shanti shanti.” Then, she served us a vegan pot pie stuffed with vegetables, crispy tofu, and an herb-filled gravy that made us have seconds, in spite of ourselves.
She shared the recipe, and I have since served this pie at countless potlucks, Friendsgivings and “Punxmases” all spent in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away from our East Coast friends and families. A pie is group food, the perfect shape for sharing—round like the tables I learned to write on in school, like the ring I ask my students to arrange their chairs into for workshops. Community forms in circles.
Last year, my husband and I traveled back to North Carolina and made two pot pies at Christmastime for a dinner hosting both of our mothers, an aunt, and an uncle—all omnivores. They watched skeptically as I sautéed and stirred, taking over my mother’s kitchen. By the time we sat down to eat, the hairs at the nape of my neck curled up from sweat. First bites were followed by raised eyebrows and approving smiles. “That is surprisingly good!” said his aunt. “I really didn’t expect to like it.” I sighed with relief. We talked and laughed, and after everyone had seconds, they wrapped up the leftovers for the next day’s lunch. My mother later asked me for the recipe and made the pie for her neighbors.
It looks like this year we cannot travel to see our mothers nor gather with friends, for fear of spreading a dangerous virus. Like everyone, we wonder when we will see our loved ones again. In the meantime, we have made self-rising focaccia, fried oil-free masala dosas, blended up many flavors of “nice cream,” and baked decadent berry crumbles. I’m even growing sprouts.
I’m holding off on the pie. It is holiday food, celebratory. Making the whole thing for two people seems decadent, too much somehow, when so many are suffering. Like Chris McCandless scribbled in his journal just before death: “Happiness only real when shared.”
Six months into the pandemic, my birthday was approaching. I did not want a Zoom party or a cake or a distanced hang. The gift certificate for a massage someone gave me last year still mocked me from a bookshelf. Then, a friend drove by and dropped off a soft serve ice cream pie. The next day I texted him a photo of it, with two slivers missing. “You can do better than that!” he joked.
We will make the pot pie again. And we will eat it slowly, over time, savoring the memories.
For the pie:
2 frozen pie crusts (or make by hand, if you’re ambitious like that)
2 cups whatever vegetables you love, cubed
1 cup cooked French green lentils, tofu, or tempeh (optional)
Handfuls of herbs (sage, basil, tarragon, thyme, etc.)
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Steam or sauté vegetables and herbs in vegetable broth to al dente.
3. Pile veggies and lentils into the bottom of the pie crust, about 2 inches above the pan.
For the gravy:
1 cup veggie broth or water
1/2 cup nutritional yeast flakes
1 tsp sesame seeds
A squirt of mustard
2 cloves chopped garlic
A dash of paprika
A sprinkle of pepper
A dash of Bragg’s liquid amino acids
1 tbsp whole wheat flour or 1 tsp cornstarch (optional)
1. Toast nutritional yeast flakes and sesame seeds on the bottom of the bare pan for about a minute, until it smells good.
2. Slowly pour in half of the water.
3. Add garlic, mustard and spices. Stir into a roux.
4. Add liquid aminos. Stir some more.
5. Add flour or cornstarch if you want it thicker.
6. Add the rest of the water and stir.
Bring it together:
1. Pour gravy over the pile of vegetables in the pie. Let it seep into the cracks between the chunks.
2. Detach other crust from its pan, gently placing it on top of the lower crust, covering the vegetables. Pinch edges together.
3. Poke four holes in the top of the pie to let it steam.
4. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Allow the pie to cool a bit before digging in.
5. Cut generously. Serve with love.
Shawna Kenney is the author of the memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix (Last Gasp), as well as Live at the Safari Club: A History of HarDCore Punk in the Nation’s Capital 1988-1998 (Rare Bird Books), Imposters (Mark Batty Publisher), and the anthology Book Lovers (Seal Press). She is a contributing editor at Narratively and has served as a PEN in the Community Writer in Residence several times over the years.