With autumn comes legendary Rockawalkin pies

Vintage kitchen mixer is making pie history

By Brice Stump
Posted 11/9/22

Autumn in Rockawalkin comes with burning trees of red, yellow, burgundy and oranges and the delicate sweet aroma of fruit pies baking in the community hall kitchen.

In just a couple of weeks, a …

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With autumn comes legendary Rockawalkin pies

Vintage kitchen mixer is making pie history

Rockawalkin pie bakers include, from left, Kevin Jenkins,  Wayne Shaff, Tom Field and Rick Klebon. There are about 20 other volunteers who will prepare 1,000 fruit and sweet potato pies for the holiday season.
Rockawalkin pie bakers include, from left, Kevin Jenkins, Wayne Shaff, Tom Field and Rick Klebon. There are about 20 other volunteers who will prepare 1,000 fruit and sweet potato pies for the holiday season.
Brice Stump Photo
Posted

Autumn in Rockawalkin comes with burning trees of red, yellow, burgundy and oranges and the delicate sweet aroma of fruit pies baking in the community hall kitchen.

In just a couple of weeks, a volunteer team will be baking sweet potato, apple, cherry and blueberry and peach pies by the hundreds to fill Thanksgiving orders.

Potato mashers, pie crust crimpers, mixers, pourers, box makers and bakers are continuing decades old tradition, yet this year’s baking will make pie history, thanks to a vintage mixer and one man’s idea.

“The toughest job making a sweet potato pie is peeling boiling-hot sweet potatoes,” said Tom Field.

Each year about 40 bushels of sweet potatoes grown by local farmer Brian Toadvine, are washed and scrubbed and put in 10 gallon pots to boil until soft.

That takes time, and once the crew gets rolling, time matters and the hot potatoes should be cooled before handing but the assembly-like line process demands potatoes be ready almost as soon as they are dumped from the pots.

Men, wearing special gloves on one hand, and holding a paring knife in the other to skin them, try to make quick one of potatoes weighing up to two pounds. Then it’s off to a duo of men who mashed steaming potatoes with lots of arm muscle power and sturdy hand mashers. That’s always been the tried and proven way.

Because some potatoes are half-gallon size and some smaller, it was difficult to get every bit of the potatoes tender. Sort of a hit or miss situation, Field said. If only he could come up with a system that really blended the cooked potatoes to a uniform consistency.

If only.

Last Christmas, as the pie baking season was ending, Field noticed a vintage mixer on the pantry shelf in the kitchen, that had never been used all the years he’s been volunteering.

What if, he thought, the mixer could almost puree  hot, skinned,  potatoes.

Not a novice in the kitchen, Field recognized an attachment that could be fixed to the mixer head.

Volunteer Tammy Jenkins, treasurer of the Ruritan Club, was pressed into service to give the mixer a test. She fed chunks of soft deep orange potatoes into the chute which the humming machine turned into pie gold.

Viola! Smooth, creamy, uniformly textured potato puree.

“We kept that little thing running and feeding it potatoes. We kept up with the peelers,” he said.

This revelation may not sound as exciting at the Super Bowl Game or March Madness, but the retired educator was simply elated about the performance of a retired Kitchen Aide mixer.

No more lumpy potatoes. “The puree was beautiful.” He feels quite confident the humble mixed will gobble up almost 40 bushels of potatoes over the two upcoming holiday bake sales.

Why didn’t anyone think of it before?

“The human mashers are out of a job,” he said, “they have been recycled to do other jobs.

They are among 25 volunteers helping, and many are conscripted from the Ruritan Club.

 Field, club president, diplomatically strong-arms every member of the club to pitch in. “If they can't help with the pie bake,  they’ve got to give me a good reason why,” he said in the matter-of- factly, no-nonsense, vice-principal voice of his. For the past 12 years he has been acting as the general in the kitchen.

The kitchen crew’s work day begins at 5 a.m. on Monday of the three-day project. On Sunday afternoon it’s making and baking fruit pies that’s the most labor intensive part of the baking process.

In an assembly-line application, the kitchen is filled with men who man the line, mixing ingredients and putting the filling in shells.

Someone adds three pats of butter for apple pies, another man adds pastry tops and trims them to size. Someone else hand-crimps the top crusts to the shells. At the end of the line, Charlie Bounds, a long-time volunteer, pokes three holes in the crust and sprinkles caster sugar on top. Finally the finished pies are taken from the line, and put on racks as they await being popped into the oven.

This nostalgic fundraiser is not exempt from the financial realities of a rapidly changing world.

“At what point does it get so expensive we can't sell the pies,” Field asked.

“We are already shopping for ingredients and I just couldn't believe that eggs are now selling for about 47 cents each. Everything is going up. Sugar is sky high.

“Every commodity we’ve checked on has gone sky high. Who would have thought an egg would be selling for 42 cents. I don't know how much longer we can continue to sell pies with ingredient prices steadily climbing. How high can you price a pie? We have to make a profit, yet there’s going to come a point where the pie price is more than people are willing to pay.

The group relies on income generated from their annual Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter pie baking events.

“In 2016, fruit pies sold for $12 and sweet potatoes $10. About 2019 we put everything at $12 and now we are struggling with keeping the sweet potato piece at $12 but had to increase the fruit pies to $15.

“Before we went shopping for ingredients, people were calling us to place orders, then we found out prices had gone way up. Way up.”

Those 42-cent eggs add up to big dollars real fast.

The shopping list for last Thanksgiving’s bake is typical of the quantities of ingredients used by the bakers. “We used 80 dozen eggs,

30 gallons of milk, 20 bushels of sweet potatoes, 10 pounds stick butter in addition to 60 pounds solid butter,  250 pounds of sugar and gallons and gallons of fruit fillings.”

 In addition, there’s 1000 pastry pie shells and 500 tops, 75-ounces of vanilla, 156 ounces of coconut flakes, 20-cups of brown sugar, plus

1,000 boxes for the pies

Prices went up so fast last Easter, Field had to call up customers who had placed orders months earlier to explain that the “old” price was sustainable for the group when ingredient prices soared.

”Everybody was understanding and not a single person complained,” he said.

History is already repeating itself.

With inflation also now on the rise, it’s another sales obstacle for the group.

“With everything going up, I’m wondering how many people out there are choosing not to buy a Rockawalkin pie just because all of their other costs have gone up, gas, food and rent for example. I’m really concerned about the future of pie bake sales. I just don’t know what we are going to do if our prices get so prohibitively high people won’t buy our pies.”

Then Covid-19 slammed the group.

“In 2020," he said, "we would have been a record but we had to cancel it. I had taken orders for $11,660 worth of pies,” the ”Pie Man” said.

“Because of covid we had to cancel the pie bake. In 2020 we canceled before we even started,’

In 2021, things looked up. Success can be easily seen through the top seller, sweet potato pies. “ During Thanksgiving, we sold 511 sweet potatoes and 303 more at Christmas.”

“I try to cut the orders off 1,000 potato and fruit pies. It’s hard work for us ‘old people,’ to make more,” he laughed.

The effort is supported by community civic groups.

 “Over the last few years we have melded the community hall committee and the Ruritan Club as a combined effort and we split the profits.

“On pie pick-up-day, we have ladies volunteering from the Rockwalkin Church across the street who man the check out tables, looking up orders, and handling payments,” he explained.

 “Really the whole event is a Rockawalkin community project involving the church, community hall and our Ruritans. When we all work together it benefits everybody and the community.

 “The hall is used by the community for social events, the church uses the hall and the Ruritans do, too. We are all working together to benefit the community.”

Sweet potato pies with or without lemon and coconut for $12 and apple, cherry, blueberry, and peach pies for $15. Pie pick up day is Tuesday, Nov. 22, from noon until 5 p.m. at the Rockawalkin Community Hall.

To place orders, call or text 410-430-4516, or email Field at tfield44@yahoo.com.

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