Stacey Mei Yan Fong is stuck on pie number 44. The funeral potato pie, rich as a block of butter and built with all the flavors of a classic post-funeral hot dish, was not actually headed for a funeral when Fong made it on March 10. This particular funeral dish was more of a celebration, of the near completion of a years-long pie-baking project that has taken Fong on a dizzying journey across America.
Fong is the ambitious home baker behind a project she’s called 50 Pies / 50 States. Spurred by the Singapore-born baker’s desire to celebrate the country she calls home, Fong decided in 2016 to bake 50 pies, each inspired by the flavors of a state. To express her gratitude to the many friends who have welcomed her with open arms as she moved from one state to another, each completed pie would eventually find its way to a friend (or sometimes, a stranger), living in or from that place.
The project is at once wildly ambitious, and extremely whimsical. Scrolling through Fong’s Instagram, and reading her online pia-ary (that’s her pie-focused diary), it’s clear just how much research, care, and thought — not to mention travel — has gone into each of the 44 pies Fong has baked and given away so far. In South Dakota, Fong took cues from the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes, and constructed a rice pudding pie, the pudding made with wild rice, fortified with homemade sunflower milk. Fong met the couple who would later receive her Oregon pie (it was marionberry and pear, topped with a salty hazelnut crumble) while the three were playing beer pong and listening to Springsteen at a mutual friend’s house. Mississippi’s pie, a chocolate graham cracker crust, pumped with chocolate fudge and covered in fluffy whipped cream and chocolate shavings, went to Rachel, who Fong met during a hazy night of Karaoke the day she graduated college. To read through Fong’s blog and scroll her Instagram lends a window into the mind of someone who believes deeply — and beyond any cliche — in the power of food as a means to connect, bridge divides, and express love.
But now, a pandemic grips the country, and Fong is stuck on pie number 44. She’s decided to wait to bake and deliver her last six pies until travel is less risky. But during this pause, she’s still baking up a storm, turning her attention to only slightly smaller pie-related projects. She’s recently baked her way through a number of desperation pies, the sorts of desserts one might have made in the past when a harvest was slim, or work was scarce: Think pies made with vinegar to replace the tartness of fresh fruit, and others that call for little more than sugar and water. This break from travel, research, and constant baking has also given Fong a chance to reflect on her adopted home, and the racism and hate that have become so prominent and noticeable this year.
I recently called Fong, who’s weathering the pandemic from her Brooklyn apartment, to hear more about her pie baking journey, and what she plans to do when her last six pies have been baked, boxed, and delivered.
Eater: Before you were a pie-baking New Yorker, what was your life like?
Stacey Mei Yan Fong: I was born in Singapore. Because of my dad’s job, we moved around a lot: We moved to Indonesia for a couple years. And then when I was five, we moved to Hong Kong, which is where I stayed until I came to college in America. I went to college in Savannah, Georgia, and then after I graduated, I packed up a truck and drove to New York. When you move a lot as a kid, you don’t really know where your home is.
In New York, what do you do when you’re not baking pies?
I am a handbag and accessory designer. And then all other hours are focused on food. Food is a huge passion of mine, and it’s the way I process my feelings. Growing up, food played such a major part in life, especially coming from a Chinese family. Everything is around a big dinner table. When I moved to New York, I worked fashion jobs with these crazy hours and were really terrible, and my moment of relief was definitely coming home and cooking for myself and my roommate. I would make roast chickens and cakes and just cry because I hated my job. I eventually found my way in fashion, but I’ve always kept food as my passion.
From working a fashion job and baking after work, how did you get started on the 50 Pies project?
In 2014, I was going through a really rough time, thinking about my life and where my home was. I was getting to a point where I had lived in America for about the same time I had lived in Hong Kong. My dad had just moved back to Singapore; one of my sisters was in Boston, about to move back to Singapore; my other sister lived in LA. Everybody I went to college with and everyone that I’m friends with, they can go back to their childhood home. I was just trying to discover what home meant to me. And during that time, my best friend bought me the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book. I was so lost and confused, and I was like ‘maybe I’ll just start baking from this, and that’ll lead me somewhere. Or at least it will give me some relief because I’ll be eating delicious treats.’
Around 2016, I got my green card. That really marked my decision that this is a place I want to call home. I’ve met so many amazing people from college and from traveling, and I was trying to think of a way to give back to them and in turn, learn more about the country that I’ve chosen. I feel like pie is very synonymous with America, so I thought: What if I bake a pie for every single state in America, that includes state foods or regional cuisine, and then give that pie to someone I know from that state as a symbol of my affection for them? If I didn’t already know anyone from that state, I could travel to the state and meet someone, or find someone in that state to give the pie to through a mutual friend. I wanted to interpret America in some way that would make sense to me.
What were some of your most memorable pie-centric adventures for this project?
For South Dakota, I realized I had never met anyone from the state. And it just so happened that my friend Matt, who got the Massachusetts pie, had recently done a graphic design project for a bunch of historians that live in South Dakota, that know everything about the Black Hills. I reached out to them, and I ended up going to South Dakota in January. They introduced me to Sean Sherman, the Sioux chef, and my South Dakota pie ended up being based on Native American cuisine. It was a wild rice pudding that I made with sunflower milk that I made myself. And then I made a maple-pumpkin sunflower seed crunch. It was one of those things where I would have never ever discovered this part of South Dakota or this part of Native American culture if I hadn’t gone through all these weird connections.
The biggest undertaking was for New York. I really thought long and hard about what I wanted to do, and how I could make the biggest gesture. I decided to make 150 mini pies. I made little cupcake-sized pies. I gave four to the staff at my favorite provision store, four to the people at my tattoo shop that I go to all the time, four to my bikram yoga studio. And then I threw a huge party at a beer hall, and all my friends came to eat pie together. I got to have all my friends in one place. I could not survive New York without them. it was my big grand gesture to them in pie-party form.
My most challenging — but one of my favorite pies — was Nevada. I couldn’t find a lot of state foods or fruits or vegetables that encapsulated the state. The first thing I thought of when I thought about Las Vegas was the all you can eat buffet, and I thought “how can I translate that into pie form?” I went on every casino’s website, and I looked at what was featured on each of their buffets. The Las Vegas pie ended up being an all you can eat buffet pie. Half of the crust was savory and half of the crust was sweet. The pie ended up being a tiny tasting menu. It started with a Caesar salad, and then a shrimp cocktail, and then a prime rib, and it ended with an ice cream sundae. It was all one pie, with little triangular sections.
This is such an enormous undertaking. Could you talk a little bit about what goes into creating each of these pies, from research to delivery?
When I started this project, the first thing I did was put together what I call my pie chart. I wrote out all the states in alphabetical order, and did a bunch of research about each one. When I’m researching, I come home after work, make dinner, and then sit down and read books about pie, and read books about the state that I’m working on a pie for. I’ll talk to people I knew from that state, or I’ll look to recipes that are meaningful to my friends. For Ohio I used a recipe that my friend Meredith’s grandmother passed on to me, so it’s stuff like that — making connections and learning about everybody’s home life. These stories give me energy to push the project forward.
You’ve put a pause on 50 Pies / 50 States during the pandemic because you can’t travel very safely. What have you been doing instead?
I decided to pause because I couldn’t travel to go see the person that the pie is for. So during the pandemic, I’ve looked at other great times of turmoil in American culture. And of course, the Great Depression comes up, and I came upon desperation pies. I first thought that all desperation pies had to do with that era, but it turns out they weren’t just a product of financial burden. Desperation pies also have to do with seasonal depression. During winter months, you won’t have a lot of fresh fruit in your larder, but you always have things like, flour, vinegar, sugar, and different ways to work around that. And even without a lot of resources, these pies were so regional. In Appalachia for instance, there is a vinegar pie to mimic the taste of apples. There were all these people who were coming up with amazing ideas to sub fruit for something else.
I went into the desperation pie-baking project thinking it was going to be like when people try to make food from the ’60s and it’s all just weird aspics. But all the pies ended up tasting so good! A vinegar pie just sounds so odd, but when you eat it, it does taste like a tart apple pie! I find it so incredible that even during times of trouble, people were able to make the best of it.
This project has clearly connected you to America in so many ways. Have the crises playing out across the country these past six months affected your view of America, and your plan for the project moving forward?
It’s super disappointing when you put something on a pedestal — which I did with American culture — to realize it actually isn’t that perfect. What gives me hope is all the action and all the change, and that people in America aren’t just giving up; they’re taking matters into their own hands and trying to make a better future for themselves.
I remember delivering the Florida pie on the day after the election in 2016. It was the saddest day, and I remember giving it to my friends from Florida who were so upset, so disappointed. I was like, “all right, everything does suck right now, but Florida is still a beautiful place. Florida has one of the only national parks in America that is a coral reef! You have Islamorada! You have like Disney World! You have all these beautiful things in Florida like marshes and crocodiles.” There is a lot of crazy, but there is still a lot of good. And I only hope that me coming in with so much passion for learning all these new things about Florida or New Hampshire or Pennsylvania gives the pie recipient in that state a little bit of perspective that there is still good. I still have so much hope.