Page 5 of 5
Peter the Pie Guy has your dessert
Peter Clavin never expected to find himself in Missoula—living in a converted Northside church with six roommates, scrambling through the communal kitchen on a Thursday night, prepping to make four apple pies and two pumpkin pies (one of each being gluten-free) and explaining how an East Coast professional became better known as Peter the Pie Guy.
A few years ago, Peter the Pie Guy was a paralegal living in Washington, D.C, contemplating his next step in life. He imagined grad school and teaching. He imagined writing. He even imagined—and ended up going on—a year-long jaunt to Lithuania, where he taught English. But becoming a successful baker of beautifully crafted pies in Montana? No way. Clavin hardly cooked at all when he moved west.
"When it comes to baking, I'm really a one-trick pony...But now I spend almost every Thursday and Friday night doing exactly this," he says while rolling dough on a wooden kitchen table and then stirring a bowl of freshly sliced apples from the Bitterroot's Home Acres Orchard. "I lose hours in here. Some nights, it'll be 2 or 3 in the morning before I know it."
Peter the Pie Guy emerged unexpectedly and mostly out of necessity. Shortly after he moved to Missoula for graduate school in 2008, Clavin's beloved pit bull, which he adopted in Lithuania, underwent two surgeries to remove a chew toy that was lodged in her small intestine. Clavin couldn't afford the veterinary bills so he organized a pass-the-hat benefit with some roommates at the converted church. Artists donated 40 paintings for an auction and others made scores of items for a bake sale. Clavin decided to contribute five Betty Lou-Berry pies, named after his dog. The event raised $1,100. The pies were a hit.
"Partly because of the reaction from my friends that night, I decided it was worth a shot to sell them at the market," he says. "That first week, I took three of the sorriest-looking pies you've ever seen—and still sold out."
Since becoming a staple at the Clark Fork River Market in 2009, Peter the Pie Guy has steadily built a devoted following. He's gone from initially selling about five pies every Saturday—at $3 or $4 per slice, $20 or $25 per pie—to 16 a day this past season. He also takes regular orders through his website (www.peterthepieguy.com) throughout the year and often barters with other local merchants in pies; his "car guy" is fixing a busted window on his Nissan in exchange for a chicken pot pie.
His extensive menu—from sweet fruits to savory mushrooms, cheeses and meats—also offers customers a choice of traditional, gluten-free or vegan pies. His signature selling points are a "perfect pie crust" made from a secret recipe, reduced sugar in the pie filling and, now, a classic latticed presentation. "If you're going to be the Pie Guy," he says, "you may as well do everything you can with the pies."
Clavin, 33, has no formal training in a kitchen. He credits his mother and brother as "great bakers" who shared with him some early secrets, including the "perfect pie crust" recipe. He's collected other recipes here and there that he liked, all of which he keeps in a beat-up blue folder from his days studying literature in the University of Montana's graduate program. The rest, he says, came naturally.
"I realized the other day that I've made over 600 pies in the same little oven," he says. "It's amazing that it's grown the way it has, that it's become who I am."
Therein lies the tricky part of Peter the Pie Guy's success: It was never his aspiration to become known for his pies. Clavin earned his masters from UM in 2009 and is currently applying to doctorate programs. He still wants to teach. When he's not working 9 to 5 at Creative Arts Publishing or baking, he publishes a local literary journal, the name of which is the French symbol "ç" (although you may call it "cedilla").
On a certain level, the pies are nothing but a way to supplement his income. "It's tough because I find myself trying not to embrace this persona all the time, and yet more and more people only know me as 'the Pie Guy,'" he says. "It's great, but I'm hoping that's not it for me."
Watching him at work, one would never notice any struggle with identity. In the old church's kitchen, as he continues to prepare those four apple pies and two pumpkin pies, Clavin appears entirely within his element. Roommates come and go, guests pepper him with questions, Betty Lou occasionally scurries over for attention and, at one point, half the kitchen loses power. Yet Clavin never loses his rhythm, meticulously crisscrossing strips of dough over a pile of apples speckled in cinnamon and sugar. At least for tonight, Peter the Pie Guy is thriving.
Aunt Sandy's pumpkin pie, by way of Peter the Pie Guy
1 cup evaporated milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine eggs, sugar, salt and spices and beat well. Blend in pumpkin. Add milk, then beat well again. Bake pie at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes.