Local author’s pie book selling like hotcakes
CORNWALL — Anne Collins didn’t think she was wired to be a baker — or a cookbook author, for that matter. She had spent her professional career as a civil engineer, working for Dow Chemical and eventually in the aerospace industry.
But her life circumstances, her love of history, a keen ear and a fertile sweet tooth led her to write and complete what she insists will be her only book: “Vintage Pies.” It’s a book that has been selling like hotcakes, thanks in part to some recent exposure on the QVC home shopping network, which sold 6,000 copies of “Vintage Pies” in just 8 minutes.
“So you see, it does take a rocket scientist to make a pie,” she joked of her serendipitous success with sweets in spite of an engineering background.
Collins’ interest in pies began some 50 years ago. She recalled how, as a young child, pies were a frequent adornment of her family’s dinner table. Collins’ grandmother Pearl Thomas was a frequent architect of those pies, which Pearl’s own grandmother — Nancy Stone — had passed down to her. In fact it is Nancy Stone’s original pie crust recipe that forms the foundation of all 50 pies featured in Collins’ book.
But not all of the featured pies were handed down from Collins’ family. Many recipes have been gleaned from elderly folks that Collins has met during her travels since she began collecting recipes around 40 years ago.
“I acquired the recipes by talking to people and then researching the recipes,” Collins said. “Everyone likes to talk about food. The discussions about pies really was a gateway to other conversation about their childhoods and times during the late 1800s and early 1900s.”
Keenly interested in genealogy, Collins derived great satisfaction in speaking with the octogenarian sources.
“Food memory is the last thing to go,” she said. “People were so happy (to share).”
One of the challenges Collins encountered along the way was translating archaic measurement vernacular into the more common teaspoon, cup and ounce guidelines that are today’s standard.
“A lot of (the recipes) would have instructions like, ‘butter the size of an egg,’ and ‘one teacup of sugar,’” Collins said. “If you are a baker yourself, you can pretty much figure it out. But I wanted to do something to make these old recipes approachable.”
Anne and her husband, Brian Collins — a pediatric dentist — moved to Cornwall from the Dallas, Texas, area in 2011. Brian still practices dentistry, while Anne has stayed busy with other endeavors — including launching her “Vintage Pies” effort in August of 2012.
“I didn’t want these recipes to die with me,” she said of her primary motivation. So she took out her recipe cards and got to work. She had no idea about how arduous a process it would be to become a published author. She sent a manuscript to a prospective publisher, who chewed it over for a couple of days before sending it back with some helpful hints. One of the publisher’s main requests was to get photos of the finished pies to see what they looked like. She complied, and “Vintage Pies” officially became a work in progress.
The book, released last September, includes 158 pages offering detailed directions on how to make the 50 old-school pies. Each recipe is accompanied by a mouthwatering photo demonstrating how the various pies (or slices thereof) should look when plucked from the oven. The photos have a local flavor, as they were taken by Todd and Lisa Balfour of Shoreham. Collins is proud to say that her book is 100-percent Vermont made. The publisher, Countryman Press, is based in Woodstock. The author is, of course, a Cornwall resident, and pretty much all of the recipe ingredients needed can be found in the Green Mountain State.
Most of the pies featured in Collins’ tantalizing tome are made with just a handful of ingredients. Sugar pie, for example, is made with the requisite pie crust, salted butter, eggs, cane or dark corn syrup, and granulated sugar. Want a “transparent pie?” That’s even easier. All you need is the pie crust, eggs, granulated sugar and salted butter. If you want to reach deep into your cupboard, make a “gravel pie,” which has 11 ingredients, including cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, raisins, unsulfured molasses, cookie crumbs, ginger, hot water and, of course, that indispensable cooking fat of yesteryear: Lard.
“These are basic ingredients — what a farm wife would have had in the cupboard,” Collins said.
Just glancing at the names of the pies in Collins’ book conjures up visions of a frontier mom rolling out crust near a primitive oven, with a son or daughter licking the yummy pie filling remnants off a wooden spoon. There’s boiled cider pie, vinegar pie, chess pie, amber pie, buttermilk pie, Quakertown pie, Bob Andy pie, Amish vanilla pie and a concession made to pie’s close cousin — funny cake.
FROM THE TEST KITCHEN
Collins made oodles of pies during the book-making process, and had some very willing guinea pigs to make sure they all passed the taste test with flying colors. Her primary tasters were the folks at Bill Beck Real Estate in Middlebury. At one point, she was bringing four to five pies per week to the Bill Beck office.
“They ate every single (variety of) pie in this book,” Collins said. “And I got honest feedback from them. It was precisely what I needed.”
They wrote their candid assessments on the back of index cards, advising when a particular recipe was too sweet or too tart, or needed a minor tweak.
And there were also some rave reviews.
“One of them said, ‘This is the best apple pie I have ever eaten,’” Collins recalled.
Of course husband Brian and son Andy didn’t need to have their arms twisted to join the tasting brigade. They, too, helped inform the recipes that made the final cut in “Vintage Pies.”
All three members of the Collins family picked a favorite. For Brian, it was the strawberry rhubarb pie. Andy gravitated toward the Bob Andy pie, which has a cinnamon/egg custard base. And the author’s vote went to the sugar cream pie.
Anne Collins didn’t know what to expect when she rolled out the book last fall. It was a labor of love, and selling a bunch of copies would be akin to pie a la mode. So when her publisher told her soon after the release that QVC wanted to showcase the book on its “Cooking With David” show, she got excited. QVC had asked the Countryman Press to run off an additional 5,000 copies. As it turned out, 6,000 orders were placed in a few blinks of an eye.
Collins appeared on the QVC show and still has to pinch herself.
“It was a surreal experience,” she said. “I was very pleased.”
So far, aspiring bakers have ordered more than 10,000 copies of “Vintage Pies.” They are sold locally at such stores as the Vermont Book Shop and Otter Creek Kitchenware and Electronics, both in Middlebury. The book is also available online, she noted.
Collins admits she is no culinary whiz and does not aspire to join the pantheon of prolific cookbook authors.
“I think one (cookbook) per lifetime is enough,” Collins said with a smile during an interview on Wednesday. “This is the only book I have intended to write.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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