THE PIE LAB: AN UNEXPECTED TREASURE
By Bryan May
The following article appeared in the January 7, 2016 issue of the Greensboro Watchman of Greensboro, Alabama. It is a long piece, something over 3,200 words, and I am pleased that the Watchman editor elected to publish it in its entirety. NOTE: although the Pie Lab closed its doors in January 2020, I am leaving this post up for the pleasure of those who remember it as fondly as I do.
The Pie Lab is an important part of the excitement going on in Greensboro and the surrounding Hale County, Alabama, where there is a lot happening. Auburn University’s Rural Architectural Studio is based in Newbern, less than ten miles to the southeast. The old Greensboro Opera House, one of the two such remaining in Alabama, is being restored. At the Bike Shop on Main Street you can get your hands dirty building a custom bike, probably from bamboo, at their scheduled workshops (or you can purchase a kit to do it at home). Horseshoe Farms under the leadership of Dr. John Dorsey provides services for the aged and for the young, the present Horseshoe Clubhouse being next to the Bike Shop. Horseshoe Farms and the Rural Studio are working together to restore the old Greensboro Hotel at the east end of Main Street for Horseshoe activities. The Safe House Black History Museum in an old shotgun house located in the former depot area of Greensboro where Dr. Martin Luther King once sought refuge highlights the 1960s civil rights movement from a rural perspective. There are older attractions such as the historic Magnolia Grove, the Noel-Ramsey house, and other homes dating back to the 1800s. You can easily find out lots more about all of these and about other Greensboro attractions on the internet and from other sources.
The Pie Lab was born on March 14, 2009, the brainchild of a design workshop in Belfast, Maine, sponsored by Project M, which describes itself as “a program for creative people who are already inspired to contribute to the greater good, and are looking for a platform to collaborate and generate ideas and projects bigger than themselves.” Project M had Alabama and Hale County roots: its founder John Bielenberg, a San Francisco designer, had been inspired by a talk given by the late Samuel Mockbee, the founder of Auburn’s Rural Studio. Pam Dorr, who heads HERO (Hale Empowerment & Revitalization Organization) worked with the group to find housing in an old dilapidated building (in my distant youth a pool hall, located right by the old Strand Theater where I’d go to movies) at 1317 Main Street. HERO’s role is primarily to help people find affordable housing and thus works closely with the Rural Studio, but it has also played a significant role in the revitalization of the small town (fewer than 3,000 inhabitants) of Greensboro.
Much of the original furnishings and equipment of the Pie Lab came from junk heaps and garage sales. The designers did a great job: in March 2010 the Pie Lab was awarded the distinction of being recognized as one of three finalists for best restaurant design or renovation in North America by the James Beard Foundation.
An early decision was made to have large tables that would seat many instead of small tables for two or four. The hope was that the restaurant would become a place where people might encounter and dine with folks they otherwise did not know. An early motto: “Pie + Conversation = Ideas / Ideas + Design = Positive Change.”
At first the product was only sweet pies, but later savory pies were added. Eventually the menu included a side salad, and later still a Sunday lunch.
In 2014, HERO decided to get out of the restaurant business and sold the restaurant operation to Seaborn and Kelley Whatley, two accomplished young chefs.
In his youth Seaborn Whatley had taken a serious interest in food, no doubt because both of his parents were excellent cooks. Kelley Self also grew up around excellent cooks and fine food. Her grandparents ran (still do) a German bakery and restaurant and catering service in the Birmingham area called Klingler’s Café, and in working there Kelley got a great background in food service and preparation, particularly in baking.
Seaborn and Kelley met when they were both teaching culinary arts and restaurant management at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa. Their wedding in late May 2011 at the Havana Methodist Church was a simple affair with interesting aspects. The bride’s ten-year-old son gave her away. His two younger sisters (four and seven) acted as flower girls, and they held the hands of the groom’s eighteen-month-old son as they came down the aisle ahead of the bride and continued to hold onto him during the ceremony. After vows were exchanged, the minister addressed the children by name and advised them that their parents loved them deeply and encouraged them to return that love. A couple of years ago the children were joined by a baby sister.
The newlyweds provided their own wedding feast. Pulled pork, sliced brisket of beef, grilled sausage, baked beans (“from scratch,” Seaborn said, not Bush’s), macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, deviled eggs, chicken and pasta salad, cheese biscuits, pimento-cheese-stuffed popovers, fresh fruits, an assortment of sauces. Kelley had made both the bride’s cake and the groom’s cake. I had the former, a cherry cake covered with a creamy icing, because it seemed lighter for a summer day than the other, a very dark chocolate cake covered with what appeared to be mocha icing. Both were beautiful. A warmish summer day, but the humidity was blessedly low. The food was set out under a large tent, and picnic tables were placed under the trees.
It was inspired of Seaborn and Kelley to use their wedding feast as a way to show what a wonderful job they could do with food preparation and presentation. And let me tell you: the guests were impressed!
In addition to Kelley’s background at Klingler’s, she extended her knowledge at Auburn University, earning a B.S. in hotel and restaurant management with a minor in business administration. Later she earned an associate degree in culinary arts at Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Charleston, South Carolina. Other experience included an internship at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, and seven years at Southern Living magazine in their test kitchen as Head Food Stylist.
Seaborn Whatley attended the University of Alabama. (Yes, the couple has one of those “mixed marriages” when one has ties to Auburn, one to Alabama.) For a while he and his father ran an excellent restaurant in Greensboro, the Magnolia, with Seaborn as head chef as well as manager. He left the Magnolia to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, earning an associate degree in culinary arts. He interned at the John’s Island Club at Vero Beach, Florida. The unexpected death of his older brother Edward in 2008 was a major factor in turning his attentions toward home and Alabama upon graduation instead of toward greater fame and fortune elsewhere. In addition to his teaching at Shelton State, he worked as chef and advisor at several restaurants in Tuscaloosa.
Between the two of them Seaborn and Kelley have a serious level of experience and accomplishment.
Of course, when they first took over the Pie Lab, the first order of business was to continue what worked. Pies! Both the sweet ones and the savory ones. So let’s start with pies. So far my favorites have been the coconut cream (I had never tried one until I was urged to sample one at Pie Lab and now it is something I crave), the brown-sugar buttermilk, and the various pecan pies (tipsy, butterscotch, and most recently chocolate). I can certainly scarf down the lemon and the key lime pies as well. The servings are generous. You can also purchase a whole pie, and you don’t have to be in Greensboro to get one. Pies are available via mail-order, and most Saturdays the Pie Lab takes a large supply of pies to the Pepper Place Market in Birmingham when it is open. Sometimes stocks of pies are taken to other sites, with announcements on the Pie Lab Facebook page.
They added sandwiches and wraps to the menu (which changes daily and is posted on the blackboard that hangs behind the service counter). I would be remiss if I didn’t alert you that the fried green tomato panini is not health food. Still, if you’ve saved up your calorie allotment, it is an excellent choice. (When I order it, I get the fruit salad or the tossed salad as a side: I figure that’s more virtuous than the pasta salad with this sandwich.) The homemade tomato soup accompanied by a grilled cheese sandwich is a standard on the menu. All of the wraps are delicious. The fried or smoked chicken wraps are usually available (lots of chunks along with lettuce, tomato, cheese, bacon and homemade chipotle ranch dressing), but sometimes they have other kinds. I liked the buffalo chicken wrap a lot. If you order the wrap with jalapeno, you get lots of jalapenos! Depending on your mood you might choose one of several sides to accompany the wrap.
A salad plate is available, and you choose three out of several possibilities, which might include chicken salad, tuna salad, pimento cheese, cucumber salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, egg salad, and garden salad are offered.
Earlier this year the chefs added a daily hot lunch with sides. Among my favorite featured hot lunch items are the pork loin, red beans and rice, crawfish étouffée, shrimp and grits, poppy seed chicken, baked chicken, meat loaf, cheeseburger pie, baked catfish, and any of the pasta casseroles. Sides I’ve particularly liked are the spicy collards (warning: if they call something spicy they mean it! Actually, all of their collards are wonderful), spicy cabbage, sweet potato casserole, corn pudding, coleslaw, green pea salad, and caramelized rice. Sometimes cobblers are available,, and the peach, blackberry, and chocolate cobbles all have been delicious.
A beverage at the serve-yourself counter comes with the meal. Sweet and unsweetened tea, lemonade, and water are available. There is an extra charge for bottled drinks from the cooler.
At present the Pie Lab is open Wednesday through Sunday for breakfast and lunch. That breakfast menu is limited but exciting: Belgian waffles, pecan, chocolate chip or plain topped with your choice of homemade pecan praline sauce, fresh strawberries, whipped cream, melted butter, and warm maple syrup and served with bacon. There is also an ice cream parlor in the rear. The Pie Lab is closed in the evenings, with one important exception.
On the second Tuesday of each month the Greensboro chapter of OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) has a program given at the Horseshoe Farm Clubhouse. Each program tends to reflect a specific country in some way. Programs have included a history of the Mercedes-Benz Corporation, relations between Cuba and the United States over the years, Japanese culture, a trip to Nicaragua, and a cultural history of China from the perspective of its cuisine. On the last Monday of each month, the Pie Lab hosts a special fixed-price dinner that is usually based on the cuisine of that month’s country lecture topic.
The first of these OLLI-related meals followed a lecture series given by Winifred Cobbs on various 1920s writers, painters, and filmmakers who appeared in the movie Midnight in Paris, a repeat for the local chapter of a course she had presented at the chapter based at the University of Alabama. The meal at the end of the session featured onion soup, filet de boeuf farci au foie gras en croûte, asperges à la hollandaise, pommes de terre rôties à la française, and crème brulée. The meal was such a success that it was decided to make it a monthly event.
Although these meals are OLLI-sponsored, they are open to the public. Reservations are required with prepayment made either at the Pie Lab in person or by calling the restaurant with your credit card at (334) 624-3899. Prices (which includes tax and gratuity) have ranged from $25 (the Nicaraguan meal) to $45 (the Christmas in Russia meal). Tea and water are available, and guests may bring wine or other beverage.
That Russian meal is up there with the top five of the finest meals I have ever had. The appetizer was a teeny blini with a bit of sour cream and wonderful caviar. All we knew about the soup course in advance was that it wouldn’t be borscht. It turned out to be a thin, peppery broth with bits of smoked duck and cabbage, I believe one of the tenderer varieties. Delicious. Next we were presented with smoked duck topped with sour cherry compote accompanied by mashed potatoes with truffles and minced Brussels sprouts sautéed with bits of bacon and other flavorsome items. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful all this was! And then came dessert: warm pancakes brushed with honey and topped with fruit jam. What a great way to start the 2014 Christmas season! (If they wanted to make something like this an annual event, they could count on my being there!)
Examples of other meals that impressed:
The first German meal: Lentil soup (the finest and most flavorful I have ever tasted. Actually, if they’d kept that coming along with those great rolls I’d have gone home happy afterwards. Perfectly cooked lentils, a hint of something sweet and sour, the wonderful bits of sausage, way up there among the finest soups I have ever had). Schnitzel with Sauce Robert (so tender! I think Seaborn had been beating the hell out of that pork all afternoon. It looked beautiful on the plate, with its golden delicate coating of light crust. And it tasted great) accompanied by spaetzle and braised red cabbage. At the end. Bienenstich, bee sting cake, wonderful with the cream in the center and the toasted almonds and honey glaze.
The most recent German meal a year later consisted of Appetitanreger (that turned out to be wonderful freshly baked German bread served with thin slices of meats, sausage, and cheese) Bier-Käse-Suppe, Tomatensalat, Rouladen, Kartoffelklösse (potato dumplings), Rotkohl (braised red cabbage, Brötchen (German roll), Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cake). Also wonderful. (I knew the German meals would be great. When Seaborn was studying at the CIA, on a visit home he cooked a special German meal at the Magnolia Restaurant which was amazingly good.)
The Spanish dinner: avocado and prawn cocktail, gazpacho (as fine as any I have ever experienced, with just a hint of an edge furnished by the bits of jalapeño), marinated roasted pork studded with chorizo, smashed potatoes, fried cauliflower, and flan. (Flan had become sort of old-hat to me, but what Kelley did here made me appreciate it all over again. Nothing fancy. Just freshly and wonderfully prepared.)
Greek: hummus with pita chips, spanakopita, grilled lamb chops with tzatziki sauce, Greek potatoes, roasted asparagus with feta, and baklava.
Cuban: white gazpacho (no tomato, lots of cucumber, slivered almonds adding a nice bit of crunch), then out came small plates with a round thing and a flat thing on it (the round thing was papas rellanas, mashed potatoes formed into balls with a ground beef center and then deep-fried; the flat thing was described as “garlic toast,” but that doesn’t take into account the other ingredients of the topping, which, if memory serves, involved, among other things, black olives and artichokes). Cuban ribs and a generous serving of black beans and rice. Then came the tres leches cake. This was the first time I had experienced Kelley’s version thereof, and I was delighted when it showed up again in the Nicaraguan meal some months later. So moist, so sweet, so wonderful!
Nicaraguan: Yoltamal (tamales with cheese) carne asada, beans and rice, yuca salad, fried plantain chips, and tres leches cake.
As long as we are in that part of the world, let’s mention the Peruvian meal: sopa de papa (potato soup), ensalada de pallares (lima bean salad), lomo saltado (strips of steak sautéed in soy sauce, garlic, and other ingredients served over rice and topped with fried potato chips), picarones (pumpkin fritters served warm and drizzled with syrup).
Chinese: pot stickers, hot and sour soup. Mongolian beef and orange chicken served with fried rice and egg roll, and coconut gingered custard.
Japanese: sushi, miso soup, salad with creamy ginger dressing, sautéed ginger shrimp atop soba noodles, stir fried vegetables, and green tea ice cream.
Italian: focaccia with roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic, and rosemary, garden salad with smoked mozzarella and Italian vinaigrette, osso buco served on top of polenta, and molten chocolate lava cake.
We’ve also had several meals featuring American foods of various places and times:
New Orleans: seafood gumbo (lots of wonderful shrimp and sausage, the best seafood gumbo I’ve ever had). Baked grouper topped with crabmeat stuffing accompanied by stewed okra and tomatoes and very thin green beans, and bread pudding with whiskey sauce (the woman seated to my right considered it the best she had ever had, and I didn’t argue). This meal followed an earlier lecture by Kelley Whatley on the multi-cultural influences on the cuisine of New Orleans and Louisiana.
Colonial America: corn chowder, roasted quail accompanied by wild rice with cranberries and toasted pecans, served warm, and roasted butternut squash with rosemary, served at room temperature, cornbread, freshly made strawberry shortcake, the old-fashioned kind, wonderfully crunchy non-sweet homemade shortcake biscuit cut in half, topped with fresh strawberries (which I believe had been treated either with a simple syrup or possibly a bit of liqueur), topped with non-sweetened freshly whipped cream, the other half of the biscuit on top, all dusted with confectioner’s sugar. This meal followed an unexpectedly fascinating talk by historian Richard Rhone on the life and contribution of Noah Webster, who, we learned, did a lot more than start a dictionary.
The August 2014 meal featuring food of antebellum Alabama followed a program earlier in the month by Alabama historian Sarah Wiggins about her latest work: The Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835: A Substitute for Social Intercourse by Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, edited by Dr. Wiggins and Dr. Ruth Smith Truss (University of Alabama Press, 2013). Gayle lived in Greensboro in the 1800s, which made this an unusually appropriate topic for the local OLLI chapter. The menu: deviled eggs, turkey with oyster dressing, collard greens, spoon bread, and baked apple with ice cream.
The chefs and the staff do a great job in serving these multi-course meals to crowds ranging from forty to nearly ninety people. Those attending come not only from the Greensboro area but also from Tuscaloosa, Demopolis, Marion, and other towns farther away. My sense is that the guests take enormous enjoyment from the conviviality as well as the cuisine. A great time tends to be had by all.
Now that the Whatleys have managed to get the Pie Lab up and running smoothly, Kelley has decided to branch out and accept a position as director of food services for the public school system of Hale County Alabama, leaving Seaborn in charge of day to day activities at the Pie Lab. She will continue to make pies, help out at the Pie Lab on weekends, and offer advice on menu items and restaurant management.
The title to this piece uses the phrase “unexpected treasure.” I don’t imagine many small rural communities anywhere offer during the course of a year such a wide variety of cuisines all wonderfully prepared. Folks living in West Central Alabama certainly have a culinary treasure available to them. If you haven’t tried them yet, including the special meals, what are you waiting for!
Left: Chef's Kelley & Seaborn Whatley.
Center: The bar where your place your order. The day's menu is posted on the wall behind.
Right: The crowd gathering for the "Christmas in Germany" feast in December 2015.
Center: The bar where your place your order. The day's menu is posted on the wall behind.
Right: The crowd gathering for the "Christmas in Germany" feast in December 2015.