An Ode, À La Mode: 1 Baker Savors America, Creating 50 Pies For 50 States

Nov 27, 2020
Originally published on November 27, 2020 2:48 pm

Before the pandemic trapped Stacey Mei Yan Fong in her Brooklyn kitchen, the 32-year-old handbag designer was baking her way across America, one pie at a time.

Fong loves the United States, and she loves its signature dessert. Born in Singapore, raised in Indonesia and Hong Kong, Fong moved to the U.S. to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She brings the singular passion of a pop-culture-obsessed immigrant to her project 50 Pies/ 50 States. In 2016, while applying for a green card, she started baking a pie to honor every state in the country, documenting the process on Instagram and her website.

50 Pies / 50 States feels like a virtual road trip, with elaborate pies that reflect Fong's commitment to capturing the complexity of each state's cuisine. That means no ordinary peach pie for Georgia. Instead, imagine a stewed sweet tea peach pie with brown sugar pecan crumble.

Stacey Mei Yan Fong was born in Singapore, raised in Indonesia and Hong Kong, and moved to the U.S to attend college in Georgia.
Stacey Mei Yan Fong

The obvious is anathema to Fong. As she points out, Texas may be best known for pecans and barbeque, but the baker found herself drawn to another signature product: its ruby red grapefruit.

"So I ended up making a grapefruit custard pie, with candied jalapenos on top," she explains. "Because, you know, you need a little spice when you're in Texas."

And an avocado pie would've been far too easy, at least for Fong, when she turned her attention to California, where avocado is the official state fruit. She focused instead on the savory delights of Napa Valley. "It ended up being a artichoke pie with an herbed crust and a red wine reduction on the top," Fong explains. A pause. "Which was very, very lovely."

As a result of 50 Pies /50 States, Fong has transformed into something of a pie-ologist. Now she works part-time making pies at a bakery and she's thrown herself into research. For South Dakota, inspired by Sean Sherman's award-winning cookbook, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, she created a blue corn crust filled with a wild rice and sunflower milk pudding with a bergamot berry compote. "And then a pumpkin seed crunch on top," she adds, with pride.

Let it be noted that Fong made her own sunflower milk from scratch. She admits she is incapable of keeping things simple. For an otherwise straightforward Florida key lime pie, Fong insisted on homemade graham crackers for the crust. "Let me tell you, just buy graham crackers," she says wryly. "Just buy them. Don't make them at home."

The passion and drive with which Fong approached 50 Pies / 50 States may reflect, she thinks, an immigrant's uniquely unjaded approach. "The payoff and the journey to the end is always so, so worth it," she enthuses.

But Fong's put her project temporarily on hiatus, with only six more pies to go. She wants to travel to those states to enjoy the experience of eating pie there in person safely, in diners and around kitchen tables. That's an American experience, she says, well worth waiting for.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A baker trapped in her Brooklyn kitchen has been on a virtual road trip. She is reaching every part of the country by baking elaborate pies that celebrate unique offerings from each of the 50 states. So no ordinary peach pie for Georgia - instead, imagine a stewed sweet tea peach pie with brown sugar pecan crumble. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Meet our baker, Stacey Mei Yan Fong. Originally from Singapore, Fong lived in Indonesia and Hong Kong before moving to the U.S. for college 14 years ago. Fong remains dazzled by America and the generosity of her friends, who would invite a lonely, pie-loving foreigner to share holidays when she had nowhere else to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACEY MEI YAN FONG: So, like, how can I repay them in some sweet or savory way in flaky crust, you know? (Laughter).

ULABY: Fong answers that question on her website and Instagram - 50 Pies 50 States. Here she is bouncing around in a cheerful red, white and blue T-shirt preparing a blueberry pie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: If your dough gets a little sticky, you can put more flour on it.

ULABY: With 50 Pies 50 States, Fong tells stories about her own connection to each place, dedicates the pie to a friend from there and disdains obvious choices. While Texas is known for pecans and barbecue, Fong went with its ruby red grapefruit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: So I ended up making a grapefruit custard pie with candied jalapenos on top - because, you know, you need a little spice when you're in Texas.

ULABY: And avocado would have been far too easy for California, where it's the official state fruit. Instead, Fong focused on the savory delights of Napa Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: So it ended up being an artichoke pie with an herbed crust with a red wine reduction on the top, which was very, very lovely.

ULABY: For every pie, Fong dives into research. She became fascinated with Native American cuisines, and so for South Dakota, she baked...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: A blue corn crust with wild rice and sunflower milk rice pudding in the center with, like, this bergamot, like, berry compote and then pumpkin seed crunch on top.

ULABY: Yeah, this is someone incapable of keeping things simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: This seems really hard. Let me make it a little bit harder.

ULABY: Even for something as straightforward as Florida key lime pie, Fong insisted on baking homemade graham crackers just for the crust.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: Which, let me just tell you - just buy graham crackers. Just buy them. Don't make them at home.

ULABY: All this labor and passion may speak, she thinks, to a uniquely unjaded immigrant's take on America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: The payoff and the journey to the end is always so, so worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Let us be lovers. We'll marry our fortunes together.

ULABY: Stacey Mei Yan Fong's journey started by listening to Simon and Garfunkel with her dad as a child, enchanted by the idea of traveling across America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONG: The whole dream of going on a road trip - like, I feel like that meant a lot to me.

ULABY: But Fong's temporarily put her project on hiatus with only six more pies to go. She wants to travel to those remaining states to enjoy the experience of eating pie there in person safely. That's an American experience, she says, well worth waiting for.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike - they've all come to look for America, all come to look for America, all come to look for... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.