Friday, June 5, 2020

Pie for Minneapolis: A Small But Mighty Thing to Do

On the morning of May 29, I woke up to news that Minneapolis police had arrested an African-American reporter for CNN who was covering the protests resulting from the murder of George Floyd.  Already outraged by Floyd’s death and the subsequent aggression of police toward peaceful protesters, this latest arrest triggered a tipping point for me, a call to action. 

“I can’t just sit here; I need to do something!” I shouted at my computer, while reading the barrage of more news, fueling more outrage. I had had this same reaction after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, which resulted in a spontaneous cross-country drive to bake 250 pies with a team of 60 volunteers, and handing out free slices of apple, cherry and others flavors to bring comfort to a grieving community. All that pie didn’t bring back the 26 first-graders and teachers who lost their lives, it did not change gun laws, but the residents appreciated the gesture of kindness, the display of care.

Which is why I knew when I felt that familiar ache in my heart I had to go to Minneapolis with an offering of pie.

By the afternoon of the 29th, a Friday, I put out the word on social media that if anyone in the Twin Cities could donate homemade pie, I would designate a few drop-off locations and would be handing it out on Sunday. 

What I hadn’t factored in was that people outside of Minneapolis wanted to make pies to send with me. Even with such short notice, people who knew I was driving the length of Iowa began sending me messages: “What time will you be coming through . . .” each message began, followed by the name of their town. . . Iowa City. Cedar Rapids. Ames. Hampton. Mason City. Burnsville. 

My neighbor Liza wrote, “I’ll make a few pies. And I can pick up ingredients for you at the store if you need.” Yes, I did need ingredients—enough butter and apples for six pies. 

My friend Esther, who is an excellent pie baker, messaged me around 10:00 p.m. asking, “I want to send some pies with you. What time are you leaving in the morning?”

“7:30 a.m.,” I told her.

“I can do it,” she replied, her words filled with determination, dedication, and a desire to help.

The next morning, Esther pulled into my driveway at 7:30 on the dot, bearing two pies. The top crust of her cherry pie was a collection of hearts, a message of love to George Floyd and Minneapolis. Liza had three pies waiting for me when I stopped by her house, adding to the six I had made with the help of my boyfriend, Doug, who had peeled 12 pounds of Granny Smith apples while I made the dough. 

At the very last minute—because this was all last minute—Sarah, a neighbor who lives only one mile away, had offered to drive to Minneapolis with me. We spoke on the phone late Friday night and I picked her up the next morning. It didn’t matter that we had never met. I knew that anyone whose heart was crying out I need to do something! loud enough to jump in a car with a stranger—during a pandemic, no less—would be an instant friend. Besides, I have seen over and over how pie serves as a catalyst for connecting people. 

Sarah, a spunky 40-something with a pixie haircut and a sweet smile, strapped on her N-95 mask, tossed her duffle bag in the back, and took over the driving so I could coordinate the pie pickups along our route, arranging roadside meeting times at truck stops. 

I also checked my messages.


“Be careful,” everyone wrote to me. “The situation is dangerous.” They spoke mostly of the protests, with a few adding the reminder that, by the way, there is still a deadly virus lurking. I had at least 200 messages repeating this same sentiment.  

The fact is I was a little scared. But I was not going to let fear paralyze me. I rationalized that it was more dangerous to my health, physically and mentally, to stay home and let my blood pressure rise and my despair grow than to hand out pie on the streets of a Midwestern city. Sometimes, you have to turn off the news, bake some pie, pack up your car, and just go. Do not overthink it. Do not listen to the naysayers. Do not worry about not having a plan in place. If you let your heart guide you, the courage will come, the rest will take shape.

I came up with a list of pat responses to the cautionary notes: 

“I have friends in Minneapolis who I’ve been talking with and they have assured me that it’s safe, that the atmosphere is 90% positive.”

“We will not be outside at night. And we are staying at a friend’s house in a suburb.”

“We will be wearing masks and gloves while out in public.”

“And,” I made a point to add, “We will definitely not be joining any protests.”

The first thing we did upon arriving in Minneapolis was join a protest. 

Our host, Therese Kiser, a high school classmate from Iowa who has lived in Minnesota for 30 years, took us downtown to show us around. We parked and walked past destroyed buildings, some still on fire, others still smoldering, others reduced to a pile of mangled steel and rubble. We watched as residents continued to board up their businesses, with artists swooping in right behind them to paint protest statements, peace signs, and portraits of George Floyd on the boards. Some of the boards had pleas written in a scrawl of spray paint: “Please don’t burn this building, People live here.” 


An organized protest had taken place at 2:00. We stumbled upon the tail end of it (though in reality, the protests are ongoing with some springing up spontaneously). The streets were closed and cars were replaced by people of all colors and ages—groups of Somali women wearing long dresses and head coverings, a middle-aged white guy on his bike wearing a Martin Luther King T-shirt, a young girl with purple hair in a shirt with the words “WE ARE ALL EQUAL” in bold letters. Almost everyone, including us, was wearing a mask. Many were holding up homemade signs made from cardboard scraps that read: Black Lives Matter. Justice for George. No justice, No Peace. RIP George Floyd. And the most gut-wrenching one, I Can’t Breathe. 
The peaceful and inspirational energy was more contagious than the coronavirus, as the next thing I knew I was taking a knee and holding up a fist shouting, "One love!" Being there—right there in this moment with this crowd willing to risk the potential consequences, from tear gas to COVID-19—boosted my faith in humanity to see so many people uniting for change.
A banner displaying a picture of Mr. Floyd had come loose from the intersection stoplight where it hung, and was dangling from one edge. In a dramatic high-wire act, an athletic black man climbed up to secure it, battling gravity and wind as he straddled the light post. The crowd erupted in a cheer when he finally succeeded in reattaching the banner. When he slipped, a collective gasp filled the air as he hung only by his hands, unable to pull himself up. This was followed by another round of cheering and applause after a group of people formed a human safety net, catching him when he let go of his grip.

And that is the extent of danger we experienced during the protest.

After that, we walked down Lake Avenue, logging over five miles according to Sarah’s Fit Bit, passing more ruins of stores and restaurants, cars with smashed windows, graffiti admonishing the harsh treatment of Blacks by law enforcement, and crews of people carrying brooms and buckets already cleaning up the mess. There were many others like us, subdued, heartbroken souls walking the city streets, wanting to take it all in, wanting to understand it, to be part of it, wanting to help change things, to make things better, equal and just.

With freeways closing at 7 p.m. and a curfew of 8 p.m., we returned to Therese’s where we made a rhubarb pie from the rhubarb her friend had just picked. Our pie, along with the ones Therese’s friends had made, brought our total up to 37. With the 15 more we would be picking up in the morning we had 52 pies—more than 400 slices to share with the grieving community of Minneapolis. 

Rachel Swan is the owner of a pie business called Pie and Mighty. After baking pies out of a church basement for several years, she and her wife and business partner, Ratchet, finally opened their own retail space in mid-March in time for Pi Day, 3.14. No sooner had they opened, the pandemic forced them to close, and just as businesses were allowed to reopen, George Floyd was killed. Pie and Mighty is at 36th and Chicago, two blocks from the epicenter of what has blown into a worldwide outpouring of anger and grief.

Rachel knows the power of pie, how the alchemy of ingredients as basic as flour, butter, sugar and fruit can spread joy. Which is why I called her first thing Friday morning, after realizing that I had to “do something.” 

“How are you holding up?” I asked. 

“We are tired and hurting, but we are still baking pie,” she said. 
Rachel supported my idea to come up and hand out free pie and offered her shop as a base. Her generosity did not surprise me, but I also did not take it for granted. “I don’t want this to interfere or take away from your business,” I insisted.

“The more joy we can spread, the better,” she assured me. 

Just over 24 hours later, on Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after deciding to make the trek north, I showed up at her door—which had been shattered the night before, so it, along with the other windows, was boarded up. The beginnings of an elegant mural already adorned the boards, the design based around the words, “George Floyd, Father, Son, Beautiful Spirit.”


“I put out a call to artists on Instagram,” she said. Of course she did. That is Rachel, a gentle, caring soul who embodies the healing values not only of pie but also of public art. 

The streets were quiet at 9 a.m. on Sunday, though two blocks down I could see a small group had already gathered in front of Cup Foods to pay their respects to George Floyd. 

We had discussed other possible places for handing out pie. Maybe it would be safer if we were outside a church, we had mused. But being at Pie and Mighty would prove to be an ideal location, just far enough removed from the fast-growing crowd down the street to be manageable, and close enough to serve the foot traffic, a steady stream of mourners taking bouquets of flowers to place at the memorial, tired cleanup crews, and families with their kids in tow to educate them on why racism must stop.
Our crew of volunteers for the day was comprised mostly of people I had never met. Tina, Xan, Marie, and Carol, all from Minneapolis—and Sarah from Iowa—were there because they had seen my post on Facebook. A woman named Desra, a friend of my friend Esther, had come to help. She was from Donnellson, the same small town as Sarah and me. She knew Sarah from working together years earlier at a cafĂ©. That they were both at Pie and Mighty was a coincidence. The only people I knew were Therese and Rachel. But to see us all working as a team, suited up in face masks and food service gloves, slicing pies, doling out plastic forks, and offering pie to passersby, you would have thought we were all longtime friends. Similar to how protests bring people together, the desire to bring comfort to others through pie, united us with a common cause. We may not have known each other before this day, but like individual strips of dough woven into a lattice crust, our lives would forever after be intertwined.

For three hours we served pie until every last crumb of the 600-some pieces had been served. (More pies showed up Sunday morning putting us at around 80 pies total.) Mostly I stayed inside Rachel’s shop, putting pie slices onto plates. I wanted to be outside, talking with people, listening to what they had to say and how they were feeling, learning about them. But the relative quiet in the kitchen and the repetitive motion of sliding my pie server under slice after slice after slice, lifting each piece onto a plate, was its own form of grief therapy and act of service. A minuscule act, yes, but as they say, the ocean is made of tiny drops of water. 
Without even assigning roles everyone contributed in giving of themselves, and in making things run smoothly. Tina was outside holding the “Free Pie” sign over her head for the entire three hours—except for the 10 minutes she left to get paper plates when we ran out. Marie kept the table tidy, while Sarah and Desra shuttled slices out from the kitchen as fast as I could cut them. Sarah’s Fit Bit probably logged another five miles. And Therese, who knows how to engage the public, given she’s a city council member in her suburb, took the time to draw out people's stories.

\
I gleaned snippets of conversation taking place, and heard countless times, “Thank you for being here. Thank you for doing this.” Black, Latinx, Asian, Caucasian, short, tall, skinny, chubby, scruffy, coiffed, toddlers, teenagers, moms, dads, same-sex couples . . .  pie was served to anyone who wanted a piece. Pie knows no cultural boundaries. Pie does not discriminate. 

Likewise, with offerings of apple, cherry, rhubarb, peach, peach crumble, pecan, pumpkin, chocolate cream, and combinations thereof, like cherry-rhubarb, strawberry-rhubarb, and mixed berry—our selection of pies was equally diverse. There was something for everyone. 

An older woman who was with her husband was so moved by the free pie, she had tears in her eyes. But mostly, people’s faces lit up at the sight of all those slices lined up on the gingham tablecloth and they smiled. While enjoying the flaky crust melting in their mouths and the sweetness on the their tongues, they could forget about the trauma the world is experiencing, even if just for those few precious minutes. Pie is a salve that way.


“Pie isn’t going to fix anything,” someone had commented on social media. 

“No, it isn’t,” I replied. “But making and sharing pie is one small thing we can do right now. And we have to trust that all those small things are going to add up to make a positive impact. People are looking for ways to help, but don’t know what to do." 

Showing up for a protest is not for everyone. Sending money is good, but often doesn’t feel like it's enough. A physical task, like making pie, offers a sense of purpose—and a few hours' respite from the news.

I know pie can’t save the world. Pie can’t bring back George Floyd or end racism (and police brutality). But pie does make people feel better. This tiny bit of comfort, this small gesture of kindness, conveys a bigger, more powerful message that says, “I see you. I hear you. I care about you. You matter. Black lives matter.” Even if you bake just one pie at time and share it with someone (maybe someone outside your own circle or comfort zone) to make a connection, to bridge a divide, to initiate a conversation about racism, it's a start. And even if change comes slowly and incrementally, if you show up and make the effort, as we all must do, a change is gonna come.


People kept asking on Sunday if we were taking donations. With their five, ten or twenty dollar bills already in hand, they would frown when we said, “No, we’re just here to give away pie.” Still, they insisted, practically shoving the money into our hands. This is what I mean when I say you can do this without a plan in place. It took mere seconds to come up with a solution. I grabbed a Sharpie and scribbled “Pie it Forward Fund” on a paper lunch sack. Pie and Mighty has a program where customers can round up their bill and the money goes toward giving free pie to someone who needs cheering up, for example, or a way to say thank you. Though, as Rachel says, and I agree with her, “We think everyone needs pie.” So in the coming weeks and months, when the smoke has cleared, the last of the broken glass swept from the sidewalks, the bouquets of flowers at Mr. Floyd’s memorial withered, the four officers handed down their prison sentences, Minneapolis will still get free pie. If you know someone who could use a slice (or a whole pie), give Pie and Mighty a call. 


Before leaving Minneapolis, Therese, Sarah and I spent an hour at George Floyd’s memorial site. The images and feelings are still so vivid—the piles of flowers arranged in sacred circles surrounded by throngs of people, the sympathy cards taped to the bus stop and buildings, the music played by a DJ moving people to dance, the free water and food offered everywhere from hot dogs to peanut butter sandwiches to whole boxes of groceries. Tears streamed down my face as I soaked in this pool of collective grief, compassion, and call for change. No amount of darkness could keep the light of humanity from shining through. If only this light, this love, this hope for the future, could be transmitted through a television screen or computer monitor. It’s a message that needs to be spread so much further in order to break the generational chains of bias and bigotry, to erase the lines of division and see that we are all so much more alike than we are different. So when you see all those protesters on the news, I can tell you firsthand, there is a more powerful, more valid reason for them to be there than any news story can convey. 

Once again, I thank pie for taking me places where I never otherwise would have gone.

It’s Wednesday, three days after our pie giveaway, and I am back on the farm in Iowa. In the midst of wrestling with a resurgence of despair after reading about the latest outrage, Rachel forwarded me a note from one of her customers who had stopped by on Sunday. “Please extend our heartfelt gratitude to all the pie makers from Iowa. We took their love and kindness into our bodies as nourishment, and it will remain with us always.”

Remember these words as your heart screams, “I can’t just sit here; I have to do something!” Don’t let the fear, the negative news, or the sense of overwhelm stop you. Because doing something, even if it’s just feeding people a few homemade pies, is absolutely, positively better than doing nothing at all. 


******


Read about Rose McGee who gave out free sweet potato pies in Minneapolis this week.
“This is the sacred dessert of Black culture,” McGee told HuffPost. At a time when many people feel hopeless and exhausted, these particular pies offer much more than physical sustenance. “They link us to our history, they soothe our souls and they renew us for the work ahead,” she said.
I love what she is doing, her efforts to heal extend beyond pie, and I hope to meet her one day. 


******



If you are interested in organizing your own pie giveaway, here are some tips:

1. Use your network to get homemade pies donated. (I've done events with store-bought pies and it does not have the same effect.) Unless you can organize a group baking effort, you will need to rely on individuals to bake at home. Try to offer pies that do not require refrigeration. Designate a drop-off location for the pies.  

2. Gather your supplies: folding tables, washable tablecloths, pie servers, knives, plastic forks, paper plates, napkins, food service gloves, face masks, wet wipes, dish towels, garbage can and bags, signage (just “Free Pie” works well). 

3. Promote your event through social media, email, etc. Tell everyone to spread the word. Include details like time, place, and the reason/cause for your giveaway.

4. During the giveaway, interact with people and let them tell you their stories. Pie always gets people to talk and that is the point—to create community, to unite us, to heal us. 


You may also want to read this post from 2107:  What To Do With All That Privilege