Molly Birnbaum ’05 spent the winter making pies—apple pies, to be specific. She made the pies for a competition, and her friends came by her apartment once a week to eat and to judge. The fact that most of these Brown students subsist on packaged ramen noodles, says Birnbaum, did not prevent them from voicing strong preferences. Debates got hot, she says: How much cinnamon to use? Lemon zest? How did the Gala apples compare to the Granny Smiths?
All that baking and tasting paid off, both socially and monetarily. Birnbaum’s recipe took second place in a regional pie contest sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America (known by foodies as the CIA). She won a $1,000 scholarship toward a twenty-one-month program at the Hyde Park, New York, campus—a daunting training ground for prospective chefs and hoteliers.
The BAM staff can attest to the quality of Birnbaum’s pie. Molly has been an intern at the magazine this year and after baking a pie to be photographed for this article, she brought it by our offices. A small group of editors and designers reveled in it, increasing in number as the aroma drifted through the building. A convivial bunch by nature, we became even more so as we ate.
Molly’s pie was deceptively simple—a little like the baker herself, whose unpretentious manner belies her sophisticated tastes. She baked the pie in a plain old cake pan and topped it with a ragged looking crust that turned out to be light and buttery and not at all greasy. The apples (a mix of Galas and Granny Smiths) were cut into nice big chunks that still had some bite to them. It was just barely sweet and not the least bit gluey or runny—a really apple-y pie.
Birnbaum says she grew up “eating suburban take-out pizza” outside Boston. Her interest in cooking came later. In the essay she submitted to the CIA along with her pie recipe, she told of a pie she’d baked in Namibia, where she spent a summer as a volunteer teaching AIDS awareness and English. She lived with a family in a poor rural village, and her host mother, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Mbula, worried that Molly would never marry unless she learned to cook, clean, and sew properly. Mbula set about imparting those skills. In return, one day Molly walked the eight miles to the nearest grocery store for ingredients to bake a pie. There was no butter or cinnamon—just hydrogenated butter substitute and sugarcane meal. Still, she wrote, “When [the pie] came out of the oven, piping hot and bubbling apple juices, steaming a familiar sweet smell, Mbula rethought my unmarriageable status.”
That African pie, she says, symbolized the beginning of a new awareness for her. Surrounded by malnutrition and HIV (more than half of the local population had AIDS, she says), she couldn’t take food for granted. “It meant physical survival and was one of the few forms of pleasure,” she wrote.
An art history concentrator, Birnbaum spent the next semester studying in Florence. After her time in Namibia, she was struck by Italy’s abundance and its reverence toward food. In that divide, she had found her subject: the relationship between food and culture.
Birnbaum wants to travel and to write about food. After graduation she is heading for an organic farm in Tuscany, where she’ll spend the growing season. Then she’ll return to the United States for cooking school. The fruits of her labors should be not only delicious but edifying for all of us.