Dancing in the Kitchen:
A Story of Pie and Possibilities
I used to fantasize about running a little cafe where I served all my favorite foods: chili verde, French onion soup, toasted cheese/bacon sandwiches—and pie. When my customers would drop by to eat and gab, I’d get updates on all the latest dramas—whether Billy had worked up the nerve to propose, or if the Miller’s Irish setter, Fiona, had whelped her puppies yet. Maybe a woman would take a seat at the small table by the window, and order a slice of key lime pie and a tall glass of iced tea. This woman, who had not had a moment to herself all day, would pull the paperback from her purse and start to read. When the pie arrived, she would look up in surprise—it was a big piece!—then she’d pick up her fork and take the first bite. Sublime! As I’m indulging in this fantasy, I realize two things: I enjoy serving people and I really like pie. I want to feed and I want to be fed. It’s the stuff in the middle though, behind the kitchen door, that’s daunting: the dishes, the meal prep, mopping the floor.
I recently heard about a local woman who makes pies for a living. Seriously. That’s what she does. Madeleine Reber, 49, is the owner/chef/disherwasher and recipe tester for SALTY LARK PIES. She chops the apples and toasts the pistachios and squeezes the lemons and folds the boxes and delivers the pies. Cream and fruit and savory pies, custards, galettes and tarts—she does it all. I wanted to hear the story of the woman behind the pies and now you can too.
A choreographer and professor of dance in the Chicago area, Madeleine moved back to her hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a few years ago to help her mother, who had just undergone surgery and needed support. As soon as she told me that, she warned me not to make her sound like a member of the U.S. Calvary, rushing in on horseback to rescue Fort Mom, all alone on the prairie.
“I don’t want this story to be about the saint who comes home to take care of her mother and then she makes pies and it’s a cute story,” Madeleine said as we sat in her kitchen on a sweltering July morning. Well, okay then. Actually, I can understand Madeleine’s resistance to a simple daughter-helps-mom-and-discovers-pie tale. Nobody wants their life reduced to a movie-of-the-week, especially if the plot revolves around your mom and baked goods.
On the kitchen counter behind her, Madeleine’s mise en place was perfectly organized: two types of flour (organic white and whole wheat pastry flour), sugar, salt, ice water, measuring cups, spoons, a digital scale. The only thing missing from the mise was the butter, chilling in the fridge until the last minute.
The journey from dancer to pie executive may sound a little random, but Madeleine said there was a logical thread to this career change. Madeleine left Yellow Springs after high school to attend Bennington College in Vermont, where she majored in dance. After she got an MFA in dance choreography at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, she moved to Chicago to be part of a larger and more diverse dance scene. While there, she taught part-time at Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University. Later she went to Salt Lake City to become certified in Laban Movement Analysis, a theoretical and experiential system for the observation, description, prescription, performance, and interpretation of human movement.
In 2012, she founded SALTY LARK DANCE, a small, all-female ensemble in Chicago based on Laban. Other teaching venues opened up for her, including a job teaching dance for a year at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal. When her contract ended in 2019, she was at a crossroads. She would go home, help her mom, and figure things out. (Figuring things out included part-time gigs as a home organizer ala Marie Condo, adjunct professor, store clerk, and gardener. She still teaches some anatomy classes online and gives workshops on movement.)
The good thing was, she was returning to Yellow Springs, an artsy little village in Southwest Ohio. It’s a free-thinking, left-leaning community of about 4,000 people that draws visitors from all over the Midwest. They come to poke around in the pottery shops and boutiques, quaff beer at the local brewery, hike in Glen Helen Nature Preserve, or visit the Raptor Center, which rehabilitates injured birds of prey. Yellow Springs: home to Antioch College and Dave Chappelle and people who knit sweaters for trees.
One of the last stops on the Underground Railroad, Yellow Springs has had a long history of racial tolerance. Coretta Scott King attended Antioch, and so did writer Stephen Jay Gould. Actor John Lithgow lived in the village during his elementary school years and remembers it with affection. In a 2021 interview with the Dayton Daily News, Lithgow described his old hometown as “a combination of Midwestern small town life, Bohemian funkiness, and political radicalism in the middle of the Ohio countryside.” So, yes, Madeleine was moving from a thriving, large, artistic city and returning to an eccentric little enclave, but it was Yellow Springs after all, which has its own kind of artsy groove. (I’d love to live in Yellow Springs, but it’s too pricey, at least in comparison to the rest of the state. Besides, I just planted two little trees and I can’t wait to see these kids grow up.) Back in town with her mom, Dimi, a former professor of dance at Antioch, Madeleine got busy, re-discovering the pleasures of cooking. She’d grown up eating and making pies, learning from her mom, whose specialty was apple-rhubarb.
“As a kid I liked baking. My family definitely finds joy in eating food. It’s probably the most Jewish thing about me too. We’re not religious but I’ve eaten traditional Jewish food on and off my whole life. Feeding people is integral to who I am.”
She found comfort in making pies and coming up with new recipes. Pies became her meditation, her spiritual practice.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error,” Madeleine said. “I like to learn by doing. I’m feisty and independent and I wanted to figure things out for myself.” One book that she took inspiration from was Kate McDermott’s Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Crusts, Fillings and Life (Countryman Press, 2016). Kate, by the way, has a fabulous Substack newsletter about pies, wisdom, and the whole crone/wise-woman ball o’ wax. You can find Kate McDermott’s Newsletter here.
Madeleine likes fruits with a bit of a tang, so lemon, apple, blackberry and cherry pies are big sellers. She makes a lot of chocolate cream pies and her Key Lime pie is very popular (she tops it off with lime zest and a whipped cream/sour cream topping).
Madeleine took a risk when she decided to launch her small business. As she talked about the challenges of running a home-based business, I found myself nodding in agreement. Madeleine doesn’t just run SALTY LARK PIES, she is SALTY LARK PIES, all by herself. There’s the physical side of things—shopping, chopping, baking, deliveries, cleaning up and then there’s the psychological side: trying to find a healthy balance between work and life, staying in your own lane, not comparing yourself to others, find the energy and enthusiasm to keep on keeping on.
She hesitated when I asked her how many pies she makes a week. “This is a question I hate to answer,” she said slowly. “It’s one of the struggles I have. I was just talking to another home baker who felt similarly. When you’re just one person, it’s easy to measure yourself by quantity. You can easily go to a dark place of not feeling productive enough. So anytime someone asks me that question, I want to answer, three hundred!”
The short answer: it varies. (Some weeks she’ll make ten, and some weeks it’s forty.) She’s also branched out and created a line of baking extracts. Like the pie business, the extract line started organically, sans business plan or spread sheets. A big seller is the lavender bud extract, since lavender cocktails have become popular. You can visit Madeleine’s website here.
“I’m really lucky—and it’s stressful as shit. Trying to love what you do and do what you love and the hustle and making money. I feel gratitude; I’ve never wanted to work in an office, I’m better working for myself, so I love all of that. But it’s tricky because there’s pressure, there are just some days when I don’t feel like doing it.
“Sometimes I’ll look at Instagram and there is some other pie maker who has a small business. It’s my size or just a bit bigger and she’s making twice as many pies! I think to myself, should I be changing my process? And then I realize that her kitchen is twice as big as mine and she has two ovens and an industrial sink.
“My friends say, well, is your goal to churn out as many pies as possible or is it something different from that?” she continued. “I think with any art form, you have to ask yourself, why am I doing it, what do I want? I don't want to be romantic and say you have to love it all the time. It’s work. It’s a job.”
At the same time, she’s ambitious. And she wants to make memorable, celebratory pies that people will love and buy, again and again. “But if I start getting out of myself too far, if I get in the worry mode as opposed to what feels right, I get kind of scattered and waste energy because there is always going to be someone who wants this or that flavor,” she adds. “If you get too crazy trying to please everybody, you’re going to wear yourself out. So I think it’s an on-going practice for me.”
I get it. When I started At The Dogpark eight months ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. I wasn’t sure I could sustain writing into a void, casting my bread upon the waters. What was the point? Who did I think I was, anyway? What did I have to offer? But I did it anyway. There were things I wanted to say about my place in the world, getting older, the vagaries of love, trying to find common ground with people who didn’t necessarily share my values. I wanted to write about books and dogs and food and the weather, independence and beauty, contentment in small things. It all sounded very … lyrical. But like Madeleine, I’ve discovered that actually committing to an artistic project, doing it in real time, real life, is huge.
When I publish a new At the Dogpark piece, I’ll spend the next few hours, sometimes days, toggling back and forth between the number of paid and unpaid subscribers, seeing whether what I’ve written resonates with readers and sparked a comment. If I find a typo, I fret. I’m making pie, but I’m not sure what kind it will be from week to week. Why do it then? Probably for some of the same reasons that Madeleine launched her company: identity, satisfaction, pride, aesthetic pleasure, and yes, the concrete need for recognition.
Pie, for Madeleine, has turned out to be much more than just dessert. It’s a Zen lesson, an art form, a juggling act. Making pie is an improvisation as old as time, melding appetite with desire. She’s figuring it out, dancing in the kitchen, learning to find the balance between feeding others and sustaining herself.
We all have to do something in this life. I’m happy that Madeleine’s just happens to be pie.
Author’s note: If you liked “Dancing in the Kitchen,” don’t feel shy about hitting the “like” button below. Even better, drop me a line! The Munchkins in charge of Substack’s analytics pay attention to stuff like that.
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