When you heard that two sisters — one trained in sculpture and photography, the other in business and finance — opened a pie shop in Gowanus, you might have guessed they launched the business six months after rolling out their first crust.
But pie is Emily and Melissa Elsen’s birthright.
What the Four & Twenty Blackbirds ladies roll out daily would make Ma Ingalls herself throw up her floured hands in surrender, so it comes as little surprise that the sisters mastered America’s ur-dessert not in a pricey program for pastry pros but at the elbow of their Grandmother Liz, who helmed the ovens at their mother and aunt’s restaurant, the Calico Kitchen, back home in Hecla, South Dakota, population 227.
The tiny eatery served coffee to churchgoers, breakfast to hunters and lunch to grain farmers like their dad. Nearly everyone ordered pie. Growing up behind the counter, the girls climbed confidently from dishwashing to serving to kitchen prep, “and by 16 we were short-order cooks,” laughs Emily. Eventually each set out in search of her own destiny: Emily to London, Melissa throughout New Zealand.
But fate has her ways. Soon the sisters were baking in their Crown Heights apartment, and over time, a vision came together like pie dough: They could bring a slice of Calico Kitchen to Brooklyn, where so far as they could tell, no one was selling the kind of real, handmade pie they’d grown up on. One decisive day they signed a lease for a sleepy Gowanus corner.
“It was New Year’s Eve,” Melissa recalls, “during a blue moon.”
And while Four & Twenty Blackbirds quickly became famous for unexpected flavor combinations, Emily and Melissa are also firmly rooted in tradition — so much so that the first filling fodder was shipped straight from Hecla.
“Our grandma’s rhubarb patch is quite like a weed,” explains Emily. “Dad would cut it, wrap it up nice with ice packs. It would come just perfect. The same rhubarb Grandma made pie with, we were making pie with here.”
But that ancestral backyard patch couldn’t feed the fast-forming lines in Brooklyn. So, that first spring, Emily found its East Coast incarnation at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. Gleaming rhubarb lured her to the Wilklow Orchard stand, where sixth-generation farmer Albert Wilklow and his sister Becky sell the crop their own family has grown for over a century in the Hudson Valley. Like expats from a common homeland who meet in a strange land, Emily says the two families got each other immediately.
“There are certain personality types when you’re from the country,” she explains. “Albert wears a Ford belt buckle, and I’m, like, ‘Oh my God! These are the guys we went to high school with. They’re just like us!’”
Common lingo and lineage aside, the relationship is rooted in fruit: Year-round, the Blackbird pies are thick with Wilklow harvests, from spring’s rhubarb and strawberries to summer’s bumper crops of blackberries, cherries, apricots, peaches and currants, into fall’s pears, grapes, raspberries and the ever-important apple, of which the Wilklows grow dozens of varieties. Today the sisters keep several orchards on speed dial, but the Wilklows’ wooden crates are stacked high at the shop, evidence of the dozen bushels of the family’s fruit a week they go through in high pie season.
But they don’t just bake the blue-ribbon classics they grew up on. As suggested by the title of their 2013 cookbook — The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop — the sisters hardly hew to Grandma’s Liz’s standbys. Culty creations include paprika-peach, gooseberry galette, salty honey, sweet corn custard and a pink, perfumed cloud of muskmelon chiffon.
Fresh herbs like anise hyssop and lemon verbena grow on Frieda Lim’s rooftop farm next door, Slippery Slope, but despite the farm-forward menu, many recipes feature ingredients found only in unplowed fields. Forager Evan Strusinski scores wild items like sassafras, mugwort and the spindly wild ginger that laces their strawberry pies. Lead baker Rica Borich, who has experience as an herbalist, was inspired to play with an item off his recent list, ultimately baking Birch Beer Float pie that tastes like something Tom Sawyer might have swiped from Aunt Polly’s windowsill.
But while the flavors are bucolic, the shop is all business. Stakes are high, with 12 to 16 pies in the oven at once, and rising demand for the output. Emily and Melissa know their growing brand is only as good as their latest crust, which is something they say the best bakers can intuit.
“It’s not like ‘30 minutes, rotate, 10 more, it’s done,’” explains Melissa. “It’s all by feel.” She says they can tell which staffer baked a pie just by looking at it.
Thanks to that gut-trusting crew, four years after opening the house that pie built, Emily and Melissa can step away a little more often to tend new growth. They’re building a shop on Sackett Street with a larger prep area, more ovens, convenient pickup for their slew of wholesale clients and even a rooftop garden. And they’re already running an outpost at the Brooklyn Public Library, which offers savories from another sibling pair, chefs John and Mike Poiarkoff, of the Pines and Vinegar Hill House, respectively, and fittingly opened on Pi Day, 3.14 — get it?
You might call it the start of a hand-rolled empire.