For those easily intimidated by pie making there is a simple home truth; find someone who has mastered the art, and buy a pie from that person. For many an Island household, Eileen Blake, of Eileen Blake’s Pies, was that go-to expert for nearly 40 years.
Eileen Blake’s Pies is a family business that sells pies from a small gazebo located on State road in West Tisbury. Trained at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School culinary department, Eileen first started rolling out dough and baking her celebrated pies in the early 1970s. She died in August of 2008 at the age of 73, but the expert pie making has continued, thanks to her daughter, Mary Blake Ellis, who had already taken over the business full-time seven years ago.
Reached by phone this week, Mrs. Ellis graciously put down her rolling pin to tell the saga of the family’s baking business.
“I was the baby of the family [of 12 kids] and I was the only one interested in baking pies with my mom,” she said.
These days, Mrs. Ellis and her husband, Gary, along with their three-year-old son, Cayton, live in Falmouth, but the kitchen is still located on the Island. During the run-up to the Thanksgiving demand for pies, they all relocate to this side of the Sound. During the four months of summer, the family, plus Mary’s dad, Roger Blake, a retired math teacher at the regional high school and for years the engaging personality at the gazebo, also reside on the Island.
Eileen had always maintained a bake shop behind her home, a lovely ranch-style retreat adorned by a wrap-around farmer’s porch. “It’s great for family gatherings,” Mrs. Ellis said with a laugh. Considering the 12 siblings who themselves have spawned small dynasties, it’s amazing that one farmer’s porch alone can hold a full complement of Eileen and Roger Blake’s offspring.
Five years ago, the Ellises expanded and remodeled the bakery. At the heart of this redolent business, a hint of cinnamon, a whiff of orange peel, is a vintage 1950s Blodgett oven, a triple decker that bakes 36 pies at a time. Alongside the Blodgett shrine which, incidentally, was acquired from the same high school culinary department that gave her mother her chops, rests a large convection oven for the production of cookies, cakes and brownies.
But pies still receive top billing.
Any secret ingredients in the fillings?
“No, not really,” Mrs. Ellis said. “We use fresh fruit, either rhubarb and peaches or blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. It’s all in the crust. Crust making is intimidating to many people. My mother threw out so many early batches of my dough. The birds enjoyed all my first failures, however.
“Changes in humidity affect the dough, and you need to factor this in each time you prepare a crust.”
Eileen Blake used to grow her own rhubarb and berries for the filling. She also foraged locally.
“In the old days, we used to gather wild blueberries up-Island, but now people are more strict about letting you on their property,” Mrs. Ellis said. Now that the company distributes its wares, not only from the pie stand during summer months, but to Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs, supplies are ordered in bulk to meet the demand.
Some summer favorites are blueberry peach, rhubarb strawberry and lemon chess, a pie Mr. Ellis can consume all by himself and all in one sitting. “I try to tell him to stop eating and revisit it later, but it does no good.” Mrs. Ellis said.
She admits she could never carry on the burdens of this demanding business without the help of her husband. An oil burner technician in “real life” on the Cape, Mr. Ellis appreciates the long tradition and huge fan base of his late mother-in-law’s pies, and lends a hand whenever needed.
Mrs. Ellis’s assistant is also a key player in the operation.
“My assistant, Connie [Toteanu] and I will stay up for 24 hours before deliveries. Longer than 24 hours on the day before Thanksgiving,” she said without a single note of martyrdom; it comes with the territory.
“I painted the walls sunshine yellow since we get up at two in the morning to do our baking,” she added. “It helps to think the sun is up.”
Clearly, the youngest child of Eileen Blake is in her element, as she has been from the beginning when her tiny fingers kneaded the dough that went to the birds. This past week and next she will put in long hours making her Thanksgiving pies: pumpkin, toll house, apple crumb, blueberry crumb and the summer standards as well, including triple berry, composed of blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. Mr. Ellis will deliver numerous pies to Reliable Market. Pre-ordered pies will be shipped to off-Islanders or readied for pick-up on site.
To order one, call 508-693-0528.
And what is Mrs. Ellis’ favorite pie?
“Blueberry peach,” she replies without hesitation, then adds with a chuckle, “But I can stop after one slice.”