Thanks for the Pie

Remembering Karen Barker, 1957 – 2019

I grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, where there was a very strong corner-bakery culture but little actual home baking. People tended to purchase their breads and desserts rather than produce them out of cramped urban kitchens. I was lucky that my maternal grandmother, an exception to this rule, lived upstairs. She was a Russian immigrant who barely spoke English, had no written recipes, and never used standardized measures. Bubby Fanny turned out an amazing array of Eastern European specialties and taught me that homemade sweets were a tribute to one’s family and always included the ingredients of time and love.

– Karen Barker, “Channeling Aunt Ruth: How I Became a Southern Baker,” Gravy # 47, Spring 2013

Like so many people who got to know Karen Barker, the Southern Foodways Alliance got to know her through pie. It became Karen’s signature dessert after she moved south with her husband, Ben Barker, and after they opened Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, in 1986.

Read “Channeling Aunt Ruth” from Gravy #47. Painting by Amy C. Evans.

We were lucky. Karen and Ben, who joined 48 other founders to establish the Southern Foodways Alliance, embraced the SFA ethos. They shared enthusiasm, lent confidence, and modeled kindness. Plus, Karen baked pies. Lemon chess pies, shoofly pies, maple bourbon sweet potato pies, and more. She baked joyfully and beautifully and deliciously.

Magnolia Grill - Ben and Karen Barker - Carrboro Farmers Market
SFA recorded Karen’s oral history interview in 2005. Listen here.

Earlier this week, Ben and their son Gabriel Barker shared the news that Karen passed on Saturday, February 2, after a long and brave fight against cancer. Here at SFA, we were deeply saddened by this news. And we remain deeply appreciative of our time with Karen. It was a joy to be in her presence, a joy to be in her kitchen.

When he told us the news, Ben also told us about his conversation with the funeral home director. On the death certificate, Ben instructed that the mortuary list Karen’s occupation as “greatest pastry chef.” The director didn’t think that would be accepted. Ben said, “Try it anyway.” And so it was. And so it is.

In 2018, Jesse Paddock and Kate Medley directed an SFA-produced film, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Pie, honoring Karen’s life and work. Please enjoy. In lieu of flowers, the Barker family suggests gifts be made to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign to end childhood hunger in America.