The Civil Rights Movement had pie fundraisers. This chef wants to continue that legacy

In an uncertain world, chef Nadine Nelson knows one thing for sure.

“People love pie,” the chef and educator told me. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in America or the world where people would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like pie.'”

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she hosted a virtual event with the organization “Peace Through Pie” about culinary community activism, called “The Power of Pie.” And she told me about the link between pie and the Civil Rights Movement — about Georgia Gilmore, who founded the “Club to Nowhere,” an underground resistance group that cooked and sold savory meals as well as baked goods (apparently pecan pie was Dr. King’s favorite dessert) to raise money for transportation during the Montgomery bus boycott. In 2019, Gilmore’s belated obituary was featured in The New York Times series “Overlooked No More.”

So, as Nelson sees it, she is continuing a longstanding tradition.

“What MLK did was wonderful, but the women were running the operations!” she said.

Nelson runs a lot of operations. Her own organization,”Stir the Pot,” promotes citizen action with a similar goal.

Civil Rights Spiced Sweet Potato Pie by Nadine Nelson

“It’s getting people involved in their neighborhoods, understanding you can use your talents and passions to create a better community and environment and get to know your neighbors,” she explained. “It’s people gathering to cook food and learn about how they can be agents of change within their realm of influence. You can use your gift to make change. That might be in your school or your kid’s school, a church or civic organization or an alumni group.

“A lot of times I think people look at volunteering and think it’s something boring. But you should find what you love to do and volunteer that way.”

Winter Root Vegetable Cheese Tart by Nadine Nelson

Anyone can host a Peace Through Pie fundraiser for the charity of their choice, and before the days of Zoom, their events brought all kinds of people together in one room.

“It’s intergenerational, that’s what I love about it,” Nelson said. “I show people that anyone can have access to this — making pie, coming together, using their hands and learning something they wouldn’t know. And while you’re doing all that stuff, you’re talking to each other, telling stories about your culture. I’ll hear someone talking about their grandmother making ricotta pie and someone else about their abuela making empanadas. There are so many savory pies — pizza, Jamaican patties, quiche, frittata, tortilla española, börek, tamale pies, spanakopita, any type of dumpling is a form of pie!”

Vegetarian Samosa-Style Potpies by Nadine Nelson

I pause to consider the idea that all of my favorite foods might actually be different versions of the same food.

“I’m Jamaican, so I love American pies because Jamaican sweets are so different with their tropical ingredients,” said Nelson, who studied pastry in Paris. “The Jamaican motto is, ‘Out of many, one people.’ It’s easy to get people together to talk about different things over pie.”

One of her last events before the pandemic was a bake sale featured in Yankee Magazine. Using donated food, Nadine taught a group of students in her current home of New Haven, Connecticut how to make some all-American goodies for a good cause.

“Those kids never made apple pie before, or homemade pizza, so that was fun for them to be able to see how easy and inexpensive it is to make it from scratch. I love being able to share my love of cooking and my love of pie and then also how it connects us culturally to each other.

“We’ve been going through a lot in America, and then we hear these calls asking for unity in a hollow way. You can’t talk about diversity esoterically — you have to live it. And having a pie party is a positive way to engage people. They may be afraid, but if you can organize around something that’s familiar like pie, people come to these events and they become friends.”

Pear, Cranberry and Cheddar Pie with Hazelnut Crumble by Nadine Nelson

After our conversation, my pie-less home felt positively unpatriotic. Luckily, dinnertime was nigh and there’s a grocery store on my block. All of Nelson’s recipes called out to me, but my first project had to be her Puerto Rican-Style Shepherd’s Pie.

I simmered plantains until they were tender and then mashed them with butter while ground beef browned on the stovetop with a fragrant mix of adobo, olives, onions and peppers. My kitchen smelled like a restaurant. My man and my dog were both getting very excited. We spread the plantains on top of the meat mixture and topped it all with a layer of shredded cheese. It felt like forever waiting for that cheese to become golden and bubbly in the oven, and I was surprised to learn it had only been half an hour.

Puerto Rican–Style Shepherd’s Pie by Nadine Nelson

Nelson’s recipe says the dish serves 6 to 8, but I say portion sizes are in the eye of the beholder. We ate at least half of it before considering slowing down. Yankee Magazine has graciously allowed us to share Nelson’s pie recipes, and I plan on working my way through every single one. National Pie Day, which falls on Saturday, is the perfect excuse.

And for those looking to learn more from Nelson, her next online event, called “Fix Your Plate,” is coming up on President’s Day.

“We’re going to learn from different people all around the country about how you can use food to do activism where you live,” she said. Full hearts, full bellies, can’t lose.