Memories of Beautiful Pies
Just how did Jim Fobel, author of the much-beloved Jim Fobel's Old-Fashioned Baking Book, turn his fine arts degree into an illustrious career in food writing? It’s a bit of a complicated story.
In 1970, Jim was a fresh-faced graduate from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and had little idea of what to do with his new degree. As Jim says, “it was a fine arts school, they weren’t teaching us commercial art or how to make money.” With a friend from school, also named Jim (Boleach), Fobel decided to try his hand at fashion design and illustration. A well-placed connection put their work in front of the eyes of a wealthy and influential patroness of the arts, who was smitten, getting the duo employment at a weekly fashion magazine in Beverly Hills. The arrangement was short lived, however, as their patroness moved to New York City, and the Jims, who had been enjoying studio space on her property, found themselves less welcomed by their benefactress' soon-to-be-former-husband.
Luckily their art had made quite an impact, as their patroness invited her protégés to come to the New York and help decorate her new apartment. Why not? The two Jims traveled east, arriving in New York on September 10, 1973, to a limousine waiting at the airport. A flurry of work ensued as the Jims worked for the next few months to outfit a fifteen room apartment, and by Thanksgiving they were ready to hold a coming out party for the new space. Looking for inspiration in the public library, Jim came across an image of an enormous, three-feet-across meat pie. The party planners loved the idea, but after preparing the pie, Fobel thought the vast expanse of pastry looked rather plain. So Jim did what made sense to an artist – he turned the pie into a canvas, using a mixture of food coloring paste and egg whites to paint a detailed image of a chicken on the pastry.
When the influential guests at the party saw his pie, Fobel says they “went nuts.” Seemingly overnight, the Jims had their own shop inside of Bloomingdale’s, where they produced painted pies, breads, and artisanal cupcakes for the upper crust of New York’s elite. Jim recalls his Picture Pie Company, as they named the business, serving the likes of Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli.
The company was formed so quickly, however, that its legal foundation was shaky. Says Fobel, "we didn’t have a license to be in business, we didn’t have a food handling permit; I guess you can only do that sort of thing when you’re young." In one escapade, Jim remembers ducking a lawsuit brought by a designer whose logo they had painted on their breads because in the rush to start the business, they had never signed the release with Bloomingdales. The larger company assumed liability and Fobel and Boleach reincorporated as the Edible Art Company, continuing almost unfazed. Of greater danger to the company, however, was the issue of ownership, which was hotly debated between the Jims and their benefactress. After returning to their apartment one evening to find their belongings rifled through in an apparent attempt to find the “secret recipe” for the pies (“as if that would have helped,” scoffs Fobel, “the secret was the art, it couldn’t be stolen!”), Jim says he and Boleach realized they could no longer trust the woman who gave them their start. From there, “the whole thing really went downhill,” Jim explains, alluding vaguely to a legal quagmire. “We had nothing in writing. It started fast and it ended fast.”
What didn’t end was Jim’s passion for food and the artistry with which he created it. Shortly after the demise of the Picture Pie Company, Jim began studying under the great James Beard, and the rest is history. Among his vast contributions to the world of food writing, Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book is perhaps his most beloved work, with page worn copies sitting on the shelves of hundreds of thousands of kitchens. With simple instructions, Jim helps home cooks to recreate the classic baked goods of his childhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most lovingly crafted vignettes describes the making of a pie.
“My mother made the best peach pie I have ever tasted, for which she used only our own giant tree-ripened Elberta peaches. She'd roll out the pie dough on our big mahogany dining room table, then roll and cut a second piece of pastry into strips to be woven into a lattice atop the sliced peaches. The top would be brushed with egg yolk and sprinkled with sugar before the pie went into the oven. As it baked, the pie would fill the house with an indescribably wonderful aroma, emerging from the oven all juicy and bubbly and golden. We would wait for what seemed like forever while the finished pie cooled on the windowsill, then eat it ever so slightly warm.”
Brianne Mirecki is a student and runner who attempts to bake gourmet treats in less-than-gourment college dorm kitchens.