My parents are not big cooks — they’re big eaters. We’re a big eating family. I was born in Singapore, grew up in Hong Kong, and lived in Indonesia for a while, and all of those cultures are very eating-centric. Everything is centered on eating together.
Once I was in middle school, I was really into watching cooking shows, and my dad collected cookbooks, so I started doing Sunday dinners. I’d be like, “I really want to make a whole duck,” so my dad would take me shopping at the supermarket, and I’d make dinner.
If you’re an overthinker like I am, when you’re cooking you’re centered. You have to be present and focused.
What I realized through cooking was that you can really organize your thoughts. If you’re an overthinker like I am, when you’re cooking you’re centered. You have to be present and focused. It became a very meditative thing for me, and when my friends would have birthdays, I would make their birthday cakes. It slowly became my way to comfort myself.
I wasn’t always in food. I worked in fashion for a decade designing handbags. Working in fashion is very tumultuous, very dramatic — much like working in food! Being a designer you think you get to draw and design all day, but a lot of it is logistics — talking to buyers, factories. When I got home, I would want to empty all of that out, and cooking was the best way. Even though food is my job now, I still love spending a lot of time in my kitchen. I can listen to music all day in there with my dog and make lunch for the week or bake. It’s the most calming process. Living in the city, things can be stressful, but making your home and kitchen your safe space is great.
When I first moved to New York, whenever I felt sad I’d cook a very elaborate meal. When I was applying for my green card I was in a tough spot in my life. My grandma had passed away, I couldn’t go back to Singapore because of my visa, my roommate who was my best friend was moving out, and I’d just gotten my heart broken. I was so stressed out, and I needed a way to ground myself and understand why I was doing all this in the first place. Why was I choosing to go through this process to stay in America when it’s so hard?
I thought it would be fun to explore this through food because that’s how you learn about a place and the culture and the people.
I come from Singapore and Hong Kong, which are such different places. Then in America you have 50 states that I feel could technically be 50 different countries: The food is different, accents are different, weather is different — it kind of blows my mind. I thought it would be fun to explore this through food because that’s how you learn about a place and the culture and the people. And I thought it would be fun to give myself a project where I interpreted it in the form of a pie.
I realized baking pie is so amazing —it can be savory or sweet, and it’s pretty technical for something that a lot of people take for granted. Getting the crust right and the filling juicy enough (but not too juicy) is a lot of technical play that I really like. When I focused on each pie, I got to know each state and then gave each pie to someone I knew from that state — and talking to them about their memories from those states always gave me a new perspective, too.
Everything is always so wholesome when it comes to pie.
I think some people might think I’m jaded about America. I call it my bad boyfriend because he does things that piss me off, and then he calls with something nice and I’m like, Oh, it’s fine! There is so much focus on all of the terrible things in this country, but what’s so wonderful are the people. Through this project I’ve gotten to know so many people and talk to them about their memories of where they’re from and their memories of pie. Everything is always so wholesome when it comes to pie.
I always wanted to have a cookbook, but I never thought it was something that would be possible for me.
During the pandemic, I lost my job in fashion, and that’s when I pivoted my career into food. I baked for Four & Twenty Blackbirds for a year and a half and then started working at Big Night. During the pandemic I started working on my book proposal. Then I started getting some press about the project, and a literary agent and my editor reached out to me at the same time. I always wanted to have a cookbook, but I never thought it was something that would be possible for me.
Today I baked Alabama — which was the first pie I baked for the project. Alabama’s state fruits were the peach and blackberry, and the state nut was the pecan. I felt like that pie just baked itself. It was super easy but also very special because I gifted it to one of my first friends ever when I was at the Savannah College of Art and Design. We’ve known each other for so long, and having a friendship that sustains like that is so special. It looks so different baking it now versus when I first made it; my crimps are so much better now that I’ve had so much more practice.
I also love when things aren’t just one note — I always want one crunchy element because pie is a whole sensory experience.
The other pie was Arkansas. For the project, I wanted to do a good balance of savory and sweet. Growing up in a British colony I was more used to savory pies. My friend who received the pie always talked about how amazing Arkansas tomatoes were, so I wanted to make one with cheese, an herby curst, and flaky salt — something perfect for a picnic. The assembly is so fast, and these are great pies to start with. I also love when things aren’t just one note — I always want one crunchy element because pie is a whole sensory experience.
I love using Beyond Measure so much. The measurements are so easy, and I love that it’s tall enough that I can stick my utensils in it while baking. Sweetie Pie is great because it’s a really deep pie dish. What I do is I bake in it for a little longer, and the ceramic holds heat really well, which is perfect for a fruit pie because it’ll keep cooking a little bit while it cools.
Through the process of making the pies I learned so much about myself and what home means to me. They always say not to make homes out of other people, but all of the people in this book and all of my friends I’ve met during my time in America have made it my home. I’m excited for my book to come out so people can see in written form how much I love this country.