Food and Family Intersect for Emily and Melissa ElsenThe Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. We sat down with Melissa and Emily Elsen — sisters, pie-makers, authors, and co-owners of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a much-loved pie shop based in Brooklyn, New York. They made a chicken potpie while we discussed how food and family have always been at the center of what they do.
Emily: Melissa and I live in the same building. It’s an old free-standing house with three families in it. I’ve been in New York for over 20 years, and Melissa moved here 11 or 12 years ago, right before we started the business. I was in my twenties when I first moved in, and we would joke that it was like living in an episode of Friends.
In the beginning, I lived in the downstairs apartment with two girlfriends. Then the apartment upstairs opened up, and I moved in while Melissa stayed in the apartment downstairs. We developed the pie business in that downstairs kitchen. It was a big part of what inspired me to bake pies because normally in New York you end up with a small kitchen, and pie baking does require a lot of space. But all of a sudden we had this kitchen that had a lot of space, and I’d always had a desire to do more cooking and baking here.
We grew up in a family restaurant. Our family took it over when I was 5 and Melissa was 3. We’re from a small farm town in South Dakota. It was very rural, and we were the one restaurant in town. We could walk from my house to our restaurant in 10 minutes. It was a very family-centered place.
That was our introduction to food, being around my mother and her two sisters. Our grandmother would come and bake the pies. That was such a foundational aspect for us. We also always had a garden plot, and I remember summer canning with peaches and green beans. My mom was very liberal with us in the kitchen. If we had an idea of something we wanted to make, she was always very encouraging.
Our grandmother would come and bake the pies.
Melissa: Our childhood gave us huge exposure to cooking and food from a young age. We were exposed to the process of preparing and serving food to people. Our mom also taught us how to clean up after ourselves after we were done. That sense of doing it for yourself also comes from growing up in an isolated place. Even in college, I would forget about getting takeout. We didn’t grow up with that — we were the only restaurant in town.
From fried chicken to delicious homemade soup, cinnamon rolls, and cookies — I remember the magic of all of it. I have this memory of being back in the storage room with these giant bags of flour, like the ones we now have to deal with in the bakery today. We were probably 13 when we learned how to clean a full-size grill properly. When you talk about culinary education, this was always a part of what we did.
Food was always a big part of life, and I really enjoyed baking. First of all, I liked eating it, and I also liked the more structured nature of the process. I’m a more analytical person, and it was always a good release or hobby. It’s hands-on, and in the end you have something you can eat.
In some ways, pie has a little more room for experimentation.
Emily: I’m probably less of a baker. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and was very interested in the food I was eating. I love playing with flavors, vegetables, and herbs. I ended up doing an art degree, and even as a parent, my partner is more precise. In some ways, pie has a little more room for experimentation.
One of the things that has been very successful for us as business partners and pie-makers is we bring those two sides to the table. When you’re running a business and making a product over and over again, proficiency and having a recipe that works is very important. I tend to follow recipes very loosely when cooking, but you need to follow the recipe more closely for baking.
In sadness and joy, pie is always present.
Melissa: Yet when you’re making a fruit pie, there is a little more of a cook’s intuition than, for example, when you’re making a custard filling. You can be a lot more loose and creative when you’re making something with fruit in it or when you’re making a savory pie like we did for the shoot.
I don’t do as much baking as I used to at home, but we always share our pies with family and friends. We just lost a very dear uncle to COVID, and of course, we sent pies to his family. In sadness and joy, pie is always present.
Going into a food business and doing our own thing was always clear.
Emily: Since we live in the same house, we’re always sharing food with each other, too. One of us makes Mom’s potato soup, and the other will end up having some of that, or we share ingredients or even pizza when one of us gets takeout. Our mom comes to visit a lot, too, so we often end up cooking together with her. Bo, my son, is a new addition, so we’re also trying to figure out what he likes to eat.
You know, having grown up in a family business with entrepreneurial family members, us becoming business partners in the food world was not out of context. Our father is a farmer, and that was a whole other side of the food chain. We had talked about doing something together, and, for whatever reason, going into a food business and doing our own thing was always clear.
We’re all still reeling from this last year; I’m trying to give myself and the staff permission to just be.
Melissa: I’ve always loved the energy of back of house, where stuff is happening. The idea of that was romanticized to a certain degree, but we enjoy the energy and the pressure in some way. We’re more out of the day-to-day now, and that evolution has also been interesting — moving from doing the hands-on work we’ve always done to managing the business.
To be honest, we’re all still reeling from this last year; I’m trying to give myself and the staff permission to just be. We’re not resting on our laurels but focusing on sustainability and making sure our staff and customers feel safe.
Sometimes I forget about how good a savory pie is.
Emily: Today we made a riff on a traditional chicken potpie, which can also be made with turkey breast. We love that it's a one-pan filling (the Deep Cut skillet is the perfect size for it), making cleanup quick and easy. We've added bitter green escarole, grainy mustard, and smokey bacon — all flavors that play off each other nicely and are complemented by the buttery crust. Sometimes I forget about how good a savory pie is. You can do a lot with savory pie. Once you have the dough, you do have that ability to just wing it a little bit more.
Photos by Adam Friedlander.