The Pie Guy

Grieving the loss of a friend we made during the pandemic

On Saturdays in April 2020, Audrey and I dressed up. It was early-pandemic. Those endless days of jigsaw puzzles and long simmering home-cooked meals were OK for a few weeks, but we missed our city life. My husband and older daughter loved to stay at home, but Audrey and I, we liked an outing.

In March the four of us had packed up a few things from our Brooklyn apartment and drove two hours upstate to our second home in Germantown. Like the rest of the world, we didn’t know what was happening or how long it would last, but we figured it would be easier to be upstate. We wanted to get away from the long grocery store lines and the impossibility of maintaining 6 feet of distance from strangers on the crowded city sidewalks.

Saturday was farmers’ market day in nearby Hudson. It was the one place Audrey and I went every week. They ran the market consistently through the pandemic, with spacing, masks and sanitizer, and fresh fruit, vegetables and homemade foods to replenish body and soul. It was our big outing — we would choose each other’s outfits, do our hair, maybe even put jewelry on. We wore our wedge heels (it was still the pandemic…no one was wearing actual heels). We made a Spotify playlist for the drive. It had a lot of Ariana Grande. Sometimes we just played 7 rings on repeat and drove with the windows down.

Getting ready for a Saturday market

As the weeks progressed, we got to know more of the vendors, and they knew us too. The people we saw here began to take the place of our neighborhood friends in Brooklyn. Instead of Jenny the crossing guard, Angelo at the flower shop, and Mars the bodega cat, we had Mike from Bonhomie, Sue at Blue Star, and Nickelby the dog from Martin Farms.

And then there was David, the Churchtown Pie Guy. Audrey and I were not early arrivers to the market, so usually by the time we would make it to David’s stand he would be sold out of most things. We would take the one remaining apple pie, or carrot cake, or whatever was left.

“You can order ahead for next week,” he would say.

“No,” I would decline, “we might be back in Brooklyn by then.”

After a few weeks of this, he insisted. He pulled out his clipboard and said, “What do you want?”

“Rhubarb,” I said. “It’s my husband’s favorite.”

“Only rhubarb? Not strawberry rhubarb?” he double checked.

“Only rhubarb. Strawberry makes it too sweet.”

“Ah. I’ll reduce the sugar and make it extra tart,” he said with a nod. “What’s your cell phone number? I text my regulars on Tuesdays to confirm.”

We walked away from his stand with a new lift in our steps. We were “regulars”!

Sure enough, on Tuesday I received a text. “One ONLY rhubarb for Saturday. You didn’t say if you want medium or large.”

“Medium is enough.” I responded quickly. Let’s not get carried away.

When David saw us walking up to the stand the next Saturday he turned back to what I now realized was the secret stash for the regulars. He pulled out a box that said “Kate — Rhubarb”. My own special order pie.

My first pie as a “regular”

The next time David texted me, I thought it was spam. I hadn’t added him to my contacts, so it appeared as a number I didn’t recognize. The message popped up on my phone screen while I was in a Zoom meeting. I glanced down at it. “Anything your heart desires for Saturday?” it read. I blushed. I saw it was coming from a local area code and began to imagine that someone had mistakenly sent the message to me, intending it for an illicit lover, planning for a Saturday tryst.

I opened the message, and realized that there was already a chain preceding it: the exchange from the prior week about the rhubarb. Ha. It was Tuesday, pie ordering day. So much for my imagined intrigue. But yes, my heart did desire some pie. That week I asked for blueberry.

“Not rhubarb?”

“That’s my husband’s favorite, but it’s my turn this week and my favorite is blueberry.”

We continued alternating orders — rhubarb this week, blueberry next.

One Tuesday David texted me, “I’m going to save your marriage!”

“?”

“I’m making you a bluebarb!”

His blueberry rhubarb pie was a revelation. I would venture to guess that eating one of those pies weekly could save any marriage, regardless of whether the original problem was a divide in preferences for rhubarb vs blueberry.

The first Saturday in May, Audrey and I strolled up to David’s booth at the market and he widened his arms, an implied hug from six feet’s distance. “You had a big week!” he exclaimed.

I tilted my head. I had had a big week; my company had closed a $27 million fundraising from Bain Capital, adding to the momentum we were experiencing as the largest telehealth provider for special education therapy in k-12 schools. But that couldn’t be what he was talking about. I looked at him with confusion.

“Bain Capital!” he exclaimed. It was what he was talking about.

“How do you know about that?” I asked incredulously.

“I follow you on Instagram,” he explained matter of factly.

Ah, right, I had posted an insta-beautiful picture of one of his pies a few weeks earlier, and had tagged him in it: @churchtownpieguy. So he followed me back. I guess we knew each other a little now. He proceeded to tell me about his own connection with a Bain Capital investor decades earlier, when he lived in New York and worked as a chef. I googled David and found a 1985 review of his restaurant in the New York Times. There’s so much you don’t know about the people you talk to, about their history.

From then on David often sent me little emoji cheers and smiles in reaction to my Instagram stories. I will admit that, still reeling from the loss of my father to cancer in January of that same year, something about having this funny old man cheer for me on Instagram comforted me. I liked knowing David, and knowing that he cared about what was happening in my life.

The last week of June I told him that we wouldn’t be ordering for the next week, because we were going on vacation to celebrate Audrey’s 9th birthday. We’d be back the week after. For our only-during-a-pandemic vacation, we drove nine hours deep into western Pennsylvania, for one main reason: both my husband and I are big Frank Lloyd Wright fans, and we’d always wanted to see his masterpiece, Fallingwater. They had a rule that children under 9 years old weren’t allowed to tour the house, so it seemed like a perfect honoring of Audrey’s 9th birthday to go visit the site. (When you turn 21 you go to a bar, when you turn 16 you get your driver’s license, and when you turn 9 you go to Fallingwater!)

The next week at the market, David chastised me, “You didn’t say where you were going! Did I ever tell you I was supposed to become an architect?”

No, he hadn’t. Turns out, he was from Wisconsin, home to Taliesin, a mecca for Frank Lloyd Wright lovers. Out of high school, David had been accepted, full scholarship, into an elite architecture program at the University of Wisconsin. But he didn’t go. “Architecture was not what my parents had in mind for me,” he trailed off, leaving the distinct impression that there was more to the story.

August was blueberry picking month. My favorite. We picked every weekend and I posted beautiful blueberry photos amply on Instagram.

“I’ll bring the rhubarb and you make the pie!” David commented on one of my posts. That Saturday he nudged further, “You should make a pie.”

“No no, I’d much rather keep eating yours,” I replied.

“You can learn,” he insisted.

As the summer wound to an end, we started going back and forth to Brooklyn again, getting ready for the return to school for the girls. I stopped pre-ordering pies, explaining that we wouldn’t reliably be able to come every weekend. On the Saturdays that we were upstate, Audrey and I would swing by David’s booth, chat for a bit, and buy whatever he had on hand.

One Saturday in late September, we habitually veered through the lot toward his booth, and stopped in our tracks, confused. His space was empty.

“Where’s David?” asked Audrey.

“They must have changed things around,” I surmised, looking around to find him elsewhere.

“Everyone else is in the same spot,” Audrey countered.

“I don’t know,” I said, thrown off. “He probably just took a week off to go on a trip. We’ll see him next time.”

The next time we went, his space was still empty.

“Do you think he’s sick?” Audrey asked.

“Maybe.”

“You should text him.”

“I don’t want to bother him if he’s not feeling well. We’ll see him when he’s back.”

The next week I read in an Instagram post from the Hudson farmers’ market that David wouldn’t be at the market again the upcoming Saturday.

“You should text him,” said Audrey.

“Maybe.”

I didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe he’s going through something personal, I thought. I don’t really know him that well. I don’t know what to say, or what to ask. I don’t want to be intrusive. The distances we place between ourselves and others. The things we ought to do, but for some reason we don’t. The things we regret. This one sits with me.

Then November 13. My birthday. A new post from the Hudson farmers’ market. “We’re sorry to share the news that David Ludtke, aka the Churchtown Pie Guy, died on November 2, 2020 after a fierce battle with metastatic cancer.” When Audrey got home from school, I told her. We didn’t say anything. We sat together on her bed for a long time, leaning against each other, quiet tears streaming down our faces.

One day (not a Tuesday) back over the summer I had gotten a random text from David. “Do you have any use for some chervil seeds?”

I didn’t know what chervil was, but I very much wanted to say yes. I googled it. French parsley! Perfect. We had started building out our garden in Germantown, and herbs are always the easiest thing to add.

“Definitely,” I responded.

“I’ll bring you some this Saturday,” he replied. “But you have to be careful with it,” he warned. “It spreads like a weed.”

“That’s perfect for me,” I assured him. My garden would definitely benefit from some high volume plants that were easy to grow, even impossible not to grow.

That Saturday, in addition to my bluebarb pie, he handed me a brown paper bag packed with dead sticks and branches. He could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t know quite what to do with it.

“Just break them up and sprinkle them in the dirt,” he advised. “But don’t do it all at once. It will be too much.”

I took them, and put the bag away with some garden tools. When doing our early spring 2021 garden prep I found the bag and proceeded to sprinkle it all out along the outside edge of the garden. I forgot the part about not using it all at once.

Weeks later, with May approaching, our garden has become a veritable chervil factory. David would definitely laugh at me; we grew way too much. But it’s beautiful and delicious, and it reminds us of him. Maybe when it all goes to seed at the end of the summer we’ll pack some up in brown bags and bring it to the market to pass on to some friends.

Chervil!

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker