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A slice of peace

Every week, the Pies for Peace ladies get together and bake for a cause
by: Nancy Townsley,

early every Wednesday morning, for two or three hours a session, the flour flies inside the kitchen at the United Church of Christ in Forest Grove.

So does the brown sugar, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.

Making 20 to 30 pies a week has become a passion and a habit for nine local ladies who love to bake from scratch, oppose the war in Iraq and want to support the soldiers and their families.

They call their group - which lacks a non-profit status and is 'completely, totally grass-roots,' said Carol Woodford of Forest Grove - Pies for Peace.

Their motto, she added, is 'making peace, one piece of pie at a time.'

The idea was simple enough when it came to fruition in 2003: Make pies, sell them and donate the profits to an action-oriented organization that helps people who suffer due to war and natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, regardless of their political point of view.

Woodford and the other founding Pies for Peace members - Lark Brandt of Hillsboro and Patricia Keeney of Forest Grove - chose Mercy Corps International after learning that the organization uses 92 cents of every dollar it receives to directly help people in the field worldwide.

Since Mercy Corps is headquartered in Portland, the women have become well acquainted with the folks who receive and spend their checks. To date, Pies for Peace has donated over $11,000 to the relief agency.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, displacing thousands of people, they funneled their money to Mercy Corps' relief efforts there.

When a tsunami devastated Indonesia just after Christmas in 2004, the women asked that their donations go directly to that area.

Upset over war

But it's the war in Iraq and its sister conflicts in Afghanistan and Kuwait that sit at the core of the group's culinary and fund-raising efforts.

'We're a group of women who got upset about the war,' said Woodford, 64. 'We just wanted to do something positive.'

Several of the members grew up during the Vietnam War era, drinking in the American casualty count on television every night. The atrocities of that conflict in Southeast Asia left scars they couldn't ignore when the U.S. sent troops to Iraq in 2003.

For Brandt, the developments overseas were particularly personal.

'During the Vietnam years I worked in an amputee ward in Fort Sam Houston, Texas,' she said. 'I saw young men who lost limbs and whose lives were completely ruined by war.

'When we invaded Iraq it brought it all back.'

Feelings of desperation among the women in the early days of May 2003 soon turned into positive energy with the advent of a simple idea, said Woodford, who lost several friends and family members in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.

'When the Iraq war started, I was in a real, actual depression,' she recalled. 'Lark came up with the pie-making concept and I thought it was wonderful.

'It took all the negativity away.'

Last Wednesday, Woodford, Brandt and Forest Grove resident Barbara Summer mixed, rolled, baked and cooled several dozen blackberry and hazelnut pies in preparation for the Dec. 2 concert at the UCC by the Portland Gay Men's Chorus.

They planned to set up a table in the church's fellowship hall and peddle their wares before and after the musical event.

Whole pies sell for $12 and $15 apiece, depending on whether they're frozen or pre-baked. Slices go for $3 each. This time of year, the group's top sellers are apple, blackberry, hazelnut and vegan pumpkin.

Although pie sales were slow before Thanksgiving, Woodford said her group was 'trying to keep a big inventory' available for Christmas get-togethers, storing them in the church's large freezer.

Special orders can always be filled by calling 503-357-2606 or 503-640-6815.

During the summer months, the bakers incorporate fresh peaches and blueberries - even plums. They had a regular booth at the Forest Grove Farmers Market last May through October.

'We make pies out of whatever's in season,' Woodford said. 'Our strawberry-rhubarb pie is extremely popular.'

She orders the necessary hazelnuts and fruit from Washington County growers and relies on Tom Wallsteed, the assistant sexton at the Forest Grove UCC, to pick all the blackberries.

'He's been amazing,' she said. 'I think he has a personal relationship with every berry he picks.'

Summer, who was a home economics major in college, started making pie when she was 10 years old. She's considered the 'crust queen' of the group because of her expertise in that area, said Woodford.

She declined to let go of her secret recipe for just-right flakiness and exactly-so flavor.

'I've been making pies for almost 50 years,' said Summer, who joined the group because she wanted to make new friends after she moved to town. 'My mother made pies from scratch, so I learned from her.'

Brandt's experience with the intoxicating smell and taste of fresh-baked pie began when she was a young girl.

'I learned the power of pie when I was four years old,' she said. 'My mom and I picked blackberries and we made a pie. We sat down and had warm pie á la mode.

'I caught my dad in the kitchen, licking his plate. That stuck with me,' she said.

These days, pie holds a different meaning for Brandt, who said she 'tries to stay apolitical' when baking.

Alleviating suffering

'Our point, our reason for being, is to alleviate human suffering caused by war,' she said. 'We hope that we can, in our tiny way, combat the horrors of war.'

With three years of baking under their belts, the ladies don't figure they'll hang up their aprons anytime soon. Although none have children or grandchildren involved in the conflict at present, they feel a kinship with the families - American or otherwise - nonetheless.

'Some of our customers have loved ones over in Iraq,' Brandt pointed out.

'We'll stay in the kitchen until the war is over,' declared Woodford.