Brenda Lowe’s Cherry-Berry Pie. Photo: Nick Hagen

Culture

Birding Is its Own Reward, But ‘Lifer Pie’ Makes it Even Sweeter

We’ve got the recipe for one of Brenda Lowe’s scratch-made pies that have become a staple for successful birders in Ohio and beyond.

This past May, Brenda Lowe decided to see what this birding thing was all about. Don’t get her wrong—Lowe appreciates birds and feeds them in the winter. And as a local business owner, she welcomes the swarms of warblerheads who descend each spring on northwest Ohio, where she’s lived all of her 60-some years, for the migration celebration called the Biggest Week in American Birding. It’s just that her work serving those crowds keeps her way too busy to join in the festivities. 

Right after the latest festival, though, on her one day off, she headed over to the Lake Erie shore. The crowds had thinned but the wetlands were still abuzz with birdlife. As soon as she stepped onto the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, Lowe spotted a dazzling red bird she didn’t recognize. Other visitors helped her identify it as a Scarlet Tanager—and then they identified her. “They said, ‘Oh my God, it’s the pie lady! Did you bring pie?’” Lowe recalls. “And I’m thinking, Oh boy, here we go.” 

In truth, Lowe doesn’t mind the attention. She is not some publicity-weary celebrity chef. Blackberry Corners, the family restaurant where she started working in high school and which she bought 15 years ago, has not yet made the tiny farming community of Martin a bucket-list destination for foodies. Among the binoculared set, however, Magee Marsh is a mecca. And it has become customary that visitors to the area fortunate enough to encounter a bird for the first time—a life bird, or lifer—must make haste to nearby Blackberry Corners for a slice of Lowe’s famous Lifer Pie.

What makes pie Lifer Pie is not what's inside its crust but the spirit in which it's eaten. When you arrive at Blackberry Corners to celebrate your first Blackburnian Warbler or Yellow-throated Vireo, you’ve got options. In the pie case you’ll find slices of coconut cream, peanut butter, apple, Oreo. If you've notched a lifer, then any flavor is Lifer Pie. Take whatever slice you like—but take it fast. “If you wait until you’re done eating,” Lowe warns, “you might not get that piece of pie. They go quickly.” 

How quickly? During last year’s Biggest Week, she baked more than 300 pies. That’s over 40 pies a day, each one made from scratch by Lowe herself. “May is crazy,” she says. “We never have that kind of businesses during the year. We’re out in the country, you know?”

Birders may associate Lowe’s desserts with spring migration, but she makes them year-round. Before Thanksgiving, when Audubon magazine reached Lowe on the phone, pre-orders for pumpkin and other whole pies were pouring in. Although she was busy baking, running the restaurant, and filling in as a substitute school-bus driver, Lowe took a few minutes to chat about Lifer Pie, and even agreed to share her cherry-berry recipe. (“All birdwatchers love berry pies,” she reports.) You can find it below.

Cherry-berry happens to be the favorite flavor of Blackberry Corners regular Kimberly Kaufman, who coined the term Lifer Pie. Five or six years ago, Kaufman, who co-founded the Biggest Week and directs the nearby Black Swamp Bird Observatory, ran into a friend at the restaurant who was enjoying a slice after a fruitful day of birding. “I said, oh you’re celebrating with pie,” Kaufman recalls. “It’s like, life-bird pie.” The idea was so simple and right that it immediately took on a life of its own. “If it isn’t too weird to admit, I’m kind of proud of it,” she says. “It’s a fun thing to be associated with.” 

Since then, this rite of spring has migrated well beyond Ohio. In his recent book A Season on the Wind, Kenn Kaufman, Kimberly’s husband and Audubon magazine’s field editor, reports that birders as far away as Australia now celebrate new finds with a slice of Lifer Pie. 

Photo: Nick Hagen

Still, there’s something to be said for the real deal; you can get Nashville hot chicken anywhere nowadays, after all, but when you want the original, you make a pilgrimage to Prince’s. And at Blackberry Corners, authentic Lifer Pie is perfectly paired with camaraderie and conversation among blissed-out birders. 

“As soon as we stepped in, it felt both established as the birding place, but also warm and welcoming,” says Jordan Rutter, director of public relations for the American Bird Conservancy, who attended her first Biggest Week and had her first taste of Lifer Pie this year. She dined at Blackberry Corners with her partner, Gabriel Foley, and with Jason Ward, host of the series Birds of North America and a community relations and outreach coordinator with the National Audubon Society. The trio had seen a Henslow’s Sparrow—a lifer for all three of them—along with Ward’s first Yellow-headed Blackbird and a lifer Kirtland’s Warbler for Rutter and Foley.

Rutter says Lowe stopped by to ask how their day of birding had been, and was genuinely excited to hear they were eating bona fide Lifer Pie. The pie was delicious, she says, and the whole experience embodied “the goodness of birding and birders.”

That’s the way Lowe likes it. “It’s like home,” she says. “If we’re busy, and everybody wants coffee—well, the coffee pot’s out there. Help yourself. I have no problem with that. I just want everybody to have a good time.” 

Blackberry Corners is closed on Tuesdays, but open every day during the Biggest Week. You don’t have to see a lifer before you go, but it helps.

Photo: Nick Hagen

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Brenda Lowe’s Cherry-Berry Pie 

Crust

  • Mix 1 cup Crisco with 3 cups flour until the dough is crumby.

  • Add 1 egg, ⅓ cup of cold water, and a couple of splashes of white vinegar.

  • Mix it all up and divide into thirds—each third will make one crust. Press the pieces of dough into thick disks. Refrigerate them for about a half-hour before rolling. (You’ll need two crusts for this pie—one for the bottom and one for the top.) 

  • On a floured surface, roll out the crusts into circles slightly larger than your pie dish.

  • Note: Lowe uses 10-inch pie pans, which are larger than standard, so you may need to adjust ingredient measurements for a smaller pie.

Cherry-berry filling

  • In a bowl, stir together:

    • 5 cups sour cherries

    • 1 ½ cup red raspberries

    • 1 ½ cup sugar

    • ⅓ cup (heaping) instant tapioca

    • 1 tablespoon almond extract

  • Once mixed, pour filling into pie crust.

  • Chop 2 tablespoons butter into small pieces and scatter on top of the filling.

  • Add top crust layer, flute the edges, and cut 6 to 8 slots.

  • Sprinkle the crust lightly with granulated sugar.

  • Bake at 400 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

  • Best served after birding. 

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