Eileen Blake knows all about the pie substitution scam at the Ag Fair. Not once but twice, she says, a woman has bought one of her pies and entered it in competition. And won.

Eileen does not name names or dates; the discretion of the pie stall, like that of the confessional, is absolute. Fair enough, but it makes you feel for the also-rans in those pie-making contests. What chance did those poor amateurs stand against a woman who has made, literally, a million of them.

Considerably more than a million, actually, if you do the math. Eileen’s pies have been produced out of the same family home in West Tisbury for thirty-five years: 16 flavors, 140 pies a day, 6 days a week. All made by hand. Mostly by the same four hands, those of Eileen and, over the past sixteen or seventeen years, of her daughter Mary, who commutes from Falmouth to her parents’ house in the winter and lives with them during the summer.

The secret to a good pie, say Eileen and Mary in unison, is the crust. And the secret – the only secret – to a good crust, is touch.

“It’s all by feel,” says Eileen, gesturing as she describes imaginary balls of dough. “It’s not really a recipe, just flour, Crisco, salt, and a little ice water. But it depends on the humidity, it depends on the temperature. It’s never the same. It takes a lot of years to get it right.”

She nods across the dinner table to Mary. “A lot of years before I let her do it.”

Mary nods back. “We threw away a lot of dough before I got it right.”

But get it right she did, and graduated from merely “filling, crimping, boxing, taking the pies out, and cleaning.” Now, at thirty-six, she runs the show in the kitchen and has done so for about four years, although Eileen, seventy-two, still keeps an eye on everything.

But along with the secret of the perfect crust – in fact because of the secret of the perfect crust – something else has been passed on from mother to daughter. For want of a better term, call it a self-limiting business model.

“A lot of people said, ‘Why, you could do more if you got machinery in,’” says Eileen. “But then it wouldn’t be an Eileen Blake pie.

“That’s what a lot of these places do. Machines. And crusts like cardboard and no taste to them.” Mother and daughter look simultaneously aghast at the idea.

Indeed, when you go into the spotless, neat kitchen attached to their home, there is almost no machinery, save a huge oven, circa 1950, which they acquired when the regional high school sold it off as surplus.

“Funny,” says Mary, “they threw it away, and it’s lasted us at least sixteen years.” She knocks on wood. Hopefully it will last a lot longer.

The fact is, everything is simple and changeless in this business. There are no expansion plans. There is no staff turnover, just the Blakes and Connie Toteanu, whom Eileen used to nanny when she was a baby, and who learned the business as she grew. Connie is eighteen now and does it all – even the dough. They make essentially one product, albeit with numerous delicious variations. They’ve got all the business they need, and have had for all these years.

And it all started more or less by accident with a bumper harvest of blueberries.

“We used to have permission to [go to] a place up in Tea Lane,” recalls Eileen. “You know, those high-bush blueberries, they hung like grapes in the trees.
“And my freezer was getting full. So I said, ‘What are we going to do with all these blueberries?’ Someone suggested I sell them by the side of the road.
“And sure enough, they all sold. Then, this one woman asked me to bake her a pie, because the cottage she was in didn’t have an oven.

“So I thought, why not make two or three?”

It grew fast. From a summer thing for a few years to a full-time job, from a card table on the roadside to a canopy set back from the road, then a gazebo, with Eileen’s daughters Mary and Irene and her husband Roger running sales. Irene lasted a few years; Mary stuck with it.

 “Dad’s the people person,” says Mary. Roger used to get bored, sitting out there, between customers. So they installed a television, so he could watch ball games. More recently, he’s added a stereo.

“He pollutes the whole neighborhood with the noise of his classical music,” says Irene. “And jokes with the customers and charms everyone.”

Before long, business was too good, what with restaurants and other outlets placing bulk orders. They decided to scale back a little. These days, they sell from the gazebo and through Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs.

“We never have advertised, because we can’t handle what we have,” says Eileen.

It’s not that they lack an eye for marketing though. During the Clinton presidency, Eileen saw a recipe in a magazine for “Bill Clinton’s lemon chess pie.” It looked good; she began making them. She put out signs. Clinton’s “front echelon” people, as she calls them, saw them. They bought two “and they were there waiting for him when he got here.”

She believes the former president has also eaten her pies at various functions put on by Island hosts. (The Clinton pie line has since been discontinued. But who knows, it could make a comeback in 2008.)

Eileen and Mary have sold pies to many, if not most, of the Island’s celebrities over the years. It seems almost anyone who’s anyone has eaten their work at some stage.

And yet they almost never sample their own wares. Too much of a good thing, I suppose.

Says Mary: “She [Eileen] won’t even eat a mince pie at Thanksgiving. I don’t even want to look at a pie.”

Eileen: “My weakness is ice cream and cheesecake.”

Mary: “Pity we don’t make those.”

Eileen: “Oh God, we wouldn’t fit through the door.”
The family stand, at 515 State Road, West Tisbury, opens each year around Easter, and operates until about mid-October (reopening before Thanksgiving), from about 9 a.m. until about 4 p.m., or until the pies sell out. The rest of the year, they continue to supply Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs and take phone orders at 508-693-0528.