We’ve all been dealing with Covid-19 confinement in different ways, but Devoney Scarfe’s preferred medium is pies. Expletive-laden, delicious pies.
Devoney Scarfe had had enough.
She was locked down in suburban Auckland, with a husband, two kids and the dog. “Nobody was at their finest. There was a tantrum thrown because PlayStation didn’t work. Everyone was making everything my problem.”
And while there are plenty of hitherto proven ways to handle the inevitable bleakness that sets in during Covid confinement (send dark memes to your friends/engage in futile, enraging arguments on the internet/dob in your paddle-boarding neighbour to 105), Scarfe expressed her feelings of hopelessness and frustration through the medium of pies. The first one? A pie chart divided into three sectors. Fuck. This. Shit.
“I presented my family with my pie chart and said, ‘This is how I feel about today.’ I sliced the pie, passed my oldest son a portion and said, ‘Here you are darling. You can eat shit.”
Devoney’s “pie phase” had, in fact, begun on March 9, just before this whole hot mess began. A rhubarb pie, each chunk of fruit angle-cut and placed in a chevron pattern, painstakingly graded by shade.
“You should see how I hang out my washing,” Scarfe says. “I peg it by colour.”
While “other people’s brains do words, or numbers”, hers, it seems, does obsessive cutting, shaping, placing, egg-washing, and baking until golden brown. For several years, Scarfe ran a small bespoke cake-making business called Sugarmama out of a commercial kitchen she built in her garden. It began when, with two little boys at home, she started “really overachieving on the birthday cakes”. They were, as you might imagine, extraordinary works of art cloaked in fondant, painted in watercolours, or slathered in butter cream.
But, a series of calamitous events put paid to the years of hard work. Devoney was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune condition that can rear its injurious head in myriad ways. For Scarfe, that meant crippling fatigue and aching joints. Cakes gave way to needlepoint. “It was something I could do in bed. You can’t bake lying down.”
Then, there was a redundancy. And one of the boys needed multiple surgeries on his legs. He also had to learn to walk again. Scarfe spent every moment by his side, literally living at the hospital for several months. The lovely outdoor kitchen was dismantled and sold and Sugarmama went into indefinite hibernation. “I pulled the plug on everything. It was really hard. I grieved,” says Scarfe, who has a degree in fine arts. “But somehow, in that slow process of letting go, it’s come back to me.”
Under lockdown, the Sugarmama Facebook page – and Scarfe’s personal Instagram account – is once again flushed with flour, bolstered with butter, peppered with perfect, whimsical creations, impossibly intricate design, and cussing. Lots of cussing. It’s not for everyone. “My youngest son doesn’t believe in swearing, so he won’t eat the parts of my work that have rude words on them.” For the pie-chart design, for instance, he’d only eat from the section that read “this”.
But he’s also been the incentive for possibly Scarfe’s most ingenious pie. “I asked him what a cool pie would be and he replied, ‘The Millennium Falcon.’”
“I just told him he was absolutely right, and I got to work. It was actually pretty meditative and quite chill.”
Which is perfect for now, she says. Devoney has gained control of her condition and is feeling well, “and grateful”. The daily government-mandated walks are a blessing, “because for a few years, I couldn’t go for a walk at all”.
Her other lockdown creations are a mix of social commentary and sweet delights. Among the traditional-with-a-twist lattice-work apple pie and marshmallow-candy pie, there’s a Talking Heads-inspired pie, an octopie, and she’s reverted to type once or twice and bashed out some angry baking. Her Same Shit Different Day cookies are lavished in sprinkles. “If you’ve something to say, you might as well do so in sprinkles. There’s a great TED talk about why sprinkles are so joyous – it’s because the colour and abundance please our caveman brain.”
She doesn’t have fancy camera gear or a light box, but has worked out that if she drags her kitchen table outside and positions it under the shade of her eaves, she can take a pretty adequate photo – good enough to share on her social media pages. “It’s turned out to be a really nice way to stay connected with people during these strange times,” says Devoney. “I get to be creative and work out a new thing, and then I’ve already cooked dinner, so there you go.”
And she’s only just beginning. “I have about 100,000 ideas for pies I could make next.”
Depends, of course, on how the family behaves. Or what they ask for. “The only request I’ve had from my eldest son so far is if we could please eat something that isn’t a pie.”
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.