South Jersey’s Pie Queen Reflects on 50-Plus Years of Baking

Penza's Pies in Hammonton rocketed to bakery fame after Al Roker featured it on the Today show in 1974.

Split photo showing portrait of Evelyn Penza, a woman in her eighties, alongside a photo of hearty blueberry pies
Evelyn Penza, who turns 84 in June, has been churning out beloved pies in Hammonton for more than half a century. Photos: Courtesy of Penza's Pies at the Red Barn

When Evelyn Penza was 31, she didn’t know what to do next. Her marriage had crumbled, and her ex was gone. She had two grade-school sons, a full-time teaching job and early-morning work at her family’s farm in Hammonton. “I was apprehensive,” says Penza. “This was 1972 in a small town. Divorce was rare. I had to protect my boys from any disapproval.”

But she comes from a long line of accomplished, powerful women. Her mother, Jessie, was especially formidable. She was a fantastic cook and baker. Her specialty was pies made from fruit from their family farm: apple, peach and blueberry. She’d sell them at a little farm market in their 150-year-old Red Barn.

“I learned to bake from her and wanted to make mixed-fruit pies and lighter fruit cheesecakes with ricotta instead of cream cheese,” Penza says. “She ultimately let me do it, and they were a retail hit.”

Then something unexpected happened: She got a call from the producer for the Today show’s Al Roker, who liked featuring small businesses. For his 1974 Thanksgiving show, he wanted to focus on Penza’s pumpkin-ricotta pie.

“To this day, I don’t know how they heard about me, tucked into Hammonton,” Penza recalls. “I doubted I’d be able to keep up with the demand for a suddenly famous pie, and I told them I didn’t think this could work.” When the producer called back, she informed Penza: “We’re turning off the Turnpike and we’ll be in Hammonton in a few minutes.”

The visit “turned out to be fate,” Penza says. “We got a ton of media attention and a whole new clientele. We kept up with the demand. People would drive from Philly and everywhere in South Jersey. They’d buy the pumpkin-ricotta pie and usually a blueberry, too. And they still do. Our blueberry pie weighs five pounds and is absolutely loaded with sweet, fresh-picked Penza farm blueberries.”

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Over the years, Penza’s Pies introduced a full breakfast and lunch menu. The café and retail space are set in the restored, flower-filled Red Barn, which is dotted with display cases of fresh-daily pies and agricultural antiques from the farm. Penza retired from teaching seventh-grade English in 2006 and expanded her pie menu to 18 seasonal varieties.

The Red Barn in Hammonton

The restored Red Barn Photo: Courtesy of Penza’s Pies at the Red Barn

They’re sold only at the Red Barn, which buzzes with three generations of Penzas proudly pitching in. “Our business may be pies, but warmth, pride and caring is our true family legacy,” she says. “What binds our family and our customers together is really one thing: love. That’s what has kept me young, and I’ll be 84 in June.”

Penza’s Pies at the Red Barn, Route 206, Hammonton; 609-657-3412.

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