Wednesday, July 15, 2009

American Pie

I haven't talked about pie in a while, but I've been thinking about (and craving!) pie a lot because I'm reading a wonderful book called American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America's Back Roads by Pascale Le Draqulec. I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a long time.

Briefly, it an account written by a food critic who drove across the U.S. from her former job in California to her new job in New York. She decided to make her trip a pie quest, looking for good and great pie in every state that she passed through. The book is full of glimpses into the lives of pie-loving people and characteristics of regional America, and, of course, not incidentally, pie and how quintessentially American that versatile dessert is.

"As American as apple pie" is a commonly known cliche and yet not only apple pie exemplifies this American staple. In the south sweet potato pie is the epitome of pie. Then there is shoo-fly pie in Pennsylvania, cherry pie in Michigan, huckleberry pie in Montana and crawfish pie in Louisianna. To me, pie has always been a pastry crust with a fruit filling but really my definition is very narrow. In this book cream pies are prominent and buttermilk pie is present several times (something I've never had) along with others like turtle pie (carmel). Recipes from the pie makers the author meets along her journey are included and I'll simply have to try them.

I love the author's talent with the word. She is such an engaging author and writes with variety, humor, brevity and pie metaphors.

Here's a great description of some bad pie at a truck stop in Texas:
They were plum out of the cherry cream pie when we pulled into the TA truck stop close to midnight, having eaten nothing but tamales all day. The waitress with a bushy horsetail and prairie-cut bangs served us up a slice of lemon meringue pie and a slice of peach pie a la mode. I saw it as a bad sign when the back crust on both slices somehow divorced itself from the rest of the pie and fell back on the plate like a windblown picket fence. The meringue atop the lemon pie was hard and perky, as unnatural and uninviting as breast implants. The peach pie was gelatinous and soupy, and the vanilla ice cream matched the artificial yellow of the Formica counter.


But there was also good pie like these at the Ranchman's Cafe:

The rustic pies were something to see. Most of the crusts, slightly charred, were shorter than their tins, so their edges curled up, like burning paper. Meringues, toasted-marshmallow brown, were unevenly distributed, the way snow clumps on a fir tree. The primitively beautiful pies looked as though they'd been made on the wagon trail. Real cowboy pies. After dinner, Ross brought us a twelve slice sampler plate of Evelyn's pies and cobblers. The pie lineup included mini-slices of buttermilk, pecan, chocolate, and lemon meringue (made with limes in summer). For Kris, it was the pie equivalent of the grand finale at a Fourth of July fireworks display.

This book isn't just about bad pie and tasty, well-made pie. It is about the pie makers and those who love and remember them. In her quest for good pie, the author meets people at every turn who wax rhapsodic about their mother, aunt or neighbor who knew how to use a rolling pin and made the best pie in the universe. It's a repeating refrain in the book, and really, doesn't everyone have some kind of sweet pie memory?

One woman told the author,

"This whole pie thing is kind of bittersweet for me," she said. "On the one hand, I can't think of pie without thinking of my mom's chocolate pie. But then, I know she's not going to be around forever and nobody makes it like she does. None of her sisters can. I know, because I've tried theirs.
"So where," she pleaded,"will I get my chocolate pie when my mother is gone?"

We both knew the question ran deeper than that.

And there it was, the meaning of pie in America, delivered poolside at the Ramada Inn off the interestate in Sweet Water, Texas.

So I'm doing what I can to preserve and extend the pie culture in my little corner of America, making pie and teaching my children and others how to make pie.

Let me show off a little:

Have you ever seen a more beautiful or tempting pie? Ever?

My daughter made this!

So, do you have any sweet (or sour!) pie memories or experiences? I'd love to hear about them!


  1. Memories of pie you say.
    When it was in my early 20's my Dad and I had an apartment in a different city than the family home. He had been transferred and Mom was trying to sell the homestead. (it didn't sell until after they both died and then my brother bought it so I guess that is just how it was supposed to be). He had gone to Door county to get some cherries. When I came in that day from work he was in the kitchen making a pie. I was so surprised because he had NEVER cooked as long as I could remember. I commented on how I didn't know he could bake a pie (he didn't even have a cookbook out). His answer was "Who do you think taught your mother how to cook? Surely you've eaten your grandmothers cooking and know she didn't do it." I think that was the day that I actually started to think about how we cooked and who's food was actually good as compared to just edible. Turns out my dad kept some secrets from Mom cause his pie was better than Mom's ever were. When I spoke to Mom about it she admitted that yes Dad did teach her to cook. He'd learned quite a bit about being self sufficient while living with his aunts after his mother died. He taught Mom to iron, sew buttons, hem, and cook.
    It still took me many years to admit that my Mom and my Grandmother just were not the best cooks out there.
    So whenever I think of Cherries, or Pie or especially Cherry Pie I am reminded of that day Dad was standing in the kitchen rolling out a pie crust with the filling all ready to go in a bowl at his side.

  2. Great story.

    My dad was a pie baker too and he was the example for me. He loved pie so much the only way he could get enough of it was to make it himself.

  3. I just gotta say I love home made pie! Apple is my favorite.

  4. I have never seen a more beautiful pie than the one your daughter made. It is truly artistic. I looooooove my mom's marionberry pie. And her pumpkin pie, and apple pie- oh I have to stop, I'm on a diet!


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