In Defense of Pie
Nathan Heller hates pie, and he thinks you should too. He penned a long screed for Slate--I'd call it a jeremiad except I fell asleep reading it, and "jeremiad" implies a vigor that's lacking in the article--about how the pie is un-American and unworthy of our ongoing, cyclical fetishes of it.
Nathan Heller needs to shut his piehole. Yes, he does.
He starts with an historical view of pie, essentially as a delivery device for nutrition, with a tough crust hiding tender meats. He makes much of the fact that pies used to be called coffins--ha ha, where food goes to die, how amusing! The history is true, and pie crust used to be inedible--five hundred years ago. Heller appears to believe that pie is incapable of shedding all the vestiges of its ignominious past, that because it was born out of necessity, that it cannot slough off its original gastronomic sin.
"Early apple pies weren't American and sweet at all. They were unsugared, tough, and manufactured by the British," Heller asserts. Of course not--the United States didn't exist, even as a fever-dream by European settlers, until long after the first apple pie was baked. Still, even an unsugared apple pie will be sweet, which gives the lie to that statement. An unsugared apple pie will also be soggy and gloppy, qualities against which Heller rails in the subtitle to his article, because the natural pectin in apples requires sugar and acid in order to set.
Heller has a problem with the ratio of filling to crust, preferring the leaner profiles of tarts. While I, Francophile that I am, love a fruit tart--or better still, a tart with a thin layer of frangipane hiding under a layer of cherries--a well-baked pie will not collapse, nor will it leak filling. A well-made pie will hold its shape, and I suspect that a great number of the hot pie disasters Heller references in his second paragraph are due to the fact that pie shouldn't be served until it's reached room temperature. It has to have time for the gel to set. No matter how carefully a baker follows the instructions for a great pie, if he or she cuts into it before the pie has cooled, it will leak everywhere and collapse.
Furthermore, according to Heller, pie isn't American because pie wasn't born in America. Since when does this birther fantasy intrude upon reality? Sweet pies are an American dish because they are widely distributed throughout America and almost nowhere else. (There are, of course, exceptions. The Filipinos have buko pie; the Lyonnais serve tarte aux pralines, which is a pink ringer for a Southern sugar pie.) Surely Heller wouldn't argue that a hamburger or a hot dog is somehow not a quintessentially American food, despite the fact that neither was invented here. So unmistakably American is pie that we have developed regional variations: light, flaky crusts (due to soft winter wheat flour) in the South, filled with sweeter fillings and nuts; denser crusts and cold-weather fruits in the North. There are plenty of sweet pies with a sense of place: Derby pie from Kentucky, mud pie from Mississippi and Alabama, Shaker lemon pie from Ohio, Key lime pie from Florida, sour cherry pie from Michigan.
The current ascendancy of pie means, at least at first, improvements to the genre. It happened with cupcakes, which for many years languished in that awful intersection of boxed cake mix and hydrogenated, super-sweetened, packaged frosting. When those nostalgic for class mother visits opened cupcake shops, they made improvements to the cupcake. (It got out of hand, of course, and some cupcakes are still little better than the industrial, dry badness that is Betty Crocker cake mix.)
Why pie? Because fruit isn't available year-round--and when it's preserved, it looks a lot like pie filling.
Not everything Heller says rings false: he is right that pie is a surprisingly hard beast to tame. A good pie requires knowledge of pastry and how it works, and a deep understanding of how fruit and pectin work together. It can't be a coincidence that the pinnacle of piemaking may actually be in the church basements and the Grange halls of the American Midwest--a place where home canning has never truly fallen out of fashion. Home preservers, whether urban homesteaders or thrifty rural citizens, understand how to make a filling that gels without being too loose or too gelatinous, and this knowledge translates directly into great pie fillings. Apple pies are sweet because they need to be to attain the gel that makes a good, and not so messy pie.
When I lived in northern Iowa, the road to Rochester--our nearest large city--ran through Harmony, Minnesota, a town with a large Amish population. Like its more famous cousin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Harmony's roads are shared between cars and buggies, and it's not uncommon in fall to see buggies pulled into the ditch, a table spread with pickles, homemade preserves, and the best pies in the country. Not a single pie ever bought from the ladies in plain clothing was ever loose, soggy, overly sweet or runny, so while the Amish certainly didn't invent the sweet pie, they did improve vastly upon it, as they did with so many desserts.
Despite the excellent pie I've had in my travels throughout these United States, I share Heller's sense of foreboding in one sense: with pie being "the next cupcakes" according to most pundits, we Americans are in for some spectacularly bad pie, the same way we've been subjected to poor-quality comfort food (if I never taste another gluey, floury mac 'n cheese, it'll still be too soon). We're also, however, in for some truly great pie, as people who understand food deconstruct the pie and master each of its components.
Heller ought to be seeking out and celebrating the best pie, not wasting his words trying to stop the pie renaissance. He, and all would-be pie makers, ought to seek out the experts. I have a much-loved, much-stained copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Pie and Pastry Bible on my shelf. Beranbaum's recipes are renowned for the fanatical precision required--bakers are expected to have scales that measure to tenths of a gram--but her recipes work, without fail. She's the Shirley Corriher of baked goods--she understands them on a minute, some might say obsessive, level. It ought to be required reading for anyone making a pie.
In the meantime, for those who are still with me in the love of pie, I'd like to point out that 89.9 KCRW, the Santa Monica public radio station that airs Good Food with Evan Kleiman, is sponsoring their third annual pie contest, September 18 at LACMA. If you think you can make a pie that would shut Nathan Heller's mouth, please, enter it into the contest. If you can't, the Good Food blog is hosting a pie recipe a day--you've got three months to practice.
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