Joined by the waitress and a just-married couple, each person at the table tastes each slice. As they swap plates, the ensuing conversation centers around Michael’s question, “What is it about pie?” Viewers hear snatches of their responses, “Bliss… it’s pretty, there is nothing prettier than pie…pie gives you the sense that you are a four-square person living in a four-square country…pie says home…”
Then writer Dorothy, longing for a country music career, sings her sweet simple song about pie. “Pie. Pie. Me oh my. Nothing tastes sweet, wet, salty and dry. All at once, oh well, it’s pie. Apple! Pumpkin! Minced and Black Bottom. I’ll come to your place every day if you’ve got ‘em. Pie, me oh my, I love pie.”
As noted in Dorothy’s song and in the characters’ conversation, pie is a universal pleaser. Mention the word and someone immediately smiles. We talk about pie and use it daily in easily understood expressions — “simple as pie,” “a piece of the pie,” “eating humble pie.” We describe loved ones utilizing pie. “A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.” Often-studied authors write about pie’s significance and use it as a descriptive tool. “Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.” (Jane Austen) “You’re always as polite as pie to them.” (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
Pie-eating contests and pie baking cook-offs are an integral part of many communities. Pie recalls family holiday memories, reunions and the cozy comfort of our childhood kitchen. When the President of the United States, proudly admitting his affinity for pie of all kinds, includes six types on the White House Thanksgiving menu and shares homemade pies with a family in Cleveland, he is humanized and politics take the back seat for a brief moment. Regardless of how it is considered, everybody relates to pie.
Iowa Pie Ladies Reign
Baker and author Beth M. Howard describes pie as a problem solver and grief healer. Learning to bake pies from a retired Merchant Marine pastry chef who caught her stealing apples from his orchard, Beth turned to pie baking as a career after working as a world traveling journalist, public relations executive, and Web producer.
Her job as a café pie maker “breathed new life into my soul.” Later, when her 43 year-old husband unexpectedly died of a ruptured aorta, Beth knew she had to extract herself from the grips of her grief. So she returned home to Iowa to find a new life.
Today Beth lives in Eldon, Iowa, where she rents the house made famous by Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic, which depicts a pitchfork-holding Midwestern farm family and is one of the most easily recognized paintings in the world. On summer weekends, she sells her pies at the Pitchfork Pie Stand located in the front yard of the home and teaches pie baking classes. Beth also writes for magazines and is developing a television/web series based on pie. In true keeping with her self-assigned label as a “pie evangelist,” she titled her blog “The World Needs More Pie— Give a Piece a Chance.”
The Alabama Pie Lady, Lillie Wright, bakes pies in Birmingham and shares them with her appreciative customers at Pepper Place Market on Saturdays. An Oklahoma native, as a youngster Lillie taught herself to cook and prepared dinner during the week for her family. Calling Birmingham home for the last 20 years, she drove over-the-road for Hibbett Sports and Greyhound. While she still drives for a living, Lillie gave up the big trucks and drives locally so she does not have to spend time away from home.
During the last three years, Lillie began focusing on her baking. Her light and creamy, melt-in-your-mouth Sweet Potato Pie is made from her mother’s recipe. She developed her Apple Crumble Pie recipe over the years and uses just the right touch of apple pie spice to complement the combination of tart Granny Smith and McIntosh apples.
Lillie eagerly noted her “special passion” for her Pecan Pie and Chocolate Pecan Pie. She divulged very little information about the key to these pies which makes them stand out from other pecan pies. But she does have a special source for her pecans and she cuts them by hand.
With her pie business moving right in the direction she hoped, the Alabama Pie Lady’s gracious sincerity is noted in her comment, “God has placed people and things where they need to be in my life.”
Delivering the taste
Pie recipes are as diverse as the pies themselves. This version of Chess Pie, created with six ingredients found in most pantries, can be prepared in just a few minutes. As it bakes, the combination of eggs, sugar, and butter recalls the warmth and comfort of a genuine Southern kitchen where something delicious was always in the making.
A glimpse of culinary legend offers insight into this pie’s name. A waitress told a visitor to the South that pie was included with his meal. When he asked for apple or peach, she explained those pies were not served.
“What kind of pie do you serve?” he asked in frustration. She replied, “Jes’ pie.”
Chess Pie or Jes’ Pie, a sliver of this soul-satisfying pie rewards the most ardent sweet tooth.
3 eggs - room temperature
1 and one fourth cups sugar
1 stick salted butter- melted
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 Tablespoon self-rising flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Mix all ingredients together.
2. With a fork, pierce the bottom and sides of a regular 9-inch pie crust.
Do not pre-bake the crust.
3. Pour the filling into the crust and bake at 350 for about 50 minutes.
A yellowed, ink-smeared newspaper clipping, glued to a recipe card mottled with crusty flour specks and fingerprints of butter, bears the recipe for Max’s Cafeteria Toll House Pie. This delectable dessert joins butter, brown sugar, and chocolate in a scrumptious pie whose aroma temptingly lingers for hours in the kitchen. Lynn Grisard Fullman, seasoned freelance writer, provided this recipe at the request of a Birmingham News reader in 1995 in her popular Food Sleuth column. She described Max’s as “a dining spot that cooks like Grandma used to cook.” Owner Karen Bean learned to bake out of necessity when her baker left and the dessert case was bare. Some days she baked as many as forty pies. Creating a welcome vision for pie lovers, Lynn explained, “Behind the glass, the repertoire of pies seems limitless with sometimes as many as 25 different kinds.”
After moving and changing names, Max’s Cafeteria closed. But the pie lives on, providing pleasure with every bite. Lynn wears the same hat and currently writes her straightforward and perfectly descriptive restaurant column as the Food Detective. She also delights readers with her weekly blogs at birmingham.visitsouth.com.
Toll House Pie
One half cup sugar
One half cup brown sugar
2 eggs - room temperature
One half cup all-purpose flour
1 cup butter - melted
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup pecans or walnuts
1. Mix all ingredients together.
2. With a fork, pierce the bottom and sides of a 9-inch, deep dish pie crust. Do not pre-bake the crust
3. Bake at 350 for about 50 minutes.
Apples tantalizingly baked with a hint of cinnamon provide the backdrop for Kathy’s Dutch Apple Crumb Pie. A recipe saved from the earliest years of a long and happy marriage, this apple pie preserves memories of old friends who are carefully remembered but seldom seen. Served warm, it competently stands alone while also appreciating the company of vanilla ice cream or barely sweetened whipped cream.
Apple Crumb Pie
4-5 Granny Smith apples - peeled and sliced
One half cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon - or more to taste
1 cup walnuts or pecans
1. With a fork, pierce the bottom and sides of a 9-inch, deep dish pie crust. Do not pre-bake the crust.
2. Put the apples in the crust.
3. Mix the sugar, cinnamon, and nuts. Sprinkle the mixture over the apples.
One half cup sugar
Three fourths cup all-purpose flour
1 stick salted butter - sliced in chunks
1. Combine the sugar, flour, and butter in a bowl.
2. Mix the topping with your hands until it is crumbly. Then sprinkle the topping over the pie.
3. Bake at 450 for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 and bake for about 45-50 minutes.
Pie is simple but it accomplishes countless complex feats. While evoking easy comfort and sincere joy, pie retrieves memories and innately promotes generosity and sharing. Pie connects us to each other on common ground, no matter how different we think we are. Bake a pie or enjoy a pie and sample a hint of heaven on earth.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890