It goes like this: You’re sitting at a large picnic in early summer—plastic forks, burgers, corn in your teeth—when someone leaves the table and returns with a large pan. “I brought a pie,” he says, setting it down in front of you. A spatula emerges. People coo. This is the start of an unpleasant afternoon.
The pie, because it is a pie, does not so much “slice” as volcanically erupt under the pressure of the knife, oozing its livid fluid everywhere; your own piece, when it comes, is a miniature apocalypse of broken pastry parts and heat-blitzed fruit. You demur, mumbling about having eaten too much cornbread. Someone’s aging, wild-eyed mother stares you down. “It’s pie,” she says. You are handed a fork. You start to peck at a morsel of fruit. Your plate is promptly whisked away again: Because it’s hot outside, you’re told, you’re supposed to enjoy your dessert “a la mode.” The pie is warm; the ice cream melts at once. You contemplate what now looks like a slice of jammy toast that has been soaked in milk for half a day and masticated by a dog. You work your fork into the only structure still intact, the woody, crenulated crust, beating and twisting this bumper of dough against each leverageable surface on your plate, trying to break it up. Your fork loses a prong. Abandoning all hope, you finally drive your broken-fork-with-giant-crust-piece through the mire of sloppy dough and heft the entire, dripping mass into your mouth. “Mmm,” someone says. “Isn’t it so great to have pie?”
America, let’s be honest on this point: It is not so great to have pie. For decades now, this confection of fragile dough and chunky cooked fruit has been invading our dessert menus and national mythology, trying to persuade us of its honored standing among baked goods and the gods. Pie is delicious, we are told. Pie is an honest treat. Pie is what we call those who are dear to us (“sweetie pie”) and those with a place in the nation’s history (“American as”). In an age of gruesome culture wars, pie remains temperamentally Swiss, doing business with all quarters and reaping the rewards of broad acceptance. Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele pointed to pie to represent his party’s ideation of a national assimilated culture. Foodies in the unassimilated hipster capitals of San Francisco and New York, meanwhile, claim pie just as much as their own. When Mary-Louise Parker showed up in an urbane Esquire spread wearing nothing but a pink apron and a veil of irony, she was not, it is worth noting, carrying a tray of popovers.
Pie’s relative position in the pantheon of dessert cookery has only risen lately, partly because it is apparently invulnerable to alarm about the oversweetening of America. Although the White House is bullish about cutting sugar and fat from school lunches, the Obamas become bears in honey when things turn to the matter of pie. (“Whatever pie you like,” the president enthused of his pastry chef, “he will make it and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.”) How bad for you could something that literally leaks fruit be? True to the spirit of these times, household wholesomeness doyenne Martha Stewart has released a new book of pie recipes, dovetailing with this year’s a la modeseason; this month also brings the publication of Lynne Hinton’s novel Pie Town, the story of a New Mexico community whose openness has faded with its great days of pie baking. The good folks at McDonald’s, who purvey a turnover that would much like to be pie, call the dessert “the tradition you love to uphold.” Note there’s no question mark in that description. Pie, today, stands in the national imagination as proof of authenticity, tradition, humanness, good faith.
Except it’s not. Pie is an interloper trading on a false history and a tangle of confusion about its cultural role. Its past is unremarkable and un-American. As you may recall from your middle-school history books, many accoutrements of Western life first appeared in Egypt and then spread to the Romans via Greece. Prophylactics are a notable example. Pie is another one. The pies of the ancients, rather than being oozing desserts, were combinations of savory foods baked in a pot made of tough dough. (In our evolutionary tree of Western cooking, pies, tellingly, share a branch with the most hit-or- missof all edible things, the casserole.) This crust-pot baking method spread through Europe and gained popularity through the Middle Ages, since the dough shell, called a bake-meat (later, just as appetizingly, a coffin), allowed meats to stew without losing moisture. It also helped seal off the meal and slow down spoilage. “For hundreds of years,” Janet Clarkson points out in her jaunty account of pie development, Pie: A Global History, “it was the only form of baking container—meaning everything was pie.” Pie culture grew with the advent of modern pastry dough during the 16th century, at which point cooks in more ambitious kitchens started to experiment with sweeter fillings. (Queen Elizabeth is said to have eaten some of the first fruit pies.) This is the true origin of our pie tradition. Early apple pies weren’t American and sweet at all. They were unsugared, tough, and manufactured by the British.
It is thought in certain circles that the Pennsylvania Dutch created the modern, curiously engineered American pie from these rock-hard early models. People who have sat in chairs made by the Pennsylvania Dutch may find this theory very credible. At this point, though, “American”-style pie is something of a relic: Where the civilized world has moved past its awkward bread-casket age to head in more refined directions, pie stands still. Our modern pie of piled fruit stewing in a shell of fragile dough is not an innovation but a replica of something primitive—piled meat entombed in hard crust—nudged in the vague direction of dessert.
It’s not hard to see why this odd product requires an elaborate mythology to justify itself. We eat sweet pie at Thanksgiving on the premise that it captures the cuisine of colonial America. It does nothing of the kind. Sweet pie didn’t gain wide popularity until the 19th century, when it was eaten largely as a daytime pastry (in A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain included sweet pies in a list of things he missed about his homeland, along with several other pastries and cakes), and the full American pie menu, in all of its moods and seasons, did not come into being till the 20th. American as apple pie, the phrase and concept, entered our lexicon in the late and cosmopolitan throes of the Jazz Age. The most American thing about pie, in fact, may be its retroactive claim of folksy authenticity and early dominance.
Today, this myth of historical continuity inspires many people to take pie as a given, though it makes little sense as a 21st-century dessert. In an era of refrigeration, produce shipping, and advanced kitchen tools, there’s little in a pie that would not be better out of a pie. Who but a sadist would take a basket of ripe seasonal fruit and bake it into mush? Who would labor over flaky pastry crust that’s destined to get soaked before it’s ever tasted? Unlike the tart, which sits low and topless in a shallow pan with a svelte layer of topping, pie requires a hefty piece of bakeware with outward-sloping sides, practically dooming the pastry to collapse. And unlike a torte—a short and modest cake combining fruit and nuts in balanced proportions—most modern pies rely on giant reservoirs of loose filling or inches of piled custard and whipped cream. A slice of strawberry tart with coffee is the perfect overture to a postprandial drink, a late conversation, or a night of love. Eat an oozing slice of strawberry pie, and it’s time to look for Tums and go to bed.
Pie seems to know what it is up against. Every now and then over the past half-century, it has slid into the limelight with strange, somewhat desperate promises of sex. Most recently and prominently, the ruttish American Piefarces took as their essential premise an equivalence between pie and the straits of carnal exploration. This is an insult to the erotic act. If passion were consummated as pie is consumed, it would require hours of preparation, fall apart in process, and be an open invitation to invasion by ants.
It is possible to regard current interest in pie—the chronic churn of recipe books, the proclamations of pie love from our capital—as active attempts to call out virtue in this odd dessert, to weave it into the rhythms of modern life and preserve one of this country’s prized narratives about itself. In one sense, this seems admirable. Lots of people have tried to make pie good, and certain have succeeded: Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, following pie master Marion Cunningham, set down a recipe for a pie crust that is flaky, tender, and crisp. The American Pie Council, which hosts regular pie-making contests and publishes a seasonal information newsletter, Pie Times, curates crack pie recipes online. Your own grandmother, grandfather, or other kitchen-able elder no doubt makes the best, most unequivocally delicious pie that I will ever taste. These people should be proud. The lengths we’ve gone to in order to make a pre-medieval baking technique as toothsome as possible today are proof of American ingenuity and care. But is this a cause worth the effort? Prince Charles, a man who’s had his share of pies, once said about the monarchy, “if people don’t want it, they won’t have it.” Perhaps it’s time to turn this principle on our own dubious Old World pie inheritance and organize the most truly American of things: a revolution.