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In Celebration of Pie and Other Things

by Carolyn Foster Segal
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I don’t know another food that seems to inspire stronger emotion—passion, even
—than that most humble of desserts, pie. — Joyce Maynard, "Labor Day"

pie-in-the-face-230x300.jpgI’ve been thinking about pie a lot lately. It’s only now, as I’m preparing to leave the college where I’ve taught for the last 15 years, that it occurs to me how many works I’ve taught that have included pie. In the early years of my women’s film class, I used a clip in which Snow White sings about her prince while crafting the perfect pie for the seven little men that she lives with. Pie can be a metaphor for comfort, for domesticity, for nurturing and for accomplishment.

Those very suggestions are what also make pie such a successful weapon in the arsenal of slapstick: to be attacked with a pie, otherwise a symbol of warm inclusiveness, is to be shamed, reduced (just ask the British Prime Minister’s pie thrower his intention).

I don’t know another food that seems to inspire stronger emotion—passion, even—than that most humble of desserts, pie. — Joyce Maynard, "Labor Day"

pie-in-the-face-230x300.jpgI’ve been thinking about pie a lot lately. It’s only now, as I’m preparing to leave the college where I’ve taught for the last 15 years, that it occurs to me how many works I’ve taught that have included pie. In the early years of my women’s film class, I used a clip in which Snow White sings about her prince while crafting the perfect pie for the seven little men that she lives with. Pie can be a metaphor for comfort, for domesticity, for nurturing and for accomplishment.

Those very suggestions are what also make pie such a successful weapon in the arsenal of slapstick: to be attacked with a pie, otherwise a symbol of warm inclusiveness, is to be shamed, reduced (just ask the British Prime Minister’s pie thrower his intention). For most deserved pie-in-the face, there’s Heartburn. For noir pie, there’s Mildred Pierce; for most poetic pie, there’s Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress. Pie also played a part in my adult nonfiction class, when we read Sue Hubbell’s “Great American Pie Expedition, and voted her the author we’d most like to have a drink with.

multi-pie.jpgThere are, as Hubbell discovered on her quest, both good pies and bad pies. Perhaps there is nothing worse than a bad pie You can sometimes tell just by looking, and you can always tell with the first bite—the crust that seems shiny, shellacked, the fruit that is unyielding in taste or texture, the unpleasant sensation of too much cornstarch on the tongue. The best pies possess what I think of as synthesis (I was an English major, after all): all the elements simply come together in one succulent, deeply satisfying, melting mouthful. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum on judging poetry, if I feel as though the top of my head has been taken off, then I know that it is a successful pie. Of course, eating excellent pie doesn’t leave much room for any thoughts except those involving contemplation of asking for the recipe and/or a second piece. When eating the perfect piece of pie, to quote another poet—EE Cummings—feeling is first.

Even Dexter, the serial murderer with a heart of gold—whose favorite pastry is the donut, in a parody of the cops who keep missing him—appears with a pie as a hostess gift in at least one episode. The Puritans, so strict in so many other areas, often had pie. This was most likely meat pie, which might, however, as Laura Mayer explains in “Pie,” be enhanced by the addition of “dried fruit, cinnamon, pepper, [or] nutmeg” (time.com). It was brilliant, really: both practical and a covert feast for the senses. In 1862, Henry Ward Beecher proclaimed the glory and the kingdom of the apple pie, which he called “high art” and “exquisite’ (American Food Writing, ed. by Molly O’Neill). Of course, as many have pointed out, to be as American as apple pie is to be, well, what exactly—since apple pie was a British import.

whitehousecookbook.jpgIt was widely agreed upon in Islip, New York, that my Irish grandmother, who had worked as a cook before marrying a gardener on the same estate and whose White House Cookbook—only slightly smaller than The Oxford English Dictionary—sat opened on the table in her walk-in pantry, like the bible in the parlor of an 19th century novel, made the best lemon meringue pie in the town. My mother left meringue to her mother-in-law and devoted her considerable baking talents to apple pie—the best apple pie that I have ever had. She used the McIntosh apples from the trees in our back yard, and when I asked her the secret of her crust she would say only “ice water”; on the matter of her perfect filling, she remained silent.

I received not only an early lesson in respect for another’s artistry but also, as well, an early feminist lesson in the limits of housewifery when I witnessed her lobbing a recalcitrant ball of dough down the cellar steps one Saturday morning. We had no pie that evening. I made my best peach pie ever in the summer of 1987. Our neighbor Les’s peach trees had one of their two bumper-crop years, and Les invited everyone on the block to fill up paper grocery bags with the biggest, juiciest peaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

When it came time to make arrangements for the rehearsal dinner on the night before the wedding of my son and his new wife, there was no question about the dessert: a variety of pies. The catered dinner—for forty—was held in a pavilion in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, on a very warm July evening. The buffet included four kinds of lasagna, a generous olive tray, and five kinds of pie: apple, peach, blueberry, blackberry, and mixed berry. After all—and at the start of it all—what better symbol of marriage—union—than the humble yet glorious pie?

 

Carolyn Foster Segal is an essayist and a professor of English at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, PA, where she teaches creative writing and women's film.

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