Pie is a sublime treat, and has always been. But pie is not just any old treat. Can you picture anyone’s eyes lighting up quite the same way when told, “Keep your fork – there’s cake? ice cream? Pudding? Fruit cup? Cobbler? Parfait? Tirami sù?”
No. You can’t. (All right, maybe cobbler.) But what, as the OP so perceptively asked, is the deal with pie? What leads sages, poets, singers and plain folks to praise the filled, baked, and crusted viand to the heavens and associate it with home, family, and proof of a loving Og?
Well, first, pie ain’t the easiest thing to make and bake. Never mind your pre-this, ready-that frozen crust-in-a-carton. It’s all right to fool around with Sara Lee now and then, but you still gotta come home to mama. And mama made 'em from scratch. Flour. Rolling pin. (Yes, they were good for something besides throwing at papa when he came home wheezing Irish ballads after a night with the boys.) Shortening. (This used to mean plain old pig-hog LARD, kiddies. Mmm mmm mmm.) And like that. Dough shaped, scored, trimmed at the gun’ls and artfully fluted. Not rocket science, but plenty of old-fashioned w-o-r-k (or as mama spelled it, l-o-v-e) before you even put peeler to apple. Yes, pie had it all over Hallmark: it meant you cared enough to make the very best.
Came the 1930s and we thought we were entering Complicated Fast-Paced Modern Life with Jell-O, Minute Rice, Crisco (“which digests so easily” – my, how scientific) and its competitor Spry (after a Bulova watch, the second product ever advertised on television). But we weren’t so up-to-date as all that. Pie still loomed large on the culinary landscape — a landscaped traversed tirelessly by a pie-loving gourmand who made his name writing restaurant and hotel guides under the name Duncan Hines. It would be a decade or more before Mr. Hines was rendered down to pale brownish flakes, mixed with powdered egg, and poured into boxes that made quick, easy, yummy cake. In the chrome-plated, convenience-happy baby-boom years, cake would become the new pie.
But cake is not pie. Cake is a dessert, a spongy, thickly-frosted slice o’ sweetness meant for kiddy parties, Kaffeeklatsches and shmancy-fancy dinners. Pie is more substantial; pie has gravitas. You could live on pie; Jack Kerouac’s protagonist in On the Road did just that on the road. Because pie, like the Earth we come from, has a crust. Like the Earth’s, that crust is warm, crumbly, fragrant, nourishing. Maybe not to the waistline or the cardiovascular system — where all that shortening tends to hang around — but to those way-in-the-back taste buds that are closest to the human soul.
Pie’s constituents, likewise, tend to be a few degrees less removed from the Earth than the gooey-swirly-marbly productions that go into cake. Berries, bananas, coconuts, cream. Even the vaunted rhubarb, so bitter only a pound of sugar can make it palatable, finds a home in pie. (A rhubarb cake would just sit on the table, even after a few guests tried a slice and said, “Uhhmmm…Not bad. I guess. Yes, I’d love some more coffee. Please.”)
One need hardly bring up the pot, meat, chicken, spinach, or vegetable pies that literalize pie’s unspoken premise of “a meal in itself” – other than to say that they are simple, homey, stick-to-your ribs cooking of the first order. Like the sweet pies once so ubiquitous at dessert or with coffee when friends came calling. Like the simple (if complex) carbohydrates of biscuits, popovers and dumplings, these things were once our ballast for living.
Most of us now alive grew up in a cake-mix, instant-pudding world, not a pie world. What was sweet to the tongue too often left the soul untouched, except perhaps for a vague, hydrogenated sheen of oily residue. Even a mediocre piece of pie doesn’t quite leave that aftertaste. And a good, hot, fresh-baked forkful — why, there’s nothing to compare with it.
Proust may have had his madeleine. But we’ve got it all over him. We’ve got pie.