It's gloppy, it's soggy, it's un-American.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 3 2011 12:52 PM

Pie

It's gloppy, it's soggy, it's un-American.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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.

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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.