In a recent Slate post, Nathan Heller rips into pie calling it gloppy, soggy and un-American. Fired up friends of pie (and friends of mine) hastened to send me the link, confident I’d have a strong response.
What people might not expect is that I agree with several points Heller makes. Let’s face it; there’s a lot of crappy pie out there. Whether it’s made by someone who is inexperienced or just doesn’t care or commercially cranked out and over processed, pie is often bad. It’s tricky, and most people aren’t up to the patience required and practice needed to learn to make a good from-scratch, tender, flaky crust.
Since Heller focuses on fruit pies, that’s part of the issue as well. Think about it; millions of shortcut artists are using canned fillings with pre-made, store-bought crusts. That’s NOT PIE! For a good fruit pie — and I would bet that there’s a tiny percentage of Americans who have had a really good homemade fruit pie and far fewer who can make one — the fruit must (and it seems ridiculous to me to have to write this) be FRESH. If it’s locally-sourced, even better.
My friend Brian “The Food Geek” Geiger once made a pie from apples picked that morning. That apple pie is legendary and led to Brian’s current status as the best pie maker in Charlottesville, Va. (feel free to argue/challenge this) and the head judge of the Charlottesville Pie Fest.
After crusts that are out of balance or not pre-baked, par-baked or otherwise properly prepared to receive their fillings, it’s the fillings themselves that cause the downfall of many a pie. Heller complains about runny pies bleeding cooked fruit. It is a carefully measured mixture that results in the non-gloppy, sweet and tart filling that holds together without being gluey. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Heller, perhaps, has never experienced a really good slice of pie. (Dear Nathan, please join us for Pie Fest or let me know if you’re ever in Charlottesville.)
Besides characterizing pie as a completely disgusting concoction, Heller criticizes pie’s claim as being American. It’s not. Neither is pizza, as we know it, Italian. Or the Chinese food we bring home in takeout boxes remotely Asian. The history of pie is much older than our country, naturally, and the evolution has taken the path of so many “Americanized” items — we’ve ruined it in the effort to mass-produce, speed up and create a product made for travel. Yuck.
The best pie, the pie that, in my book counts as pie, was made in a home, with love, with the best, freshest, regionally and seasonally-appropriate ingredients. The best pie takes a lot of time and not a little effort. It is made by those who have made hundreds of pies, some good, some bad. It goes from ingredients to oven to plate in the shortest possible amount of time. In the best pie, you can taste the sun that ripened the fruit, the spices and flavorings pop and the crust reminds you of the grandmother you wish you’d had; the one that knew how to make a really excellent pie.