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The Power of Pie
— Santa Fe & Taos

June 1, 2015


Step aside, cupcake. Move over, cronut. You — crumble, crisp, torte, turnover, tart — you may be delicious, but you are not pie.

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  • Writer
    Cyndy Tanner

  • Photography
    Kitty Leaken for Cafe Pasqual's

Step aside, cupcake. Move over, cronut. You — crumble, crisp, torte, turnover, tart — you may be delicious, but you are not pie.

Just mention pie to almost anyone and fiercely held preferences will rain down on you like ripe apricots from a tree. It makes no difference whether the delectable is lemon meringue, peach, cherry, apple, or pumpkin; pie purists will scoff at the notion that a cobbler should even aspire to the same status as a homemade pie.

True pie lovers can tell you exactly where and when they ate their favorite slice. Their eyes will soften and after they tell you the story — which may involve romance, intrigue, even crimes of passion — they will whisper, “Best pie I ever had.” Pie opens the door to long-ago events bronzed in memory. Pies evoke Thanksgiving and Christmas, church suppers and backyard picnics, mothers and grandmothers and that odd lady with the blue hair whose pies always sold out in mere minutes at the school bake sale.

Pie helps us navigate the seasons. Who doesn’t remember sneaking a slice of pumpkin pie for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving, or baking a fresh blueberry pie for a sweltering Fourth of July picnic, or savoring a wedge of golden peach pie as a bittersweet farewell to summer at a Labor Day barbecue?

The Egyptians invented pie. The British brought it to America. Our forebears, those sensible pioneers, embraced it as a staple of their diet. When questioned about the New England habit of eating pie for breakfast,

Ralph Waldo Emerson responded by asking, “What else is pie for?” By the turn of the 20th century, it was not unusual for an American to eat a slice of pie a day. (We must note, of course, that this American had most likely awakened before dawn and already put in several hours of physical labor on his farm before indulging in his pie.)

“Pie” was first defined as a baked dish made with meat, fish, or vegetables, and enclosed in a “pastry” or “coffin.” In its examination of the curious etymology of pie, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that the word “pie” may well derive from the Latin word “pica,” meaning magpie. Magpies and other corvids are well known for their habit of collecting an assortment of odds and ends to create their nests, a process perhaps similar to the way medieval cooks assembled ingredients for their pies.

Fruit pies didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s, heralding the addition of sweet to savory pastries. Two centuries later, Jane Austen sensibly observed that, “good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.” In more recent American history, when a 1970s demonstrator smacked conservative orange juice promoter Anita Bryant in the face with a pie, she quipped, “At least it was a fruit pie.”

Consider all the ways pie has injected itself into the modern lexicon. Easy as. . .sweetie. . .honey. . .cutie. . .sugar. . .humble. . . . All are pie variants. And what does that mean, anyway, “humble pie?” Dating to the 1300s, “umble” was a British term referring to animal organs such as liver and heart. These entrails were cooked into pies generally eaten by the lower classes, who made the best of whatever game they caught by creating a meal out of every possible part of the beasts they had bagged.

Yet “as American as apple pie” isn’t truly accurate, since apple pie is not exclusively American. Apples grow in many locales in the world, and virtually every culture came up with a version of apple pie before North American immigrants did. The American mythology persists in our collective imagination because it symbolizes so many of the values that we hold dear: honesty, authenticity, determination, resilience, and stick-to-it-ive-ness. But these are essential characteristics for a baker of any nationality who has repeatedly struggled to make a flaky, moist piecrust.

The pie baker’s mantra is to “chill,” “chill,” “chill” the dough, and many foodies will tell you that making a pie is the ultimate barometer of a good cook. You can read all the cookbooks, food blogs, and culinary websites you want, but the best tips and insights often come directly from other cooks, particularly when it comes to baking. I remember a wonderful bread baker saying that the proper texture of bread dough after it has risen should feel just like an ear lobe. And I can’t forget the visual image evoked in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Pie and Pastry Bible, who said that, “good cherry pie filling should taste like a cardinal singing.” Even Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, weighed in on pie: “To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” he opined. His was a lofty challenge for such an honest and quintessentially American dessert.

Every state in the Union (including the many covered by The Essential Guides) boasts a signature pie, with delightfully named regional specialties like shoofly, chess, huckleberry and Florida Key lime. Not to mention mysterious-sounding specialties such as “Funeral Pie,” a raisin pie traditionally made by the Amish and Mennonites, or the whimsically named, like “Tears On Your Pillow Pie,” from Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook, an imaginary culinary history if ever there was one.

Leslie Rohland, owner of The Cottage Café Bakery & Tea Room in Bluffton, South Carolina, has a considerable repertoire of pies in her pocket but loves the uniqueness and mystery of shoofly pie—the way it bakes as a pie but reveals itself as a cake. Few pies can claim this. Shoofly gets its name because its sweet molasses fragrance attracts flies that must be “shooed” away. Made with blackstrap molasses— which contains significant amounts of vitamin B6 and minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese— this pie may just qualify as a health food. Shoofly pie doesn’t pride itself on being a prissy “dessert” pie; instead, it’s an all-day pie, eaten with morning coffee, nibbled on throughout the day, and tasted again in the evening with tea. It’s a pie that holds its head up high, the sole occupant of its own category: Shoofly!

It may surprise you to learn that New Mexico is second only to Georgia among the nation’s pecan producing states, and it may further surprise you to learn that pecan pie is the most frequently requested dessert on Death Row. A condemned prisoner’s last meal is a curious cultural ritual. Yet as a gastronomical last rite, it makes perfect sense that pie would be the natural choice for dessert on that final menu. Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed in Arkansas in 1992 for the murder of a police officer, was one of those who requested pecan pie as his last sweet indulgence. But Rector did not actually eat his pie before his execution. He told guards that he was “saving it for later.” There is no record of who ate the pie left behind.

I asked Katharine Kagel, executive chef and owner of Caf. Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to provide a recipe for one of Pasqual’s favorite pies. Kagel’s “Chocolate Pecan Pie to Die For” is an unexpected and delicious pairing of nuts and not-too-sweet chocolate, and she assures us that one needn’t be facing Death Row to enjoy it.

Owners Dee and Bernie Rusanowski of Saveur, please their pie-loving customers with tarte Tatin— which is not really a pie at all, but perhaps once you’ve sampled it, you might amend your pie purist standards. The Rusanowskis substitute pears for the traditional apples in their tarte Tatin, which is an upside-down concoction that is not overly sweet but incredibly satisfying as a dessert.

Merrilee Lindaman, owner of Lindaman’s Gourmet Bistro in Spokane, Washington, says that she has a million pie stories because her Grandma Pearl was the Pie Queen, and always brought homemade pies with her whenever she came to visit. Merrilee’s mother, Gerrie, carried on Grandma Pearl’s baking tradition by making fresh cinnamon rolls for her family every Saturday and serving pie for dessert at least four nights a week. (She prepared other homemade desserts on the three remaining nights of the week as well.) Fruit pies were a staple: cherry, apple, or peach, and in the springtime rhubarb-custard pie was a cherished favorite. Merrilee has risen to the challenge of becoming the official third-generation Pie Queen. “Someone had to take over the legacy, so I did,” she says. She concedes, however, that her brother David makes an exceptionally fine cherry pie.

With a special fondness for tartness, (could that be called a “sourtooth?”), the very first pie Merrilee made for Lindaman’s in 1984 was a gooseberry pie. She then ordered a 30-pound case of fresh-frozen gooseberries from Oregon and was so happy with the results of her efforts that she proceeded to plant several gooseberry bushes. Alas, she learned that every gooseberry is protected by a two-inch, razor-sharp thorn. Thus gooseberry pie never made it onto the Lindaman’s standing menu, but several other regularly featured and seasonal pies are offered daily, with Key lime pie reigning as favorite. Lindaman’s is also well known for savory chicken pot pies; they’ve sold more than

80,000, and offer a rotating menu of eight different varieties.

Some pies rate their own parties. Such an event took place for twenty-five years during Santa Fe’s annual

September Fiestas. It began in 1984 as a literal “starving artist” party, for which the hostess was challenged to feed as many as 100 guests on a nearly nonexistent budget. What to do? Why, host a pie contest, of course! The competition was fierce, naturally. It was a high stakes cutthroat competition, with fabulous tastings still recalled decades later, and sometimes somewhat peculiar pies. One year a group of college students majoring in photography entered a “conceptual pie.” What appeared at first to be a plump, golden doublecrusted pie revealed itself when sliced open to be filled with individual paper fortunes. I still have the one I drew: “Your oldest fears are the worst ones,” it said. The pie contest entries were often unique and rarely followed a formal recipe. (Remember, the pie bakers were for the most part artists.) Green chile apple pie, praline pumpkin chiffon pie and peeled white seedless grape pie were all first-place winners in various years. The pie party was never officially over until a neighbor called the police and when the police arrived—well, they usually ended up eating some pie, too. As baseball catcher and aphorist Yogi Berra (what more quintessentially American could we quote?) said, “Cut my pie into four pieces. I don’t think I could eat eight.” Now that’s the kind of math I relate to. Humble, honest, tasty and true. Bring on the pie!

It's true that Cyndy Tanner once won first place in a pie contest for her home made plum pie recipe. She collaborates with Valerie Levine on their business, Parasol Productions, an events, photo styling and production company.

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