I haven’t had a cake on my birthday in a couple of decades. It’s not that I abhor getting older (inasmuch as the alternative is unattractive), or that I am a Scrooge about celebrations. The fact is that while cake may tantalize my sweet tooth and fill my stomach, pie alone satisfies my soul. As the annual tally of years grows each April, I increasingly find that only a pie befits the day, lit candles and all. I typically wouldn’t obtrude such a quirk of personal taste upon other people, except that this seems to be a season of high interest in pies generally.
It may seem strange that either mid winter when supplies of locally grown fruit are well nigh exhausted, or the chilly beginnings of spring before our orchards have reached their peak of bloom would be a time of interest in pies, but such is the case. Although I’d favor autumn when apples ripen and Thanksgiving desert invariably includes multiple pies, the American Pie Council has declared January 23 as National Pie Day. Furthermore, the Great American Pie Festival and National Pie Championship will be held next month in Florida featuring thousands of dollars in prizes for both amateur and professional bakers. The events include cooking demonstrations, lessons for children, an iron man pie making competition, “never-ending pie buffet,” and, inevitably, a pie eating contest.
Lest one think this is a time for gourmands and epicures alone, even those involved in the highest of theoretical intellectual pursuits mark the season with pie. Mathematicians around the country celebrate March 14 as Pi Day because the shorthand numerals for that date are a representation of the first three digits of pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. In addition to contests that include memorizing the digits of pi out to thousands of places and other arcane events, lovers of numbers also celebrate by eating pie. It may seem odd, but could any circular object more suitably commemorate the world’s favorite irrational number? Besides, it’s also Albert Einstein’s birthday.
Whether baked by a friend or loved-one or enjoyed in a roadside diner, pie is the ultimate comfort food. Pie “speaks to our longing for family, for some closeness and togetherness and perhaps innocence,” author and pie maker extraordinaire Anne Dimock said in a 2005 National Public Radio interview.
In an age that sometimes seems increasingly stingy and mean, pies are exemplars of generosity and caring. For the baker, making a pie is a simple, hand-crafted gift of time and skill. Through the alchemy of fillings like apples and spices and the artistry of a crust’s architecture, it provides both nourishment and beauty. Though a bit awkward with pastry dough, I find few things as fundamentally gratifying as making a pie. For the eater, a pie implies sharing. Unlike a cookie or a tart, it is too big to consume alone or in one sitting, and pie gourmets maintain that it tastes better when enjoyed with someone else. It’s a small wonder that pie charts typically demonstrate how things are shared.
Pies can be traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians who incorporated honey, nuts, and fruits in bread dough, though the Greeks are believed to have created pie pastry. Elaborate meat pies were popular among the Romans and a source of entertainment that sometimes enclosed live birds within the crust, a custom later found in England as every child learns from Sing a Song of Sixpence, the nursery rhyme that includes “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.” The Romans spread the delights of pie throughout Europe and by the fourteenth century meat and fish pies were common in Britain. Fruit pies were an innovation of the sixteenth century and when colonists came to America their love of pie adapted to new ingredients like pumpkins, blueberries, and cranberries. With perhaps nothing as American as apple pie, this ancient means of preparing food remains our nation’s most traditional desert.
More than a gastronomical matter, pie is so crucial to our culture that it has become a rich vein of literary allusion and metaphor. Pie has its place in politics from Shakespeare’s warning about a high official that “no man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger,” to civil rights leader H. Rap Brown’s statement that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” Pie can give us a fix on our position in life. Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield “ate umble pie with an appetite,” and labor leader Joe Hill sang “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” Pie has been a symbol of good health and of love. “The best of all physicians is apple pie and cheese,” wrote journalist and poet Eugene Field, and American humorist Don Marquis declares in his Sonnets to a Red-Haired Lady that “I love you as New Englanders love pie!”
Adaptable and versatile in its fillings and design, pie can be a marker of place and culture. Apple pie is often associated with the orchards of the northeast, cherry pie with Michigan, while peach and pecan keep Georgia on our minds. Key lime pie transports us to Florida’s southern most places and Boston cream pie should be desert after a Red Sox game. Shepherd’s pie recalls an Irish pub and mince pie Christmas in England. Local ingredients and traditions often conspire to create something evocative of the region where they are made.
In these days of increasingly fancy restaurants with world cuisines, stores devoted to gourmet gadgets, and whole television networks focused on viands of every sort, few foods remain as satisfying to make and eat as pie. Perhaps, it’s “the redemptive and majestic power inherent in making pie,” that has been observed by food writer Ed Levine. Want something to make you happy? Any way you slice it, it’s as easy as pie.