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Miss American Pie

It’s a national icon, a state-fair tradition, a holiday staple. But as baker and author Beth M. Howard sees it, pie can also be a comfort, a joy, and even a refuge in dark times.

By Beth M. Howard
Beth M. HowardAlessandra Petlin

Beth M. Howard is the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie. Try her delicious rhubarb pie recipe.

Life of Pie: A 10-Step Journey

Think pie can’t solve problems or heal wounds? I beg to differ. Let me count the ways that this dish has shaped me.

1. Pie Distracted Me from My Worries

When I was 10, my mother was hospitalized. To cheer me and my four siblings up, my dad took us out for burgers and banana cream pie. We lived in Iowa, so we’re talking massive, Midwest-size portions here. I can still taste the bananas nestled in vanilla pudding and remember how I excitedly dug my fork into the heaping cloud of meringue. I can picture the trail of crust crumbs we left littered on the Formica countertop. For the first time in days, we all smiled. (And Mom recovered from her illness a few days later.)

2. Pie Cured My Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

In 2000, tired of spending every night eating Chinese takeout at my desk and being chained to a computer in a windowless cubicle, I quit my job as a Web producer. I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and applied for a position making pies at Malibu Kitchen & Gourmet Country Market, a gourmet café. Spending my days rolling dough and peeling apples by the sea with an ocean breeze in my face breathed new life into my soul.

3. Pie Kept My Landlord from Suing Me

Alas, pie baking is not lucrative. Once I started doing it full-time, I couldn’t afford my rental house anymore. I was forced to break the lease, which caused the owner to launch into a screaming tirade about how he was going to take me to court to obtain the rest of the year’s rent. I hid for a few days, and then it occurred to me: “I’ll make him a pie!” That peach crumble did wonders. He didn’t sue me. Better still, he returned my full security deposit—along with my pie plate. “The pie was good,” he said sheepishly.

4. Pie Landed Me a Husband

In the fall of 2001, I took a trip to Crater Lake National Park, in Oregon. In the lobby of the park’s elegant lodge, I met Marcus Iken, a smart and attractive German auto executive.

We spoke for only about 15 minutes, but we were both smitten. I liked that he loved dogs and read novels by Thomas Mann; he liked that I could actually pinpoint the location of his birthplace—Bremen, Germany. He thought Americans didn’t know anything about geography.

We stayed in touch, and six months later we reconnected in Italy, where I had traveled for a friend’s wedding. Our “first date” turned into an eight-day-long romantic adventure.

During that time together, I baked an apple pie, going the extra mile to weave a decorative lattice top. Marcus insisted on taking photos before slicing into it. He really liked the pie.

We got married 18 months later.

5. Pie Bridged Cultural Divides

Being with Marcus, who was often transferred for work, meant living in Stuttgart, Germany; Portland, Oregon; and Saltillo, Mexico, over the course of six years. I missed my job at the Malibu café. And moving often (sometimes to places where I didn’t speak the language) could be grueling. But pie helped. It gave me a way to reach out to my new neighbors: Either I handed people one to introduce myself or I taught them to bake. Then the ice was broken.

6. Pie Filled the Gap when my Marriage was in Limbo

By 2009 the cross-continental relocations had taken their toll on my relationship. I resented always moving for Marcus’s career. And we frequently argued about his long work hours. I spent a lot of time alone, just taking care of the house and trying to make new friends. I longed to settle in one place where Marcus and I could both be happy.

When he got transferred yet again, this time back to Stuttgart, I refused to go. I just couldn’t cope with setting up yet another new home. Instead, with Marcus’s support and understanding, I spent the summer in Terlingua, Texas, writing and (of course) baking.

In between sessions at my laptop, I baked rhubarb and apple pies for a local hotel. It helped distract me from the brewing problems in my marriage for a while. But I knew Marcus and I were at an impasse. Although we still loved each other very much, we decided to get a divorce.


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