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.

Photo by Alessandra Petlin

I love pie. I love the way its flaky, buttery crust melts on my tongue. I love biting down into a soft but still slightly firm apple surrounded by a sticky, gooey mix of sugar and cinnamon. I love the feeling in my belly after consuming a slice, hearty but not heavy, leaving me nourished and fortified.

I exist thanks to pie. Banana cream pie, to be precise. More than half a century ago, my mom cooked my dad a special dinner of tuna casserole and Jell-O salad, along with his favorite pie, hoping he would propose to her, and he did. I’m not sure he had even swallowed his last bite before he popped the question. She has been making that same banana cream pie for him ever since.

However, I didn’t learn how to bake pies from my mother; she was too busy raising five kids to teach me her craft. Instead, I learned to make pie at age 17 while on a bicycle trip. I had gotten hungry and snuck into a nearby orchard to steal a few apples. The orchard owner, a retired pastry chef, caught me, um, Red Delicious–handed and surprisingly offered to give me a few baking pointers. Hooked, I went on to make pies—many, many pies—for my would-be suitors. And when a job became unbearable or my heart got broken or I argued with a friend, I baked pies. I eventually traded in my dot-com career for a job as a pie baker. (And I moved into the house made famous in the painting American Gothic, pictured above. But more about that later.)

I’m not alone in revering pie. It’s not just a dessert. It’s the rock star of church suppers and family picnics. Even though we didn’t invent the dish (it dates back to ancient times), it is quintessentially American: It’s versatile, economical, durable, high in fat and calories. Is it any wonder that more than 100 years ago, the New York Times opined, “Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished”? Nobody will ever say that about cake.