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.

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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.

 

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.

 

7. Pie Helped Me Cope with Grief

On August 19, 2009, the day he was to sign our divorce papers, Marcus died of a ruptured aorta. He was 43. My life changed instantly when I received that call from the medical examiner. I thought I would never stop crying.

My grief counselor explained that my sadness—and my overwhelming feelings of guilt—had a name: complicated grief. Complicated, indeed. I had asked for the divorce when all I really wanted was for Marcus to spend more time with me, to make me a bigger priority. I was haunted by the notion that he had died of a broken heart—and that it was my fault. I couldn’t believe that we would never be able to talk again, never be able to reconcile.

Five months after Marcus died, I visited Los Angeles, and my stay coincided with National Pie Day (January 23). To celebrate, I gathered my closest friends, baked 50 apple pies, and handed them out by the slice on the streets. Seeing pie bring people so much happiness raised my spirits for the first time in months.

8. Pie Found Me a New Home

When the one-year anniversary of Marcus’s death approached in August 2010, I knew I needed to find a way to move on with my life. Seeing as I was still unsteady in the world, the only place I felt I could go was back to my Iowa roots. The thought of being surrounded by the heartland’s spacious fields was peaceful and grounding.

My instincts were right. Visiting Iowa was a big step in mending my shattered heart. And it didn’t hurt that my first stop was the Iowa State Fair, where I judged pies. For 10 days, I ate bite after bite of French silk, peach, cherry. The pies were delicious; the atmosphere, filled with excitement and anticipation. Again I was reminded that pie equals happiness.

After the blue ribbons were awarded, I headed southeast to check out my hometown for the first time in years and stumbled upon a road sign. It read: American Gothic House, 6 miles. I took the detour to the tiny town of Eldon. There I saw the white farm-house made famous in Grant Wood’s painting. I fell in love. So much so that I inquired at the neighboring visitor’s center why the house was empty. “It’s for rent,” the guide told me. I moved in two weeks later.

9. Pie Helped Make a Community

The day my furniture arrived, I was paid a visit by Eldon’s mayor, Shirley Stacey. She stopped by to welcome me with a triple-size slice of her own peach pie. Bursting with summer flavor, it was one of the best pieces of pie I had ever had. I gushed with appreciation to Shirley, and as soon as she left I devoured the whole giant slice in one sitting. When the locals found out I was a baker, my phone started ringing. I decided, in short order, to open a pie shop.

10. Pie Gave Me a Second Chance

I landed in a good place. Mixing mass quantities of dough by hand, rhythmically rolling it, and peeling apples by the bushel have taken me back to my restorative Malibu days.

I now sell my pies on summer weekends at my Pitchfork Pie Stand, which is really just a fancy name for the folding table I set up in my side yard or, if the weather is bad, inside my living room. Tourists happen on this historic site much the way I did—by spotting the road sign. Of course, they enjoy seeing the house and posing in front of it with a pitchfork (naturally). But when they see my homemade pies for sale, their eyes widen with glee, as if they had won Powerball. Some take a bite and declare that it’s a little slice of heaven. They’re not wrong.