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The Life of Pie

Pie is riding high. For far too long, it languished at the
back of the culinary showcase, while cupcakes and other dessert crazes gained
the limelight. Pie-making workshops and parties are the rage today, and entire
bakeries are flourishing with a menu of nothing but pie. Some say pie is the
new “it” dessert.

Pie has come a long way, baby. It originated in Egypt, and
the first pie recipe was recorded in Greece. Pie’s renewed popularity, perhaps,
is predictable in an era when so many women are intimidated by the prospect of
making a pie crust. You know the expression, “Easy as pie!” Well, not so much.

I grew up in a home where Sunday dinner was incomplete
without Mom’s homemade pie. I stood beside her at the kitchen counter and
learned how to make it. I even received a 4-H state runner-up ribbon for an
apple pie at the Woodbury County (Iowa) Fair.

Years later, when Mom began using a recipe with an egg and
two teaspoons of vinegar, it seemed almost sacrilegious. She said it yielded a
more consistent, reliable crust. I adapted to her new recipe, too.

Sadly, I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but
sometime during the past 20 years or so, I fell out of the pie-making routine.
I still like to think about making pie.

So last summer, as my family set out from Iowa for a
vacation in Missouri, I saw a road sign along a four-lane highway that said,
“Eldon, Iowa: Home of the Grant Wood American Gothic House.” I convinced my
family it would be a fun side trip, and then we’d drive straight to our

What does this have to do with pie, you ask?

I knew Eldon, population 900, had built a small, beautiful
Grant Wood museum next to the American Gothic House. My primary interest was
The Pitchfork Pie Stand. I had read about Beth Howard, a woman who returned to
her home state of Iowa, moved into the Gothic House, and began selling homemade
pies in front of the house on weekends.

A sign on the door informed us we were just a few days late.
After baking 100 pies each weekend for three years, Howard had moved to focus
on her pie-making parties and pie cookbooks.

Her next cookbook, Ms. American Pie: Buttery Good Pie
Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House, due this April, features
75 recipes from the Pitchfork Pie Stand, along with 10 essays and photos. Visit

I’ve never made butter crusts; we always used lard because
we had plenty of it. Howard’s pie-making encourages breaking rules that only
serve to intimidate us. However, she never uses a food processor to make a
crust and insists on only using seasonal fruit.

Although I missed a sample from the Pitchfork Pie Stand, I
have other pie destinations on my list.

• The Blue Owl Restaurant in Kimmswick, Missouri, serves a
made-from-scratch crust pie called Pie in the Sky. The Caramel Pecan Levee-High
Apple Pie features 18 yellow Delicious apples. It weighs 10 pounds and has been
featured on The Food Network’s Road Tasted and the Travel Channel’s Food

• In Washington, D.C., in the upper-crust neighborhood of
Georgetown, a boutique sweet shop called Pie Sisters has flourished since 2010.
The three Blakely sisters, ages 28 to 32, grew up in a pie-making tradition in
Virginia. Full-size pies cost from $14 to $37. Follow @piesistersDC on Twitter.

• Then there’s Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, New
York. They sell pie by the slice in the shop and also have a cookbook, called
The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated
Brooklyn Pie Shop, by Emily and Melissa Elsen.

• Wednesday’s Pie was opened by Frank Bonanno at Larimer
Square in Denver, Colorado.

• Cutie Pies NYC in Brooklyn features intricate fluting and
top-crust designs of leaves, petals, and stars.

• At the Pie Shop in Atlanta, bacon serves as a streusel
topping for the apple pie.

The reason why pie probably never will disappear from the
face of this earth is intertwined with Howard’s story. She had been working in
the dot com industry when she quit her job to bake pies for celebrity customers
at California’s gourmet Malibu Kitchen. Her true pie crusade began after her
husband unexpectedly died at age 43. Her first cookbook was Making Piece: A
Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie. Many of her choices for pie-making workshops and
events are communities where people have suffered great emotional trauma, including
Newtown, Connecticut.

Pie-making puts us in touch with our roots. Our memories of
helping Grandma at her kitchen counter, using Mom’s rolling pin, or even making
the wheat design on the top pie crust can transport us back in time. Nostalgia.
Love. It’s the ultimate comfort food. So pie makers, on your mark, get set,

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