American Plate - Bite #27: Pie

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Americans have had a long and rewarding relationship with pies, be they savory or sweet. In its early incarnations, settlers made crusts that were not really made to be eaten. Pie filling would be sealed into a "coffin" of hard, tasteless crust before baking. Afterwards, the coffin was broken open and discarded, and the filling enjoyed on its own. In the 1600s, France finally latched on to the idea to make pastries (including pie crusts) know...GOOD. From there, the idea spread quickly to Britain, and then across to the colonies. Crusts were also helped along by an emerging technology: Ovens built into the wall. Making consistent pie crusts and other baked goods was infinitely easier with wall ovens than cooking over open flames.

From there, the pie as we know it today became inextricably linked to American cuisine. New England developed the double-crust blueberry pie. Pennsylvania Dutch/German colonists in the mid-Atlantic region tweaked old, ancestral recipes to bring us the shoo fly pie. Farmers in the south that had ready access to vast fields of corn (and thus cornmeal) introduced the chess pie. Notice what isn't mentioned there? The good ol' "American" apple pie, and there's a good reason for that. It's not really American. The American Plate mentions this, but in a serendipitous overlap, so have I, in my research post for Episode 7 of Four Courses.

Pie has made another contribution to American food culture, though in a modern context, rather than a historical one. The number π is immeasurably important to the fields of science and mathematics, and since π kicks off with 3.14, people hit upon the genius idea to designate March 14 as "Pi(e) Day". According to Wikipedia, the earliest known official or large-scale celebration of Pi(e) Day was organized by Larry Shaw in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium, and it's been embraced nationwide ever since.

That embrace definitely includes me. Speaking of Four Courses, we discussed Pi(e) Day in Episode 3, in which I declared my deep and abiding love for it. I try to make something for Pi(e) Day every year, often using it as an opportunity to experiment with pies I've never made and/or eaten before. This year, I got my pie on in a multitude of ways, as you can see in the picture above.

First, there's the classic key lime pie, which I make often. In fact, the one pictured is one I made at request for my boyfriend's birthday in lieu of a cake. Next to that is my first lemon chess pie. As described above, chess pies incorporate cornmeal (and do not make the mistake I almost made and substitute corn starch for cornmeal - they're decidedly not equivalent). The chess pie was well-received by my friends, though the next time I make it, I'll likely bump up the lemon rind to balance out the intense sweetness. And finally, there are some bacon/onion/cheese tarts. I'm normally pretty rigid about following recipes, but this one was a true experiment. The only onions mentioned in the recipe are a dusting of scallions, but I added some sauteed white onion as well. I also included other ingredients not mentioned, like sauteed garlic and a healthy punch of cumin.

Though some of the Bites I'll be eating for this project are firmly ensconced in America's past, pie thankfully continues to evolve, presenting new and exciting flavors and techniques all the time. Although we certainly don't need an excuse to eat it, having a day to celebrate not only these sweet and savory marvels, but a number that represents a linchpin of scientific achievement, makes pie one of the more beloved entries of this entire enterprise.