Bye, bye American pie

A vanishing culinary treasure

By Jim Duncan

In one of the great examples of American hubris, GI’s in World War II popularized the phrase “American as motherhood and apple pie.” As my German friends like to point out, “Americans think they can nationalize anything simply by claiming it.” In 1902, a New York Times editorial claimed “Pie is the American synonym for prosperity and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.” Chances are quite good that both motherhood and apple pie existed for ages before the land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans called itself America. Yet the phrase has lived on like the notion that the world is flat did before a guy named Americus Vespucci set out to prove it absurd.

A recipe for chicken pie dating before 2000 BC has been found on a tablet in Sumer. Pies are depicted on the walls
of the Pharaoh Ramses II who ruled from 1304 to 1237 B.C. Pie pastry as we know it (pastry differs from bread when
fat is added to flour and water) dates toAncient Greece. Aristophanes mentions fruit and sweetmeats in pastries in the 5th century B.C. In 160 B.C., Cato wrote about the popularity of a pie cake called “placenta,” connecting pie to motherhood more than 2,000 years before American GI’s did. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the origin of the word pie to 14th Century England. Henry VI served partridge and peacock pies at his coronation in 1429. The cult novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote that “good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.”

Pies have been evolving since the Romans conquered the world and locals adapted the concept to local ingredients. The Pilgrims brought pie to America where it was first filled with native berries and fruits. Such sweet pies have always been more popular in America than in England, Europe and Australia where meat and organ pies, like kidney, are more popular. Americans invented the pie a la mode in the 1890s. It is only used on fruit pies,  particularly apple. Americans are also credited with inventing the pot pie, which has a flaky pastry top and bottom.

Despite all the chauvinism about pie in America, it’s becoming more of an exercise in nostalgia than contemporary dining. The poet and author of three books about pie, Kate Lebo, writes that “apple pie makes nostalgia edible,”
adding that anyone who longs for “food like grandma used to make” is engaging in the main deceit of nostalgia — whitewashing the past.

Food writer Jeffrey Steingarten explained things this way: “Perfect pie crust must be seven things at once — flaky, airy, light, tender, crisp, well-browned and good tasting. The tricky ones are flaky, tender and crisp — because they are independent virtues. Getting them to happen at the same time is nearly impossible. Yet millions of American women in the 1900s could do it in their sleep and probably ten thousand can today.”

Pie used to be ubiquitous in Des Moines restaurants. Bakeries and restaurants used to sell hundreds of pies each major holiday. The most famous pie restaurant in America, now called Baker’s Square, originated in Des Moines as Kay’s House of Pies and Mrs. C’s in the early 1970s. The recipes were those of Kaye Compiano, who also owned the legendary Johnny and Kaye’s Italian restaurant. Her double crusted and cream pies like the caramel pecan silk
supreme were signatures of the restaurant. Baker’s Square was sold by Pillsbury to the company that also owns Village Inn, so today Compiano’s recipes are still sold at both places. Crouse Café in Indianola is the last of the great local cafes making multiple pies from scratch daily. Bubba Southern Comforts makes a whiskey pecan pie that,
to borrow a sympathy from Lebo, evokes the intoxication of porch swings and summer. Sure, single pieces of pie appear on some dessert menus around town, but the days of pie cabinets with a dozen choices are mostly gone as the wind like grieved Suburban Café, Bakers Cafeteria (where Kaye Compiano played piano) and The Bontel.

Restaurant owner and food guru George Formaro said that he has pretty much given up on pie at his Gateway Market. “We triedseveral things, but nothing really clicked. The biggest problem with pie is its shelf life. Pie really doesn’t last much more than a second day, and a whole pie takes a lot of time — or people — to consume. Since
fewer families sit down together to eat, pie is harder to sell.”

Outside of that, pies for the holidays are mostly now restricted to supermarkets. On the week before Thanksgiving,
CITYVIEW went on a pie safari to four different local grocer chains. My grandmother and two frequent Iowa State Fair blue ribbon pie makers have all professed that pie recipes are like salesmanship — KISS, or “keep it simple
stupid.” So we ranked pies by number of ingredients. Fresh Thyme was the leader here with 15 ingredients listed in its apple pie. I counted 32 in Fareway’s, 24 in Price Chopper’s, and 40 in Hy-Vee’s. Ironically only Hy-Vee, which has publicly announced a campaign to remove high fructose corn sweetener from its foods, listed HFCS. Whereas Fresh Thyme’s Fuji Apple pie simply listed apples as its main ingredient, Hy-Vee listed apples with parentheses that
included four additional ingredients.

I also ranked the pies by price. Because it was a holiday week, some pies were sale priced. Fresh Thyme also came in first here with three 8-inch apple pies costing $4 and a fifth costing $12. Fareway was selling 9-inch fruit and pumpkin pies for $10 and a 10-inch pecan for $13. Hy-Vee was selling 12-inch apple pies for $10 and 12-inch pecan
pies for $15. Price Chopper had 8-inch apple pies for $8-9 and 8-inch pecan pies for $13. Baker’s Square pies sold for between $11.29 for classic pumpkin or brownie pies to $15.29 for their supreme caramel silk pecan, which includes the “silk” filling that Compiano made famous and vice versa.

Fresh Thyme won a blind taste test for apple pie and Price Chopper for pecan. Bakers Square was not included.

Box: Lebo recommends Gravenstein or Granny Smith apples for pie but grants they can be mixed with Akane, Ginger Gold and McIntosh. Fuji apples were used in the pie that won our taste test. ♦

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