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The Life of Pie

April 28, 2017 by New York City Center

A 1950s advertisement for Lucky Leaf Pie Filling. (alsis35/Flickr Creative Commons)

The plot of The Golden Apple hinges on a cutthroat pie-baking contest. Now that the classic 1954 musical is returning to New York, we asked Sadie Stein to tell us about the rise and fall of a decadent American pastime.

“Pie may just be the Madonna-whore of the dessert world.” So writes Pascale Le Draoulec in his American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America’s Back Roads. And if this is true, what does this make the pie-baking contest, if not a pageant of the most retrograde and problematic kind, “Toddlers & Tiaras” in a double-crust? We won’t even get into pie-eating contests; the implications are too disturbing. But the stakes, as Jerome Moross and John Latouche understood, have always been Mythological.

Pie is of course an international and ancient phenomenon: variations on the crust-and-filling formula can be found in almost every culture, cheap, convenient, and filling. Be it a pasty or a burek, Coriolanus or “4 and 20 Blackbirds,” Sweeney Todd or Spanakopita, “pie” is one of the great stock players of the Western canon.

American-style sweet pie (for this is what concerns our heroines) is an outgrowth of the British type; Americans used what was available to them—lard, for starters, and local fruits—and by the nineteenth century, the dessert pie was more common in the indices of cookbooks than its savory cousin. Although Almanzo does eat chicken pie at one point, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1933 novel Farmer Boy is really a tribute to the sweet pie culture—and gluttony—of successful rural America:

When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.

Although cake is often pitted against pie, it’s easy to tell why one is considered the more quintessentially American: the combination of thrift and abundance, skill and luck, utility and glamour, feels in keeping with the national character—or at least, the version we want to believe in. And part of what makes it so American, I’d argue, is that association with the contest. Because if a pie falls in the forest and there’s no one there to award a blue ribbon, or to be jealous—well, you see what I mean. And apple pie, with its hints of Atalanta and Eve, is never just an apple pie—especially when other women are involved.

The women of Angel’s Roost compete for pie primacy in the 1954 Broadway production of The Golden Apple. (Cornell Capa)

It’s hard to date the first pie-baking contest, although Americans have been judging crops and livestock at fairs since at least the eighteenth century. Certainly, pride in a good pie was presumably always around, but when was the competition formalized? Funnily enough, it’s much easier to find histories of the pie-eating contest—a rowdy showcase for male strength rather than women’s skill—but rural journals and farm irrigation logs provide the occasional detail. A 1906 journal mentions a pumpkin pie baking contest held by an Ohio furniture dealer in which the winner received “a $24 steel range” (the 200 entries were distributed by the Salvation Army), while in 1903 the “servant girl or cook” who submitted the best entry in Rockford, Illinois won $5, with all excess pie going to local newsboys.

Sometimes pies were made at home; other times they were baked publicly, bake-off style. Sometimes the judges were local dignitaries, other times pie professionals. Rules varied from state to state. A 1912 California apple pie competition stipulated that “the contestants must be fifteen years of age and under and that all raw materials which entered into the making of the pies was to be assembled in the presence of the judges and the audience,” presumably lest some wily child should sneak contraband into the pavilion.

In 1916, the Rural New Yorker magazine proposed, “We want some horticultural society to offer good-sized prizes for the best apple pie—made while you wait. The contestants are to be farm girls. They are to have access to a basket of apples, a bag of flour, butter, sugar, spice, and a hot oven and then let alone to make a pie in their own way before the crowd. Then those pies are to be sampled by a group of judges containing a good housekeeper, a scientist, and several persons who are just good judges of pie! We will guarantee that it will attract a crowd and prove a feature.”

Pie, as we dream of it. (Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book)

For women who were stuck baking all the time anyway, imagine the satisfaction of having those years of skill and expertise publicly rewarded. Pie, after all, is not easy: every component (especially crust) takes knack and judgment. And to be judged the best at something quite literally every woman in town did, well, the pride must have been tremendous.

By the middle of the twentieth century, when The Golden Apple was first produced, pie-baking contests had gone corporate. Beginning in 1949, Pillsbury’s Bake-Off offered the promise not just of glory but of $50,000. As convenience foods and labor-saving devices—not to mention the war—changed the face of American gastronomy, homemade pie became more old-fashioned, but its production was also more of a hobby and less of a chore. It’s currently experiencing a modern renaissance, with old-fashioned leaf lard warring with “crack pie” and booze-scented butterscotch. Madonna-whore, indeed. But I think we’d all agree it takes both to make America.

“The Life of Pie” is reprinted courtesy of Playbill. Sadie Stein is a writer living in New York, and a contributing editor of The Paris Review.

Four Pies to Ensnare Paris

Pastry and suffrage? The ties run deeper than you might think. The following recipes are adapted from the Washington Women’s Cook Book, a 1908 volume of recipes collected from suffragists throughout the Evergreen State. Half agitprop, half Happy Homemaker aid, the cookbook was a sort of Trojan Horse designed to bring the conversation about women’s rights into respectable Washington homes. One wonders what the ladies of Angel’s Roost would have made of it.

Mincemeat Pie
Cook 2 lbs. lean meat in a little salted water until tender; chop finely. Add 1 lb. shredded suet, 4 lbs. peeled and chopped apples, 5 cups sugar, 2 lbs. currants, 2 lbs. raisins, 3 tbs. nutmeg, ½ ts. mace, the grated rind and juice of six oranges and two lemons, ½ cup juice of any kind of fruit preserves, 4 tbs. vinegar, and 1 tbs. salt. This is fine.

–W. E. Chamberlin of Olympia

German Apple Pie
For the crust, mix 1¼ cup flour, 4 tbs. butter, 1 tbs. milk, and one egg, and roll thin. Lightly stir two egg yolks and 3 tbs. sugar, and combine with 2 cups grated potatoes. Line a pie tin with the dough; cover with a layer of thickly sliced Gravenstein apples and a layer of potato batter. Bake at 400°F for 40 minutes.

–Mrs. Alberta Rouss Janson

Mock Cherry Pie
Boil 1 heaping cup whole cranberries in 2 cups water until soft; add 1 cup sliced raisins, 1 cup sugar, 3 tbs. flour, 2 ts. vanilla extract, and ⅛ ts. almond extract. Pour the filling into a piecrust and bake at 400°F for an hour.

–Mrs. D. R. Tomlin of Kirkland

Mahogany Layer Cake
Cook 1 cup chocolate chips and ½ cup milk on a skillet until smooth and creamy; set aside to cool. Combine 1½ cups sugar, 1 stick of butter, 3 eggs, ½ cup milk, 2 cups flour, and 1 tbs. baking soda; add the chocolate. Divide batter into four baking pans and bake at 350°F until firm, about 30 minutes. For the frosting, combine 3 cups sugar, 1¼ cup milk, 2 tbs. butter, and a pinch of baking soda. Boil until the mixture will hair, add 2 ts. vanilla extract, and beat until cool enough to spread. This is a delicious and popular cake.

–Mrs. Lola Fowler of Stanwood