I'm indulging my fixation on pie by reading up about it in my new favorite book (great Christmas gift from the fabulous DH) "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," Andrew Smith, editor. It's sort of obvious that American settlers brought pie with them from England. Back when it was a more of a solid subsistence food than the temperamental dessert we now enjoy, you could put pretty much anything inside (muskrat, purslane?) and didn't need as much (hard to get, expensive) flour as you did for bread. "A piecrust used less flour than bread and did not require anything as complicated as a brick oven for baking. More important, though, was how pies could stretch even the most meager provisions into sustaining a few more hungry mouths."
I'm also reading up on pie in William Woys Weaver's "America Eats." He quotes a 19th century writer who says "If we have a national dish we suppose its name is pie. The line between winter and spring is accurately defined in the country as the time when there is nothing to make pies of. Dried apples are used up, prunes are too expensive, and rhubarb has not made its appearance." What is that season called "nothing to make pies of"? I guess dead of winter, praying for spring. Except for the sour Montmorency summer cherries from Traverse City in my freezer, I'd say that we are certainly in that no-man's-land between winter and spring here at the snowy tail end of January.
Explained by related reasons of economy and availability (whatever grows there goes into the pie), both books catalog the evolution of pie as a regional food. From The Oxford Companion:
"Once pioneers found a piece of land to call their own, their pies reflected certain regional differences. Some were due to a region's economy, such as the lingering hold of molasses-sweetened pies in southern states, which was influenced by the proximity of molasses and the rum-and-slave trade with the Caribbean Islands, while pies made with maple syrup ruled across the northern states, where Indians taught the newcomers how to tap the syrup from surrounding trees. On the great dairy farms of the Midwest, cream and cheese pies became favorites; blessed with groves of native pecan and black walnut trees, the Southwest won renown for nut pies. Swedish immigrants in the upper plains states made fish and tart berry pies plentiful, while Cornish and Finnish immigrants in Michigan's Upper Peninsula region established a certain reputation for pasties and meat pies. Florida bakers turned native limes into Key lime pie, while those in Kentucky took chess pie, a silky classic of the southern plantation's table, and added bourbon to the rich mix of sugar, cream (or buttermilk), and egg filling. In northern states, a preference for pumpkin pie generally holds; below the Mason-Dixon line, where sweet potatoes have been commercially grown since the mid-1600s and were a vital source of nutrition for African American slaves, the populace dreamed of creamy sweet potato pie."
Along with the skill that must be developed (based on understanding the interaction of cold fat with flour) to make a really superior piecrust, seeing that regionalism at work is fascinating when deciding what goes inside. When I take out the old solid maple rolling pin to make a cherry pie in my Michigan kitchen (oh, fortunate cherry-rich state), I'm observing a tradition of regional cooking whether I'm conscious of it or not. And even though my great-grandmothers vanished without a trace to tell me how they made their pies or what they made them from, I know they made cherry pies because they lived in Michigan.
I learned to make pie standing on a chair next to my mother and my grandmother. From them I learned to use a pastry cloth and a rolling pin sock, to handle the dough as little as possible, and to fill the pie dish to overflowing. Since my mother and grandmother learned from their mothers and grandmothers, is it too much of a stretch to think that pie tells me who I am? Or perhaps more importantly, who I want to be? Oh Great Pie Artisan in an Uninterrupted Line of Great Pie Artisans? Just call me GPA for short. Short crust that is.
My grandmother recently gave me a cookbook from the 1880s, The Grand Rapids Cookbook and Illustrated Price List of H. Leonard's Sons and Co. Here is their recipe for cherry pie.
See berry pies. Pit the cherries.
Any Kind of Berry Pies
Line a perforated tin plate with pie crust. Brush it over with beaten egg. Fill full of berries of any kind; sweeten according to the acidity of the fruit; cover with top crust, slashed to let out the steam. Set a paper tube 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 2 inches high, in the center, reaching down to the bottom crust; this will keep the juice from running into the oven; push the berries aside for it. Press the edges of the pie with a pie crimper (for sale at Leonard's). Bake if possible in a Home Comfort range. -- Mrs. C.H. Leonard
I did not use this recipe when I made my cherry pie in honor of National Pie Day, January 23rd. Those old-timers may not have written the most helpful cookbooks, but it takes a modern yahoo to put National Pie Day smack in the middle of the season of "nothing to make pies from." Lesson learned: gather ye rolling pins while ye may. With the arch of history within sight to connect us to a place in the world, any time is the right time for pie.