Thursday, January 27, 2011


January 23 was National Pie Day -- not to be confused with National Pi Day (March 14, natch) -- which gave me an opportunity to reflect on one of my favorite subjects: Pie.

And pied, too!

Some of my favorite Americans were great pie (tossing) devotes, including the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson, Charlie Chaplin, Tyrone Slothrop, Bugs Bunny, Gilligan, the Beastie Boys, Lucille Ball, Dr. Strangelove....

What a strong endorsement! But what, after all, could be more American than apple pie, hotdogs, and mom? (Although we might reconsider the wieners, what with all of the hot dog eating contest controversies -- it's enough to make the Black Sox look clean!) Furthermore, what goes better together than pie and tea? And what's more American these days than considerations of tea?

You think, perhaps, that this is a joke. "Why pie," asks the regular reader of LoS? Consider, however, that the Catholic's Lord's body is baked dough, the very staff of life, as we've previously reported. Consider, too, that the Montpelier Argus and Patriot once wrote that:

Mince pie, like Masonry, arouses curiosity from the mystery attaching to it. Its popularity shall never wane until faith is lost in sight.

So let's step back a bit, peek under the crust, and dig into the pie ... er, rather, dig into the history of the pie.

As far as I can tell (using my google-fu & a bit of guess work), Egyptians are credited with inventing pie, but this accreditation appears to simply stem from their invention (again, as far as I can tell) of a flaky baked crust that they layered with honey -- more like a pastry, I expect, than a pie. The notion spread from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Roman to Europe at large, where the pie slowly evolved into a method for preserving meats (i.e., meats were spiced, sugared, and encrusted to prevent the growth of bacteria).

I would imagine that the expansion from a pastry-like product was slow going. Consider that Greek spinach pie is--let's face it--not pie at all. It's probably, I would guess, the Romans who really created the first dishes that we might recognize as the modern pie. (Wikipedia disagrees.)

But Rome fell and the Dark Ages descended upon the pie.

Of course they say that the Dark Ages are only dark because we've failed to shine a light upon them. Did the pie survive this age of great European migrations because pie made meat portable? Did local varieties emerge and and take root when Rome fell? We lack, it appears, the historical documents (like "Ye Dark Ages Cookbook") to know.

At any rate, once kingdoms were formed, the wealth and security of nations allowed the pie to flourish. It seems, in fact, that pie creativity may have pinnacled in the 1500s. Cookbooks from the time feature (or so my google-fu tells me) meat pies of all sorts, from turtle to peacock, with bird legs often extruding the crust to form convenient handles. Fruits first entered the fillings around this time, and, incredibly, even living things were encrusted:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?

This isn't just some make believe tune. Kings had large pocket books and major entertainment needs; their chefs soon had all sorts of living things bursting forth from of pies, from song birds, to human dwarfs, to jugglers who emerged a-juggling.

But if the pie's creative zenith resulted from exorbitant wealth and kingly boredom, it declined with the emergence of democracies and the settlements of frontiers.

America, in fact, took the pie for its own. Someone once asked "Did ben franklin like pie?"; the "favorited" answer (provided by Cheese445532) was "yep, if he was normal in that regard".

But to turn to more authoritative sources, there's a great article entitled "The Real American Pie" that I hope you'll read. I've stuck a lot of links into this post, but if you read just one, this should be it. (And if you read two, well, this history of the pie is pretty damn good, too.)

In "The Real American Pie", Cliff Doerksen spins a wonderful yarn of the pie's evolution in America, which I'll try to butcher down into one or two bloody paragraphs. Pie was, for this frontier land, a return to the pie as preserved meat. Mince meat was the pie of the day -- the pie of America, in fact. It was apparently reviled on the one hand as a papist abomination that caused murder-inducing nightmares if not outright death; it was proclaimed as a Darwinian winnowing agent of weak genetic lines on the American frontier and was decried by abolitionists thanks to its alcohol level that was closer to brandy than beer.

On the other hand, it was widely popular. Doerksen seems to consider it the cheeseburger of its day.

Until, Doerksen reports, it was mysteriously supplanted by apple pie, all of sudden-like in the 40s.

Doerksen illuminates, struggles, and leaves us with this paradox of the pie, both hated and loved, popular yet vanishing; we shall, however, forge ahead into contemporary times, well aware of the irony that the past that is closest is murkiest.

Of today we can say safely, at least, that mince meat is a watered-down dish, safe for children and vegetarians, and consumed almost chiefly on Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, hopefully, National Pie Day and National Pi Day, too). It's been replaced by apple pie in popular American culture, where, since the 40s, apple pie has reigned as the American dish; today it feels only natural to declare apple pie so, for we assume it is linked straight back to Johnny Appleseed, a great American mythos, right up there with my home-state's hero, Acrefoot Johnson.

But how appropriate that, as Doerksen exposed, our national pie changed in the 40s -- for the world was a-changin' to.

Here, my friends, I am afraid that I begin to struggle as a writer, finding it difficult to present the Truth within the Narrative -- at least without bending the Truth. I suspect that if you want to challenge me on the Truth of this post, you will challenge the veracity of the next few paragraphs as I try to trace the national mood of the United States through its use of the pie.

But I will try.

Or at least I would like to try. I would like, for example, to describe the thrown pie's arc in terms of the US' transition from the patriot zeal of the World Wars, to the growing distrust of the 60s, and on to the violence of contemporary terrorism. I would like to see "American as apple pie" as a concept in motion, a symbol that evolves over time as revolutionaries grapple for control of the nation. Consider the great prank of "The Pieman" splatting NY's mayor with apple crumb because he's a crumby mayor of the Big Apple: Does this not represent the pie wrestled from its status as a symbol of stolidness and patriotism only to be flung back at the power elite?

Were the elite not brought down to earth, reduced to clowns, just as the pie itself is reduced to clownery?

And from these prankish beginnings, these counter-cultural flings, can we further describe the changing national character by showing pie tossers moving from coconut cream fillings (a tasty prank for the pied) to bitter shaving cream and on to the Al Pieda who were ready to kill ideas with pie?

And if the apple pie is America, might we then trace the trajectory of the nation in the arc described by the tossed pie?

Or may we at least pie chart the national mood?

No. I think I've stretched the truth too far to fit my yearning for a narrative. Pie tossings have, I do truly think, moved from merriment, to prank-ish protests, to acts of anger. But I have no proof that their fillings graduated from coconut cream to shaving cream for the purpose of spite; likewise, it's patronizing to imagine that the counter-cultural movements of the 60s and 70s were pranks, and it's dishonest to suggest that terrorism is something new.

But would it be too much for me to misquote Pynchon's opening line in that great American novel, Mason & Dixon, in order to suggest that the pies have flown their Arcs and starr'd our national character? Is it too much to suggest that as pie attacks and our culture have moved toward more extremes, it behooves our national leaders to duck quickly as the public's arsenal moves to ever less tasty tossings?

Ahh, well. Yesterday's pies might always be the best. In times like these, one might do well to remember the immortal words of Jonathon Swift:
Promises and pie-crusts are meant to be broken.
We admit it: We love a good prank, for we imagine that it betters society.

In the good words of Daurade:
Better to throw pies than to pull triggers.


  1. Pie in the eye - the cream tart in modern politics

    This article dates back to 2000. Not pie in the face but in the eye. I can't help but think of the hand/eye connection discussed in my most recent post.

    "Here's pie in your eye" seems to be the standard war cry before launching a pie.

    I'm also thinking about the line: "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore."

    In my next post I link Tanit, a lunar fertility goddess to the hamsa hand used to ward of the evil eye. Here we have the pie, the moon, eros....hmmm.

    What's a slang term for a woman's sex? Hair pie.

    So Gid, are you gonna turn this into a post, or I?

  2. there was a mid-west (US) superband called Golden Smog (google it if you care to see the super mid-west members) who played a tune called "just a piece of pecan pie" that was supposedly an in-joke reference to hair pie. go ahead and substitute "hair" for "pecan" while imagining the band giggling.

    Actually, it's a great tune from a great album.

  3. In that article you linked, I don't understand the use of the word "flanning":

    A whole network of mainly left-wing pie-wielding activist organisations now exists around the globe, intent on "flanning" those in positions of power and influence.

    Do you get what that means?

  4. Flan is a kind of open pie. Here in France it's like a custard tart or pie. So I suppose it means throwing a flan. I eat it frequently. France has great pastries....

    A good example of how in English we turn nouns into verbs at the drop of a hat. My students are always amused, sometimes oddly near amazed to hear we can use "google" as a verb, for instance.

  5. Ahh, thanks for clearing up that "flanning" mystery for me. Seems so obvious once you point it out (and I now see that usage elsewhere); I suppose the later word "entarted" should have given it away.

    I found two other meanings for flanning on the intertubes, but note that the 2nd one, while tantalizing, is from a dubious source and might just represent one person's misusage:

    * an architectural feature

    * licking chocolate off someone

  6. Ha, ha ... just wanted to say that I just re-read this post and really enjoyed it!

    1. lways a succes to amuse yourself! It is a good post, oo.


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