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Why Americans Are Pie People

With Guest Host John Harwood.

There is nothing more American than a piece of pie. We taste and talk pies.

We’ve all heard the phrase “American as apple pie.”  But stop and think: is it the apple, or pie itself? We didn’t invent it – ancient Egyptians may have. But in the mid-20th century bakers in suburbs across the country made it our own. We’ll hear about the state of the art, and regional variations,  from specialists in Iowa, New York, Massachusetts and our nation’s capital. We’ll  eat some too.  Apple or pecan?  Butter crust, or shortening?  Follow the recipe, or make it up as you go? This hour, On Point:  an iconic American dessert.

– John Harwood


Beth Howard, author of the new book “Ms. American Pie: Butter, Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House.” (@worldneedspie)

Willa Zhen, professor food anthropology at the Culinary Institute of America.

Renee McLeod, founder of Petsi Pies, an independent bakery and coffee bar in Somerville, Mass.

Marla Romash, pastry chef and caterer at Marla’s Magic, a bakery and catering company in Washington, D.C. Former White House communications director for former Vice President Al Gore. (@politcookieco)

From The Reading List

Vox: Pie vs cake — “Cake is fine to eat at your second cousin’s daughter’s 6th birthday party while you stand in the corner and bemoan your existence, or at the wedding of the first guy you ever loved, but it’s nothing to celebrate.Cake is just a circular dessert that is trying to be as good as pie. Both cake and pie can come in fruit or chocolate varieties. Both are baked in the oven. Both can be served in slices. But only one can be dense and dry and bland. Pie is an American tradition about love and family. Pie is delicious, and complicated, and infinitely better than cake.”

The Good Cook: Aye, Aye, Ms. American Pie! – “Iowa is pie heaven. New Englanders may take offense (but, really, Boston cream pie is more like a cake). Southerners will be mad enough to spit. But Iowa gets the prize, never more so than now that Beth M. Howard is touring the country for her new book, ‘Ms. American Pie.’”

New York Times: In the South, Cake or Pie for Dessert? — “When you bake a pie, you are in the kitchen in the company of ghosts. If you are crafting a crust, it’s most likely because at some point in your life, someone thought well enough of you to stand beside you at a counter and gift the muscle memory from her hands to yours.”

See our blog for some pie recipes from Beth Howard and other guests!

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Guest

    Obama Jokes White House Pastry Chef Puts Crack in His Pies


    I’m sure the President was ‘only joking’.

    • nj_v2

      And we’re sure you’re only trolling.

      • Guest

        Slow down Sherlock,
        your President is the one who made the claim that he consumes crack pies.

        • jefe68

          How about you eat some humble pie.

          • Guest

            I will as soon as you will.

  • Human2013

    That’s easy, because we’re greedy. We need all our indgredients in a big heap covered with a buttery crust…yum. Makes me think of Chicken pot pie, which is very good if made right, but has enough calories to get you through the winter.

    • 1Brett1

      I like savory pies as much as sweet pies.

  • nj_v2

    “There is nothing more American than a piece of pie.” (from the intro blurb)

    It’s usually stated, “As American as apple pie.” but i guess the program didn’t want to limit its scope.

    Either way, it appears that the modern pie concept was developed in England, with the very earliest versions coming out of Greece. So, i’m not sure how Americans manage to take credit.

    • Grigalem

      It is SO important to be ready with a critique of the intro blurb. So useful to us all.

      • nj_v2

        It’s a ponderous responsibility, but someone has to do it.

  • 1Brett1

    People seem to prefer pie over cake. I know I do, anyway; although, I like a good yellow cake, cheesecake, and pound cake, but they have to be good. I can eat pie, though, even if it isn’t especially of high quality.

    • Human2013

      Blueberry pie from Maine makes me happy to be an American!!!

  • malkneil

    “Takes the cake”
    — you hear that one a lot too – “Boy that Fred…he really takes
    the cake!” Where? Where do you take a cake? You know where I would take
    it…down to the bakery, to see the other cakes! And why does he always
    take the CAKE….why not the pie? Pie is just as easy to carry — “easy as pie!”
    Wait a minute…cake is also relatively easy to carry — “Piece of cake!”

  • J__o__h__n

    Shouldn’t this show have been scheduled for March 14th?

    • AC

      :) or June 28th and bash pies…

  • creaker

    I remember growing up my father loved those sad little things pretending to be banana cream pies in the frozen food section – nasty, but a perfect end to salisbury steak and peas.

  • pauljg

    You should be talking with the NPR (No Pie Refused) correspondents who are riding bicycles across the state of Iowa, eating pie. Don Gonyea said he had 20 pieces of pie last year on the ride.

  • Aaron_VT

    Instead of a birthday cake I get a birthday Key lime pie. I always look forward to this annual pie.

  • J__o__h__n

    No Twin Peaks audio?

    • GWelch

      That’s a damn good idea :)

  • GWelch

    I wish the sour cherries would make it from Michigan to Eastern Massachusetts. The last U-Pick place I knew of around here cut down their trees and replaced them with… sweet cherries. Alas.

    It would be nice to hear a discussion about fats. A growing consensus I am seeing on-line seems to favor a half and half mixture of butter and lard as giving a good mixture of flavor and flakiness, and it seems to work for me. Agree with leaving the butter in large chunks.

    • creaker

      I remember those being a staple of hot lunches in school.

    • GWelch

      Oh, and I read once that the flour should be half all-purpose and half cake flour, FWIW.

  • Jennifer Jo

    Once I hosted a pie party. I invited anyone and everyone who reads my blog to come to my house to eat pie. Only requisite, bring a pie. (I got this idea from a Canadian blogger.) One reader traveled all the way from Washington State to my home in Virginia—such fun!

  • AC

    i think the only pie i like is Kentucky ‘chess’ pie

  • Tricia Chatary

    I’ve passed on the PieQueen baton to my daughter who persuaded me to make all-butter crusts & experiment w/ mixed berries. A favorite I bake is Blubarb: blueberry & rhubarb. MY rhubarb isn’t out of season since 1. it just keeps growing if I keep picking and 2. I always have some in the freezer. Another crust trick is that I use seltzer or club soda or fruit juice instead of water. Tip? Gentle touch, no roughhousing the crust. Always chill, chill, chill the dough before rolling out.

  • malkneil

    They’re faking it when they say they like pie. Just like they’re faking it when they say they’re gonna change the way this country works.

  • AC

    no. kentucky chess pie is the best! kentuckians told me that a poor woman wanted to make a pecan pie but didn’t have any pecans, so when someone asked her what kind of pie it was she said ‘it’s jus’ pie’ with an accent and that’s how it got it’s name….

  • J__o__h__n

    Don’t cater the vegans by avoiding butter. Why should the general shopper have to change its diet to conform to their ideology?

    • methos1999

      Who is asking the general shopper to change?

      • J__o__h__n

        The baker mentioned that she was changing the recipe to avoid butter. She wasn’t making two versions of it. The shopper who wants it with butter can no longer buy it.

  • malkneil

    Sorry to HLB the forums, but how do you make a decent pie without sugar or butter?

  • scratchbaker

    I’ve been making an oil-based crust since the 1970′s. Not only is it fast (a press-in-pan crust, so no rolling), but it is healthier and crisper. An oil-based crust has won taste tests against shortening-based crusts. But the on-air discussion is not saying anything new about pie unfortunately.

    My best non-fruit pies are Shoofly (dry bottom) pie, Derby pie (chocolate, pecans, bourbon), and buttermilk crumb pie.

    • GWelch

      Care to share? What oil works best, and what ratio of oil to flour?

  • MarkVII88

    My number-one pie has to be chicken pot pie, hot or cold. I use fresh corn and/or caramelized carrots in my chicken pot pie to add a little sweetness that is balanced with a little spiciness from cayenne pepper. I like to add a splash of pinot grigio to deglaze the pan and I try to use my own homemade turkey or chicken stock. A little extra sharp Cabot cheddar melted into the mix before baking adds that kick!

  • Banjo Live

    My Pop used oil in his pie crust then added milk tablespoon at a time (no more then six) he then rolled it out until he could read the paper through it. It’s a tough crust to make but if you get it right it’s the best.

  • nkandersen

    Our second hours usually aim for lighter fare, especially on Friday. We enjoyed the hour — and a lot of listeners did, too. Sorry to disappoint, Greig.

    nick andersen
    web producer | on point radio

  • MarkVII88

    My grandmother used to make a killer strawberry rhubarb pie that she’d always pull out whenever I came home for a visit. It’s one of my best memories surrounding grandma. She’s still kickin’ but she doesn’t/can’t bake anymore. Sadly, as her age advanced and her overall condition worsened, the quality of her pies began to decline and basically served as a marker of her slow march downhill. I miss those pies and I’ll always associate them with her.

  • nkandersen

    Hey Paul!

    We had some unresolvable techinical issues. Take a look at our blog for more info: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2014/07/24/where-did-nickel-creek-go


    nick andersen
    web producer | on point radio

  • John Cedar

    When I make a pie it is usually an apple. I use the classic Crisco crust recipe for the crust. Can’t stand the gamy taste of lard. Very important to sift the flower in order to get the proper measurement. Pre-sifted is too densely packed to measure correctly and consistently. That would lead to extra flour and a tough crust instead of flaky.

    Early Macintosh is the best. Any sweet apple does not make a flavorful pie. Granny smiths will work in the off season bu they don’t cook down as well so you need to cook longer.

    A nine inch pie with sourish Macs will take about 7/8 cup of sugar to make it perfect. You don’t need to slice the apples extremely thin but they should be thinner than an orange section so that you you can get plenty of apple in that pie.

    Many people don’t like the cinnamon and others put in a ton of it. The only correct answer is to put in exactly 1/4 teaspoon. That is just enough to accentuate the apples but not offend the objectors.

    Blend that cinnamon right in with the sugar and if the apples are too juicy you can blend in 1 to 3 tablespoons of flour (but I never do) Then dump it on top of those apples and add four slivers of butter and add the top crust.

    If you are too slow at this crust rolling, you can moisten the edge of the bottom crust with a wet paper towel so that the top one sticks better
    Do not seal the crust edges by pressing a fork onto it, use your thumb ferchristsake.

    I don’t bother with turning temperatures up and down. Just 350 for 50 minutes or an hour and make sure the oven is good and warm first. Put that pie right smack in the middle to even out the convection conduction most importantly the radiation. If you put a cookie sheet in there to catch drips, make sure it is as low as possible to not effect the three forms of heat flow listed above.

    If I am making raspberry I up the sugar to 1.33 cups and add three tablespoons of corn starch to the sugar to solid up those juices. And of course no cinnimom needed for those berries.

    • HonestDebate1

      That’s great info John Cedar thanks. I planted a bunch of red and yellow raspberries this year and hope to be making some pies next year. Right now blackberries are everywhere. All of the sudden I’m hungry for a blackberry pie.

  • John Cedar

    White cake with white frosting just barley edges out my favorite for cakes.
    The most important part is the frosting and I came up with my own recipe to emulate the ones that I preferred as a child. Unfortunately those cooks are longer with us so I had to make do.

    Too many frostings out there are far too greasy. I found that the optimum Crisco ratio is 1/2 cup to 1 pound of 10x sugar.
    And 1/4 teaspoon of salt is a must just to subtly bring out the flavorings.
    The flavorings should be 1 teaspoon of almond and 1 teaspoon of vanilla.
    It all has to be beaten to smithereens to get as much air as you can into the mix. then it has to sit over night to get that 3% cornstarch taste to fade away.

    Whatever I use for cake it has to be beaten to get lots of air in it. And like most things cooked it needs a thoroughly warm oven and placed smack in the center. Crumbs sticking to forks is the best test after following the guidelines on a box for time windows (if you go that route). You have to cook it enough that it doesn’t have a subtle raw egg smell but any too much cooking and it will be dry instead of moist.

  • methos1999

    More people will come if they think there’ll be punch & pie!!

    – Eric Cartman, South Park the movie

    • Steve__T

      Cartman is all I hear when you say pie.

  • methos1999

    I really need to stop listening to this broadcast, it’s making me really hungry!

  • GWelch

    My usual liquid to pull it together was sour cream, and it seemed to work well. The last few times I’ve used vodka for the liquid, but I also like a bit of vinegar mixed in as well – it seems to give a little better taste to the crust. It came out great, but I don’t know if it was significantly lighter or flakier than using the sour cream.

    I use the Kitchenaid stand mixer method, demonstrated here:


  • Guest

    I had never heard of ‘crack pies’ until Obama became President.

    But then again, I had never heard of Boko Haram or ISIS until Obama became President.

    Thanks Barry.

    • jefe68

      Do you have troll and bottom feed on every show?

      • Guest

        Who gave you permission to climb out of your troll cage?!

  • KilianMetcalf

    Trying to decide which is more unpleasant—listening to people chewing or listening to people talk with food in their mouths. It’s a tossup.

    • crazydylll69

      It was such a shame because the content would have me salivating and then once he tried the pies, I cringed every time. Maybe pull away from the mic when you chew gooey pies.

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