Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Summer is as easy as pie

I love summer. And I love America. And I love pie. All of these three wonderful things come together and remind me of how magnificent they all are every year in late May, when flags fly, the kids go to school and learn nothing, and my hands are busy kneading shortening into flour.

Memorial Day’s true meaning is solemn, important, and serious. But I would be remiss if I didn’t equate it to the un-official kick-off of summer. Grills everywhere are firing up, people are mixing together giant bowls of potato salad and wondering why anything so delicious seems inedible during all of the cold months of the year. Flip-flops start flopping, shorts start revealing our winter white legs, and I will be busy making pie.

Some say pie is the dessert of fall, a typical Thanksgiving tradition. Those people are really missing out.

For me, pie tastes best in the summer, served on a paper plate with a plastic fork on a red gingham covered picnic table. Berry, lemon, cherry, apple, peach, they all make my mouth water when I imagine a hearty crust dusted in sugar crystals. Seasonal fruit coupled with the slightly freakish stockpile of crust dough that I keep in my freezer makes for one perfect dessert. You might be surprised to know, however, that pie wasn’t always a dessert. In fact, according to an article in TIME magazine, the first “pyes” in Medieval England were meats such as beef, wild duck, or pigeon, and spiced with pepper and dates.

To me, this does not sound like a good way to end a session of hot dogs.

The same article informs us that historians traced back the initial origins of pie to the Greeks, who figured out that if they mixed flour and water, they could press it into a dish and fill it with lovely things like mussels.

Again, not how I would choose to end a picnic, but to each his own.

But with time comes change, evolution and travel, and eventually pies made it all the way over to America with the Pilgrims. Their pies, however, were full of meat and nothing like the pecan pie we now traditionally serve at Thanksgiving. The first pumpkin pie recipe in a cookbook was recorded in 1675 as boiled and spiced squash. It didn’t catch on until the early 1800’s, at which point I’m pretty sure someone said, “we’re AMERICAN. Don’t you know we like to eat things that are full of empty calories? Let’s fill these crusts with sugared fruit and chocolate pudding instead of birds and venison. Pass the whipped cream and someone put some coffee on, would ya’?”

The first sweet pies as we know them didn’t start coming about until colonists starting showing off local produce. Perhaps when the meat ran low they started stuffing the crusts with fruit and inventing the first contemporary American pie. A cookbook from 1796 listed three sweet pies, which were probably considered bizarre and new-fangled. But by the late 1800’s, Americans had swiftly learned how much more delicious it is to fill a crust with sugar than protein and cookbooks of that time featured a whopping eight sweet pies.

By 1947, we were all fat and happy and pie as we currently know it was catching on like wildfire. Modern cookbooks listed over 65 versions of dessert pies.

For this, I am grateful, mostly because my grandmother was raised in the prime pie making years and she makes one incredible apple pie, which I will eat voraciously while I still can. I can follow her same recipe and yet it never tastes as good as when she bakes it.

My birthday, which falls in the height of summer, is always celebrated with a few candles leaning haphazardly in such pies, forever dripping wax and threatening to carmelize the sugar.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who needs cake when fruit is in season, the flag is still flying, and Grandma’s baking?

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