American pies: sweet-talking symbol of nation a SLICE of life

November 14, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

My Aunt Vera turns 100 this week. There's a big family reunion in the Midwest to honor this tiny, sweet, sharp lady with the sparkling blue eyes; her sister, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will gather from all corners of the country, and maybe, just this once, she won't have baked all the treats herself.

She doesn't move as quickly as she used to -- except, it seems, in the kitchen. There she is still a whiz, turning out pies and strudels and rolls and coffee cakes that she shares with family, friends and neighbors. "I just love baking," she told me once.

And although she's the family champ, there's one area where we all shine: All of the women make great pies. It's a skill that's handed down from mother to daughter, a tradition we all honor.

Actually, a heritage of pie-making skills is not all that unusual. "It's easier to learn how to do it when someone shows you," says Lisa Cherkasky, a Washington-area-based cook, food writer and stylist whose latest book is "The Artful Pie," with photographer Renee Comet, a Washington resident originally from Baltimore.

"There are a lot of little mysteries and secrets," says Ms. Cherkasky. "So people want to teach others how to do it, to pass those on."

Especially in making the crust, she says, you work "by feel." So it really helps if someone can say, "This is how it should look, this is how it should feel."

But when it comes to pie's appeal, Ms. Cherkasky says, there's no mystery at all.

"Pie has enormous symbolism for Americans," she says. "In many ways it really is the quintessential American food."

Certain types of pies are closely associated with special occasions -- cherry pie on the Fourth of July, peach pie in the summer peach season, apple pie in the fall, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and mincemeat pie at Christmas. My mother used to bake one rhubarb pie every spring for her father; but my sister and I held out for a trip to a friend's house in the country in the summer to pick ripe cherries -- before the birds could get them -- to be baked into our favorite pie.

"Pie is also regional," Ms. Cherkasky says. "Each region of the country has its own pie -- Shaker pie [in New England], Key lime pie [in Florida], sour cherry pie [in the upper Midwest]." Her own favorites, she says, are the cream pies -- perhaps as a result of growing up in Wisconsin, where her father had a dairy and bakery.

But it's not just the taste, or the history, or the ingredients that make pie so beloved, Ms. Cherkasky says. It's also the "whole Mom thing," the idea of a mother in the kitchen turning out dessert treats for the family. "A lot of it is a stereotype that's not rooted in reality," Ms. Cherkasky says, "but people want to continue to believe it."

And finally, she says, pie "has a very recognizable and meaningful shape -- that triangle with the curved edge." It's why "pie" charts are so easy to understand.

When Ms. Cherkasky and Ms. Comet began working on the book, they realized the "artful" aspects of the pie -- its shape, contents and symbolism -- could be a powerful element.

Each of the pies in the book is depicted on an unusual "plate" -- an artwork commissioned from artists, most, but not all of them, from Virginia, Maryland and Washington.

The artists were asked to supply a work in any medium 26 inches wide and 13 inches wide. The work had to include a life-size plate on which a slice of pie could be placed.

"We had a very clear image of how we wanted the book to look," says Ms. Comet, who grew up in Catonsville and attended Catonsville Community College before switching to a school in New York State.

Images include a desert scene in acrylic from Washington artist Craig Cahoon, which is the setting for lemon-lime slice pie, a "mosaic" of nails, glass and sawdust from Washington artist Leslie Sapp, the setting for bourbon-spiked pecan pie, and a luminous-looking old-fashioned plate in oil crayon and colored pencil from Mary Connelly, also of Washington, the setting for brown sugar apple crumb pie.

"It was nice that Lisa and I were the art directors," Ms. Comet says. "We didn't have someone saying, we'll shoot this pie like this, with this lighting. . . . We could make all those decisions." Among other considerations, she says, "We wanted the pies to look really natural, all messy and gooey."

The point, Ms. Cherkasky says, is that "food is organic. It's going to be different every time." Home cooks should not be intimidated by the idea of a perfect pie, because most of them aren't. She should know -- she baked several hundred pies in the course of the five years it took to create the book.

"It's really not that hard," she says. "It's just a matter of getting a feel for it."

And, as my aunt points out, it's a wonderful way to spend a long winter afternoon.

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