AS THANKSGIVING approaches, I am reminded of what is wrong with our country today: Fewer pies are being baked in America's kitchens.
A few years ago at a Washington gathering that I would describe as a "deep background lunch," I was handed a sheet of paper stating that the number of pies baked from scratch fell 48 percent from 1979 to 1989. This statistic came from researchers for Crisco. They keep track of such things because shortening is an essential ingredient in flaky pie crust.
It was grim news, because a homemade pie with a flaky crust is one of life's great joys. Such a crust is airy, yet has texture. It makes its presence known without being assertive. It displays one of the great struggles of the universe, the tension between being and nothingness, right there in a 9-inch pie pan.
I did a little research and found that during the pie-baking slump, faith in institutions declined, fewer people said they could trust their fellow men and the divorce rate increased. In short, the social fabric of America fell apart.
A source, whom I will call Deep Dish, told me that baking-industry probes have uncovered three reasons for the drop in pie baking. First, Americans feel that they don't have enough time to bake a pie. Second, pies suffer because, unlike "portable" foods such as cookies, pies are difficult to cart around. Third, there is a widespread belief that the only time to bake pies is during the holidays.
I take issue with these reasons, not on statistical grounds but on high moral grounds, the place where all questions involving dessert and the meaning of life end up.
For starters, the time issue. It takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half to bake a pie. This is a significant chunk of the day, especially when, according to one survey I found, 38 percent of Americans feel rushed.
But it seems to me that the larger question is, what do you get for your trouble? The answer is, satisfaction, in many forms. For instance, making a pie is a good way to cope with what appears to be a major source of trouble in America - the lack of communication between people living under the same roof.
For years, the best-seller lists have been clogged with books about how men and women don't speak the same language. Columns offering advice on how parents and kids can talk to each other have popped up faster than new flavors of yogurt.
Put a homemade pie into this void and you will plug up the problem. Pull a pie out of the oven and you will find your family. In the presence of a homemade pie, warring parties talk to each other, even if they are of different genders or from different generations.
Pies can make tight-lipped teen-agers chattier than guests on "Oprah." Pies can inspire new forms of family communication, like a note placed on a leftover piece of pie reading, "Touch this and you die."
On the second anti-pie point, that pies are immobile, I say that what this country needs is not more get-up-and-go but more sitting still.
Since expressways entered our lives, we have equated movement with progress, though we ended up in fast-food restaurants. The time has come to sit down, drink a cup of coffee and have a slab of homemade pie.
If we as a people would spend 30 minutes or so sitting at the kitchen table eating a piece of homemade pie and letting our minds float, our sense of purpose would return. Who knows - maybe even serendipity, something last experienced back in 1970, would make a return appearance.
The third point is tricky. There is no disputing that the urge to eat pies runs strong on holidays.
On one Thanksgiving, the high holy day of pies, four of them - a pumpkin, a mince, a peanut butter and a sour cream and raisin - appeared at my family's feast. Fall is the prime pie-baking season in America, with winter, which includes such holidays as Christmas, Hanukkah and the birthday of George "Love Those Cherries" Washington, coming in second.
It is fitting to bake on special occasions. But special occasions should not be restricted to state-recognized holidays. Most Sundays merit consideration as occasions worthy of homemade pie. A Sunday night pie is a great antidote to Monday morning dread. Eating pie fights depression, which, as we all know, is a growing problem in America today.
Rob Kasper is a columnist for The Sun and author of "Raising Kids & Tomatoes," a recently published collection of food columns from which this piece was adapted.
Pub Date: 11/22/98