Slice of Life
Charlie Papazian likes to say that he is just a regular pie guy, but his vision for the future is well worth heeding. Twenty years ago he had an intuition about beer. At the time, he recalls, Bud and Coors were the reigning brews. So Papazian, who thought beer should taste better than that--that in fact, you could make better-tasting beer at home--founded the Association of Brewers. In doing so, he pulled together the loose ends of what became a microbrewery revolution.
"They said beer was working-class--they now say pie is working-class," he says. "Now look at beer--it's the darling! The same thing will happen to pie. It will. I guarantee it."
Microbakeries will spring up on street corners everywhere. Not just pie, but really good pie, will be available to all Americans. But this will take hard work. Which is where the American Pie Council comes in. "A not-for-profit association devoted to pie-making, pie-eating, pie-selling and the preservation of our fading pie heritage," the APC started as Papazian's hobby (National Pie Day is January 23, his birthday) a decade ago. But it was taken over six months ago by Boulder food critic John Lehndorff, who intends to take pie to the top.
"Lehndorff is my soul mate," Papazian says. "He was at one time the only person who was as interested in pie as I am, and now I have inspired him to go over the edge."
Lehndorff, whose earliest memory involves the fine, knife-wielding art of "evening off" a pie, is not just a connoisseur but a philosopher of pie. As such, he says, "it always amazed me that there was no official organization for lovers of pie."
As the new executive director of the APC, Lehndorff is actively casting about for "personal" and "commercial" members. That he has only 23 at the moment--most of them friends and family--troubles him little. "It's a labor of love," he says. "I just want to see how big pie really is."
He intends to do so as head judge at this year's National Pie Championship, to be held in January at the Hotel Boulderado, and every day, wherever he goes. Usually, he goes somewhere to eat pie. "When? Well, it's more a question of whether there's a bad time to eat pie," he muses. "As for the pie people, I'm finding that they're out there."
This could be true. Once broached, the subject of pie produces a passion that is seldom equaled by other foods. If your mother made pie, you long for it nostalgically. If your mother didn't make pie, you long for it psychiatrically. Sure, there is the occasional rogue eater who has no pie ties or brings up the heretical subject of non-fat crust. But for most of us, the issue of pie is one of sorting out cravings--from deep dish to shallow, from one crust to two.
"I went to sit in the bus station and think this over. I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that's practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course."
--Jack Kerouac, in On the Road
"She lowers a piece of pie onto a large blue print plate with mincemeat and crust sprawled to the very edges. The steam rolls up."
--Carolyn Chute, in The Beans of Egypt, Maine
"It was his idea to stop at the truckstop, he thought coffee would calm him down, and they sat and drank a couple cups apiece, and then the pie looked good so they had some, banana cream and lemon meringue, and more coffee."
--Garrison Keillor, in "Truckstop"
Banana cream and lemon meringue? That, says baker Amy Hoyt, means it must have been winter. Self-described "opinionated pie bitch" at the Bobby Dazzler bakery in Park Hill, Hoyt believes pies occupy certain seasons from which they should never stray.
"Pie is my life," she explains. "We only bake fruit pies when the fruit is fresh and in season. Once the strawberries are gone, though you can technically buy strawberries, I will not bake them into a pie. Right now we have apple pie, apple-cranberry pie and pear pies with a little candied ginger in them. This would not be a good time to make a deep dish peach pie with heavy cream in it."
Hoyt runs the kind of "microbakery" the American Pie Council considers the wave of the future. A prospective APC member, she is not surprised to hear of a possible surge in pie popularity. "We made 400 this Thanksgiving," she says. That's about six times what she baked for the holiday six years ago, she realizes. "An interest in pie is coming from somewhere," she decides. "It's growing."
"At our county fair this year we had lots of pie entries, come to think of it," says Douglas County cooperative extension agent Beryl Jacobson, who's judged pie at the county fair for the past eighteen years. She adds modestly, "And I also help people with pies." In fact, Jacobson teaches the county pie class every year and keeps an extensive file of pastriana, including "Your Betty Crocker Scorecard for Pastry," an invaluable troubleshooting source for such troubles as "shrunken crust." (Cause? "Crust stretched when eased into pan.")
Jacobson learned to make pie when she and her husband lived in the Canadian Arctic two decades ago. "Up there you couldn't go to a store and buy a pie," she points out. "I practiced a lot. Also, I got my foolproof crust recipe there from a Navy wife."
Requests for a foolproof crust flood into Jacobson's office almost as regularly as cries for help from Douglas County bakers struggling with pecan pie. The problem lies neither with the pecans nor the crust--but in the slop between the nuts, which, at this altitude, often loses its structural integrity. Working with Colorado State University food scientist Pat Kendall, Jacobson solved that problem and many others. As for the foolproof crust, here it is. But first, Jacobson's caveat: "If you're a purist, you won't like it, because it has brown sugar and baking powder in it, but I really like it because it works."
5 cups flour
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
2 cups shortening at room temperature
1 tbsp. vinegar in 3/4 cup warm water
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1. Stir together flour, salt and baking powder.
2. Cut in shortening until the mixture is the size of peas.
3. Put vinegar in measuring cup and fill to the 3/4 cup mark with warm water. Add brown sugar and stir well.
4. Mix liquids into the flour mixture gradually, using a fork.
"Yeah, crust," John Lehndorff says. "Flour, shortening, water and salt. What could be simpler? But the art is in the combining. It's done by touch. You have to learn crust by standing next to an old woman in an apron covered with flour who's done it a million times."
Lehndorff advocates a combination of lard and Crisco and a light touch, while realizing that a suave second nature with crust is a fading skill. "If you look at a cookbook from the 1700s, it usually says something like make a pastry, as if everyone knew how," he points out. Apparently, though, everyone didn't. Here's Lehndorff's favorite 200-year-old crust recipe, from a 1767 cookbook (there is nothing foolproof about it):
"To a peck of flour add the yolks of three eggs; then boil some water, and put in half a pound of fried suet, and a pound and a half of butter, skim off the butter and suet, and as much of the liquor as will make it a light, good crust: work it up well, and roll it up."
The foregoing constitutes the backbone of Lehndorff's American Pie Library. He is shameless about asking for contributions. He plans to rifle the Fifties cookbook collection in the kitchen of Boulder's Walnut Cafe. But first he'll have pie, because it's Tuesday night--the Walnut's official Pie Night, at which customers can order a slice of any of seven pies on the pie list for $1.95. A waitress pours Lehndorff's coffee and asks if he would like her to describe tonight's desserts.
"Well," he says mildly, "it's pie, right?"
Well, right. He settles on a pie sampler--a plate with seven wedges of pie radiating around a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream. As he cuts into the first slice, the Tuesday night regulars begin to straggle in.
"Hey, John!" says a professional-looking man in his early forties. "Pie night! All right! We just had a baby," he says, a little apologetically, "or we would have been here last week. So," he adds, picking up the pie list, "what do you like tonight?"
"I like the pie," Lehndorff replies.
Specifically, he likes the traditional double-crust apple, the pumpkin and the chess pie, Bill Clinton's personal favorite. He was pleasantly surprised by the sugarless peach--"you can't be too careful with that sort of thing"--but overwhelmed by the double fudge brownie pie, with and without nuts. The sour-cream apple? Nice, but a little on the trendy side.
"I do wish they had the lemon shaker pie," he says. "It's incredible--thin slices of whole lemon...tart...sweet..."
"We call it the cult pie," says Dana Derichsweiler, who is co-owner and head pie chef at the Walnut Cafe. "People call ahead to see if we have it and then come in here jonesing for it. Their hands shake."
But Derichsweiler simply cannot make the lemon shaker pie every week. She's too busy trying out other pies--pies from recipes brought in by customers, pies from ancient cookbooks "with words like 'oleo' in them" and pies from her deepest childhood memories of rural Texas.
"I make my Aunt Glenna's Black Bottom Pie," she says. "It has a crushed ginger-snap crust and a vanilla custard with rum in it. The way Aunt Glenna did it, it was a little rum for the pie, a little rum for her. She'd be so happy cooking with that highball at her elbow."
Derichsweiler's chocolate pumpkin pie recipe comes from her Aunt Teensie, who was only teensie compared to her tall husband. The vinegar pie came from a customer who'd lived through the Depression. The watermelon was nothing but a twisted experiment. "I couldn't find a recipe," she recalls, "so I just boiled the fruit until it looked like stewed tomatoes and made it into a kind of chiffon. It was hard for the customers to tell what it really was."
But such dabbling is necessary when you strive to run an honest-to-god pie place. In the beginning, Derichsweiler says, she and her partner, Susan Biemesderfer, simply wanted to have lots of dessert on hand. "We're actually both afraid we'll die in our sleep and miss a dessert," she says. "But I especially love pie. It's a scream to me how you can't get a piece of pie in the kind of restaurant where the desserts all come in arty pools of sauce and the cake is cut up into structures. Pie doesn't belong in a place like that. Pie, except when Martha Stewart does it, is never pretentious."
The first--and so far, the only--commercial member of the American Pie Council, Derichsweiler knew that if she made pie, people would show up and eat it.
Derichsweiler and Lehndorff often descend into discussion of pie-contest standards. Blueberry, they agree, should ooze. Whereas apple should slice. From there they slide into a favorite fantasy.
"Imagine Boulder's first Pie Room," Lehndorff says.
"Do you think? Is the time right?"
"There'd be pies under glass."
"And we'd all wear uniform shirts with our names on them," Derichsweiler says. "And the lighting would be...No. None of that matters! You know what matters? What's right in front of you. On the plate."
"Pie," Lehndorff says. "Pie."
There's only one Lehndorff, but lately, Derichsweiler says, the number of pie people seems to have increased. After five years of Pie Nights, she now thinks she can identify what kind of pie a person will order just by looking at them.
"Like mince pie," she says. "Who actually eats it? Dads. No kids. No women."
"I would eat a mince pie," Lehndorff observes.
"You're a dad," Derichsweiler points out.
"You know, this is the gig," Lehndorff says, chewing his pie, waving to a pie person across the room. "Sitting around, eating pie, talking about pie.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.