I didn’t know how much I cared about pie until I realized I wouldn’t be having one this week. We’re going snow camping and although I know that it’s possible to make a pumpkin pie with a campfire, a little creativity and the right ingredients, at this point I just want to focus on making sure we have enough warm layers and hot chocolate to get us through the nights.
But I’ve found myself reading recipes for pie, looking at pictures of pie, dreaming about pie. Pumpkin, pecan, apple, key lime—it all sounds good to me. I’m going to try to squeeze in a viewing of one of my favorite pie-related movies, Waitress, while I’m packing. And, of course, I’ve searched around to find the science and lore behind the finest Thanksgiving pies.
Pumpkins themselves are one of the oldest cultivated crops in North America, and different groups of people had different ways of preparing them. A Swedish botanist who traveled through New York and Canada in the mid-1700s reported seeing Indians drying long slices of pumpkin to preserve them, and making pumpkin porridge. “They often make pudding or pie or even a kind of tart out of them,” he wrote.
Pumpkin pie later became a divisive issue in a divided country. This dessert appeared in writings by northern abolitionists, and the pie turned political, as Nate Barksdale describes at History.com: “An editorialist in Richmond, Virginia, offered a sardonic explanation of the Yankee Thanksgiving: “This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.” The close of the Civil War, and the later debut of canned pumpkin, started turning this controversial pie into a Thanksgiving table staple.
I was going to say that pumpkin pie is a Thanksgiving favorite, but a few days ago I heard Garrison Keillor say that the pumpkin pie was “the essence of mediocrity. The very best pumpkin pie you ever tasted is practically indistinguishable from the very worst pumpkin pie you ever tasted.”
I do not think I am qualified to debate this–I’ve never met a pie I didn’t like–but I have learned that the crust is what can distinguish a good pie from a great one. Amy Rowat, a biophysicist at UCLA, has a short video on how to make a perfectly flaky pie crust (for apple pie, in this case). A few of her tricks: adding vodka or another alcohol to keep the gluten in the crust from forming a dense network; paying attention to the size of the butter pieces as you mix them with the flour to make good-sized air pockets; and adding heavy cream to an egg wash to get a nicely browned crust.
I’ll test out a few of these once we get back; this Thursday, we’ll be eating s’mores and Backpacker’s Pantry dark chocolate cheesecake. Well-equipped, as far as dessert goes—but still, a slice of me will be wishing for a little bit of mediocrity, a little pumpkin pie.