March 20, 2006

American as Apple Pie

There’s not many dishes as American as apple pie. Or any pie, for that matter. South Africans aren’t big on ‘pies’ in the American sense of the word; pies summon fond memories of tuck shop beef and veg pies, maybe a Malay curry pie, a Cape fish pie, and certainly the ubiquitous chicken pie. Yes, our pie proclivities are deeply influenced by our British forebears, who gave us a fondness for their rib-sticking, dense, savoury dishes. But it’s rare to come across a sweet pie (except maybe lemon meringue) on a dessert menu, or see it regularly as part of a home cook’s culinary repertoire. So I was totally unprepared for the onslaught when I came to America. Cherry pie, peach pie, blackberry pie. I’ve even had green tomato pie. The pie that really singles out the foreigners is of course pumpkin, a sort of American culinary shibboleth, which I can only describe as pumpkin mush mixed with roasting spices, then baked in a thin, afterthought-of-a-crust. Even I, culinary crusader, have had to regretfully add pumpkin pie to the list of Foods to be Actively Avoided. The shriek of nutmeg against the roar of cloves seems to stay in my mouth long after I’ve forced the pumpkin pap down my throat, then the spices ascend, cloudlike, through my nose, lodge in my temples, and produce a throbbing headache. Yes, pumpkin pie seems to be the one food I am allergic to.

Unfortunately, my estimation of other pies is not much higher. I typically find the sugared fruit filling way too sweet. Even when well executed, pie fails to tempt me beyond mild interest. I think I just prefer my fruit fresh off the tree (or bush), or baked into a cake, where it’s less overpoweringly syrupy. But as a witness to American culture, I remain fascinated by the pull this deceptively innocent dessert continues to exert over my friends. Last semester, an off-the-cuff attempt to make a pie for a flatmate grew into a cultural culinary challenge when I realized how hard it is to make a decent pie. So pie-try I will, especially as spring days – and my local, seasonal farmers’ markets – approach.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you the dish on the crust…

A juicy slice of green tomato pie from last summer's farmers' market. Best enjoyed on the grass, with a peach to follow.