What We Think About When We Think About Pie

Ah, pi(e) day. Upon us again. For one beautiful day a year, we cast aside our differences in celebration of two things that sound the same when spoken aloud: pie, a delicious baked dish with filling, and pi, a very long string of numbers. Different though they may seem—one a tasty treat; one the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter—they have much in common.

One contains fruit, or meat, or veggies. The other contains an infinite string of randomly distributed numbers that never fall into a recurring decimal pattern. See what I mean? They’re not so different, pie and pi. Just like we’re not so different, you and I. We contain multitudes.

Presented without further comment is the latest in Agate’s series of staff reflections on topics from our books. First vodka, then pizza, then a retrospective on the pizza one, and now pie:

I didn’t care for pie until I was about 18 years old, at which time I discovered the magic of pumpkin pie. Since then I’ve demanded a birthday pumpkin pie from my mother—rather than a birthday cake—because I am a weirdo. I come by it honestly though—my dad (who does not bake) has told me on several occasions that he would like to open a pie shop called pi2 that would serve square pies.

I’ll take huckleberry pie over any other, given the chance. It comes off in ways that all good food should: tastily – a charming counterpoint of tart sweetness cutting against a savory flake; spiritually – a stirring reminder of home; narratively – a wild berry, not tamed but subdued within the confines of a buttery prison; and theologically – a divine complement to coffee.

I love pumpkin pie. I have always loved pumpkin pie. My mom used to make the pies for Thanksgiving the night before and leave them on the buffet in the dining room to cool.  Once, when I was perhaps 5 or 6, I passed these pies and decided to take just a little taste of the pumpkin filling on my way by.  I scooped a small dollop of the custard out with my finger, right by the crust. No one will notice that, right?  It was really good. Just another little taste. So delicious. One more. I love pumpkin pie! But now there was a very visible hole in the pie. Hmm. They’ll notice that. Cover it up, somehow?  That looks worse. Best to make it look like it’s supposed to be there. So I dug (and ate) a shallow trough in the filling all the way around, along the crust, like an empty moat. Oh, much better; looks intentional. (Which, of course, it was.) Next morning: WHO DID THIS? WHO DUG A TRENCH IN THE PUMPKIN PIE? I admitted nothing. The dog maybe? I think I saw my brother in dining room yesterday? I’m pretty sure they knew it was me.  Despite the obvious fact that someone had repeatedly stuck their (undoubtedly unclean) fingers in the pie, we filled up the moat with whipped cream and ate it anyway. Because pumpkin pie! It’s so good.

Pie is good
Pie is fine
I hope you’ll have
Some pie of mine
Just kidding
I didn’t make a pie
I don’t know how to do that

Pen, highlighter, and Gelly Roll on Post-it

Like a luscious lemon meringue or a divine dutch apple, this piece has multiple layers that work together in perfect harmony to form something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts:

  • Acrostic
    1. Objectively true
    2. Works as 3 individual 1-word descriptions
    3. Also works as a 3-word phrase
    4. Also rhymes
  • Chart
    1. Pie chart (obvious)
    2. Looks likeapeace sign; peace –> piece –> piece of PIE
  • Aesthetic
    1. Pink = my favorite color; pie = my favorite food
    2. Lovingly handcrafted, just like—wait for it—PIE

Generally, I am a fan of most kinds of pie.

I ate plenty of pie growing up—my mom baked a mean lemon meringue—but I always considered myself a cake guy first and foremost. Then I had the great good fortune to marry a passionate pie baker, and in the years since I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy a dazzling variety of delicious pies. I like all kinds of pie, but fruit pies rule, and my undisputed, unchallenged favorite is a sour cherry pie with a lattice crust. I love that the sour cherry season is only about three weeks long in the Midwest, which intensifies the sense of scarcity and specialness I identify with this pie. We’ve certainly frozen plenty of sour cherries over the years for later consumption, but there’s nothing like a still-warm pie after dinner featuring fresh sour cherries that were bought and pitted that day. Unless it’s having a slice of that same pie the following morning with a big cup of strong black coffee.

My favorite pies, all mom-made, include mixed berry, peach (with peaches from the backyard tree), and sour cream apple. My mom makes the crust with shortening, and while her pie crusts are always beautifully flaky and delicious, it’s the way she crimps the edges that makes them exceptional. I have studied her crust-crimping technique for years, and am still trying to perfect my own. I recently discovered a recipe for lemon pie with a crust of crushed saltine crackers. It is now one of my go-tos, and good for when I’m not feeling up to the crimping challenge.

My taste buds love pie much more than my stomach does. If possible, I would eat sweet pies every day—but alas, becoming an adult means giving up some of life’s sweet luxuries. My favorite pie? That’s a tough one, but I think I would have to go with pumpkin pie. I love it so much that I will only eat it once a year so as not to ruin it for myself: as Thanksgiving dessert. Although once every few years I can be convinced to indulge around Christmas time. Maybe every other year. Let’s be realistic, it’s every year. But still, only having my favorite pie twice a year? That’s some genuine self control right there!

I’ve always thought that food is the best way to show eternal love. So, naturally, a month before my high school crush’s birthday, I very casually asked the dude what his favorite dessert was. He looked a little confused (we pretty much never spoke to each other), but he said he guessed he liked cherry pie. My plan? Make him the best cherry pie he’d ever tasted to ensure that he would love me forever.

This was gonna be one sick pie, with a crust made from scratch, fresh cherries hand-pitted by yours truly, and a truly darling lattice topping. Once the pie was assembled, I knew it was my finest creation yet: those cherries positively gleamed in their lattice-topped crust. But perhaps the best part of all was that my mom had just gotten a new convection oven, which would bake my baby the way it deserved.

Spoiler alert! Don’t use convection ovens! Or at least reduce the temperature before you stick your little pie baby in there. After about fifteen minutes I checked my pie’s progress. Expecting to find a golden crust, maybe a few bubbling cherries, I cursed the gods who made me when I saw that the pie had been blackened by the oven’s merciless rays.

So what did I do? Well, I wasn’t going to let my love go to waste. So I wrapped up my pie in plastic bags and hid in an empty classroom at lunch time. When my crush walked by I called his name, said happy birthday, shoved the pie into his arms, and did a little jog-shuffle to get away. I’ve never made cherry pie again—but I do still use food to win eternal love.

For a good portion of my life, I don’t think I really understood that pies could contain things other than fruit. A chocolate pie? Who could imagine!? Had I been aware of non-fruit pies earlier, things would have been different, but alas. As a fairly picky eater myself, and the child of someone who often lies to waiters in restaurants to avoid any sort of fruit garnish or sauce coming into contact with an otherwise perfectly acceptable dessert, I was hesitant to indulge in pie at all. I had my first slice of pie—apple—when I was a preteen, and my life was forever changed. Apple pie remains my favorite, but I break with popular opinion regarding options a la mode. Pie served with ice cream ends up in a melty soup that makes the pie crust soggy, and that’s gross. Crust is the best part of pie, and it should be flaky, not soggy.

When someone mentions pie, I immediately think apple pie and my mind trails off to memories of apple picking in northern Illinois on a crisp September day. Hands down my favorite pie to buy is the brown bag apple pie from Long Grove Confectionery Co from the historic downtown Long Grove Apple Fest. It is the right amount of tart offset by the buttery crust and sweet cinnamon crumbles.  It is baked in a brown bag that makes the top layer of crust extra crunchy. This pie is only available during apple season and I think that is what makes it a special tradition for our family. 

One time . . . I thought I just might die,
When I sank my teeth into a cheddar cheese apple pie,
They go together like birds and the sky,
Cheddar cheese and apple pie.
You may find it odd and give it a sigh,
But your taste buds, my friend, they will not lie.
The cinnamon makes your heart soar,
And the gooey cheese and crumble galore.
All wrapped up in a buttery crust,
Try it, you must,
I implore,
And you will find yourself asking:
Why hasn’t this ever been done before?
Can I please have seconds or more?
And your life will never be the same
You’ll ask for that pie by name.
I am telling you, my friend, and I would not lie,
Just try a piece of cheddar cheese and apple pie.

As a former member of the math community, pi has always been very close to my heart. In my experience, math people can’t get enough pie jokes. It’s great that on this happy day each year, language and math come together, because without either one—without both homophones and the first three digits of this weird number—I don’t know when we would designate a day to eat tons of pie.


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