I Believe In Pie: A Thanksgiving Treatise
Photograph by Ms Lesley Unruh
American Thanksgiving is a holiday of tradition. I suppose all holidays are about tradition – doing the same thing, for the same reason, on the same day every year is what holidays are – but Thanksgiving is even more traditional than that. In theory, it is a holiday about many things (gratitude; family; the fraught history of American colonialism; steep discounts on home appliances), but in practice, it really is a holiday about one thing: eating.
Lots of holidays involve eating, but rarely with the uniform vigour of Thanksgiving. It is not a matter of a specific food, but rather a traditional set menu, which, for all its many variations, remains startlingly the same: turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes (mashed, roasted, gratin). Green beans (casserole, blistered, almondine). Dinner rolls. Cranberry sauce (jellied, not jellied). Pie.
Pie is the official dessert of Thanksgiving. Apple pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie: those are the options. We can and do try to resist, but there is nothing to be done. In fact, resisting the prescribed menu is part of the Thanksgiving tradition. “Thanksgiving Food Is Bad,” declared The New Republic, while Slate went even harder with “Thanksgiving Day Food Is the Worst Food”. Every year, food media enthusiastically attempts to reinvent the Thanksgiving menu with a host of new and innovative culinary counterprogramming. “Yes,” the New York Times announced this year, “There Are Great Thanksgiving Desserts That Aren’t Pie.”
Certainly, this is true. I would know. I am, at best, a pie agnostic. Can pie be exquisite? Of course it can, anything can be exquisite. Mr Damien Hirst bisected a cow, and that was art. But the vast majority of pie is fine. It’s heavy, doughy, saccharine, gummy, soggy or runny. It’s overspiced or under-salted, syrupy, bland or burnt. The whole point of pie is to show off the produce at peak season – there is truly nothing like a strawberry-rhubarb crumble-top in June – but by Thanksgiving, everything is dead and we are onto barrel fruit.
“Good pie is hard, or at least labour-intensive. It is a skill. It is a craft. The trick is that the crust must be good, but the filling must also be good”
Unlike most Thanksgiving foods, which are at least straightforward – for example, I have used the recipe on the back of the Ocean Spray cranberry package for years to great success – good pie is hard, or at least labour-intensive. It is a skill. It is a craft. The trick is that the crust must be good, but the filling must also be good. The crust should be flaky and buttery, but feather-light. The lattice-top should glisten. The apples should cohere, but not congeal. In general, the great hack with pie is that you can cover almost anything with a well-placed scoop of vanilla ice cream, but we don’t do this at Thanksgiving. It is our one national concession to restraint.
There was a period, in the 2010s, when it was very chic to serve pie instead of cake at weddings, which seemed to me to be a signal that your love was deep and quirky and not bound up in outdated conventions. Only recently has it occurred to me that, well, no, some people just prefer pie. It is like how some people prefer humidity. What a rich and varied tapestry we are.
And yet, I believe pie is for Thanksgiving. Do I prefer cake? Of course I do – chocolate cake is the platonic ideal of dessert, as far as I’m concerned. But this is Thanksgiving. There are rules. “In limits, there is freedom” creativity guru Ms Julia Cameron says, and I believe her: the structure of the Thanksgiving menu is its greatest gift.
Is it an ideal menu? That is beside the point. It is our menu, and part of the annual tradition is discussing it, lambasting it, defending it and reinventing it. We may be a divided nation, but, once a year, we can come together to opine loudly about whether pumpkin, as a flavour and a texture, is or is not good. Few things unite Americans like the Thanksgiving line-up; pie, or some iteration of it, is a patriotic duty. You can’t abandon the whole collective project just because you personally might prefer a nice Victoria sponge.
“Every year, I hope I nail it, and every year, I don’t. This is what it is to celebrate Thanksgiving, and possibly also to be alive”
I am open to variations. For several years, I did German apple cake, which is like pie, except it takes an hour and is virtually foolproof. I like this graham cracker-crusted chocolate pudding pie, which technically is pie, but feels only peripherally related, being both chocolate and unbaked. I have made apple pies before. I will make apple pies again. Every year, I hope I nail it, and every year, I don’t. This is what it is to celebrate Thanksgiving, and possibly also to be alive. It is a process of striving and failure and more striving and more failing, until we reach either perfection (I hope) or eventual death.
It is important, I think, to embrace the uphill battle. Every year, food magazines and websites offer new recipes and roundups and hacks and hints, and every year, I think this could be my pie year. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, but it is also about hope.