Pie: The Dark Period
1958 - 1974
The 20th century
is commonly referred to as the American Century, and what seems more American than
homemade pie? We all know the legends: how Betsy Ross got the idea for the design of the
the American flag from her pie apron; how George Washingtons father sent George to
his room without supper for cutting down the cherry tree, but Georges mother slipped
a cherry pie under his door two hours later; how William Tecumseh Sherman marched through
the Confederate states, and before raiding plantations would turn to his troops, sniff the
morning air, and say "I love the smell of pie in the morning."
But the truth is that piethat most symbolic icon of
Americanawent through a dark period where it was scorned by the public. And it
happened in none other than this very century, the American Century. Yes, pie. This dark
spot on our pastthis 16 year period of delusionmust not be ignored, or history
could repeat itself.
A brief history: Until 1958, Westinghouse had a near monopoly on
toasters and sold then for over $50; most homemakers chose to simply use the oven broiler,
even though it meant they had to flip the bread to get it browned on both sides. But for
Christmas 1958, the Osterizer Corporation introduced a $28 double-slot toaster with a
timer that triggered automatic-ejection. It was a wild hit. In the spring, in order to
keep sales high, Osterizer began marketing toast-with-jam as a "time-saving
alternative to pie." It was the same basic ingredients, wasnt it? Wheat flour
with butter, fruit with sugar.
Other forms of pie still existed, but the number one pie category,
fruit pie, had been replaced. Pie quickly became a fringe product. As the economy boomed,
the forces of capitalism further conspired to replace even fringe pies with manufactured
productsthe twinkie, Jello, chocolate pudding. Pie had no dominant ingredient, and
therefore it had no commercial advocateit was competing against the
politically-connected raisin board and egg council on one hand, the big-budget Dolly
Madisons and Hostesss on the other. Furthermore, as American families began to
eat dinner in front of the television, the messy, drippy pie was a danger to the fine
naugahyde couches in living rooms.
Pie advocates made some terrible tactical errors, which only further
eroded pies position in our culture. In the mid 60s, rather than fighting for
traditional pie as food, they tried to find other uses for pie. The introduced the concept
of the pie chart, for instance. The early pie charts were actual cooked pies, held up in
corporate conference rooms. It was quickly discovered that any slice less than 10% of the
whole pie crumbled, and the pie chart was replaced by the bread chart, since small bread
slices maintained their structural integrity. Thinking that common gravity was a foe of
pie structure, pie advocates then convinced NASA to send a pie into space with Apollo 7,
and we all remember Deke Slaytons desperate radio broadcast as he circled the
earthin a zero-gravity environment, the filling separated from the crust, and
Slayton went hungry.
Just to show how low pie was held in public opinion, Andy
Warhols "Pie on White" sculpturea paper plate smothered with
whipping creamsold at Sothebys for only $28,000, while his
"Campbells Soup" lithograph original sold for $1.2 million.
Then, in his 1972 Presidential campaign, Nixon began to berate
George McGovern as "a pie man," meaning a wimp. The connection betwen wimpiness
and pies was nonsensicalthe two had nothing in commonbut Nixon used the
"pie man" label on McGovern so often that in the public mind, pies and
effeminateness became synonyms.
Just when it seemed pie could go no lower, the microwave was
introduced. There, on the top of the list of foodstuffs that didnt cook well inside
microwaves, was our beloved pie.
I know what youre thinking. After hearing all of this, you are
probably wondering how the heck did pie ever regain its stature? In the summer of 1974,
moviegoers were transfixed by a scene in "The Bakers Wife," starring Faye
Dunaway as the wife. Her husband, the baker, played by Ernest Borgnine, gets sent to
Vietnam with Charlie company as a cook. In Vietnam, he goes slowly insane and committs
suicide with a pie knife. Back home a drunk and grief-stricken Faye Dunaway spreads an
apple pie over her naked body and smashes the bathroom mirror. The movie had an eerie
political-eroticism; audiences were spellbound. Plain old homemade pie, conoting such
complicated feelings. Pie became an outlet, a vehicle, for our national grief. There was a
small summer rush to make pie.
By coincidence, Northwest apples that season had suffered a worm
rot; there was a shortage of apples to meet demand. Suddenly, people who hadnt even
seen the movie or who hadnt eaten an apple in years were lining up at grocery stores
to buy Granny Smiths. Apple pie became an exotic commodity enjoyed mostly by the rich.
Liberals insisted that berry pie was "just as good" and to prove their point,
ate berry pie in droves. President Ford proudly announced that "our long national
crisis is over," and released government stockpiles of fruit.
And that is how we got to where we are today. Historians, take note:
last week, Andy Warhols "Pie on White" was auctioned at Sothebys for
$1.6 million, even though most of the whip cream has evaporated.