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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 Washington’s father sent George to his room without supper for cutting down the cherry tree, but George’s 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 pie—that most symbolic icon of Americana—went 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 past—this 16 year period of delusion—must 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, wasn’t 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 products—the twinkie, Jello, chocolate pudding. Pie had no dominant ingredient, and therefore it had no commercial advocate—it was competing against the politically-connected raisin board and egg council on one hand, the big-budget Dolly Madison’s and Hostess’s 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 pie’s 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 Slayton’s desperate radio broadcast as he circled the earth—in 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 Warhol’s "Pie on White" sculpture—a paper plate smothered with whipping cream—sold at Sotheby’s for only $28,000, while his "Campbell’s 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 nonsensical—the two had nothing in common—but 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 didn’t cook well inside microwaves, was our beloved pie.

I know what you’re 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 Baker’s 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 hadn’t even seen the movie or who hadn’t 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 Warhol’s "Pie on White" was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $1.6 million, even though most of the whip cream has evaporated.