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AMERICAN
THE SIMPLICITY, EMOTIONAL CONNECTION AND GRANDMOTHERLY APPEAL OF THAT BELOVED FLAKY CRUST

There's a scene in "Michael," an otherwise forgettable movie starring John Travolta as a shabby sort of angel, that seeks to answer a question I've often wondered myself:

"What is it about pie?"

It's set in a motel restaurant in Iowa that brags in neon about its "Homemade Pies." A large group orders two slices of every variety and, between mouthfuls, tries to answer.

"It's pretty. There's nothing prettier than pie, with the scalloping around the sides and the little slits on top for the heat to escape," says an angel expert played by Andie MacDowell.

"Pie gives you the sense that you're a foursquare person living in a foursquare country," says a tabloid reporter played by William Hurt.

"Pie says home," says a new bride in the group.

Pie, that most humble of desserts, has left an imprint on popular culture, from movies and television to songs and games.

Schoolchildren for decades have asked Billy Boy if his love can bake a cherry pie.

David Letterman's naturally shy mom makes a traditional appearance on his late-night talk show to chat about the pies she's baking for Thanksgiving.

And, thanks to the magic of DVD technology, Agent Cooper of "Twin Peaks" can enjoy "damn good pie" in perpetuity.

There's more. Physical comedy wouldn't be half as side-splitting without the pie-in-the-face gag. And beach trips wouldn't be the same without the flying disk we owe to the Frisbie Baking Company's pie tins.

It's part of the fabric of this country, even though pie itself is an immigrant from England with origins dating to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Pie isn't fancy, like tiramisu or creme brule.

Pie is simple. A flaky crust made of flour, salt, shortening and water. A filling made of crisp apples, sour cherries or tart lemons. Maybe an airy meringue on top.

Pie has a warmth missing from a lot of desserts. It's hard to eat a piece without thinking of a long-ago family dinner.

"It brings you back to some good place," says Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council, a foursquare organization to be sure.

"There's an ultimate simplicity about making a pie. And there's nothing more rewarding than when you open that oven door and that product comes out with all its warmth and color and aroma," says Paschal Gagnon, pastry chef at the Butterwood Desserts restaurant in Williamsville. "It's very satisfying."

I feel that same emotional connection to pie.

For birthdays, ever since I was a beanstalk of a kid, I've asked for pie instead of cake, with wax candles stuck into the crust.

You can take your chocolate cake, your cheesecake and your ice cream sundaes, fine desserts all. A slice of warm fruit pie unblemished by ice cream is sweet satisfaction for me.

So allow me a few moments to sing the praises of pie. And for anyone who's seen the original "American Pie" movie, don't worry. My love affair with pie is strictly platonic.

The word "pie" is part of its appeal, I suppose. It's easy to say, fun to say. A one-syllable word that's light and substantial, like a slice of banana cream pie.

The origin of the word is unclear, according to Michael Quinion, who has a Web site devoted to word etymologies.

The Oxford English Dictionary, he notes, traces it back to three possible sources: a reference to repeating words like a magpie; a local term for putting potatoes in a heap and covering them to stave off frost; and a technical printer's term for accidentally mixing up type.

The history of the dessert itself is better-known. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks and later the Romans all served a form of meat pie, and the Romans spread it across Europe, according to the pie council.

Fruit pies, or pasties, started to appear in the 1500s, and Queen Elizabeth I is credited with baking the first cherry pie. The Pilgrims brought pie to America.

Pie isn't the dessert of the upper crust, says Gagnon, the Butterwood chef. It was food for the peasants, the farmers, who made their pies with whatever ingredients were at hand.

Pie is rooted in this country's agricultural tradition, and was always home-made.

However, sometime in the middle of the last century, pie became a commercial product, mass-produced like a car or a widget for a society on the go.

We live in an era when the people cooking dinner often work all day.

They don't have the time or interest to bake a pie.

But pie survives.

Americans on average eat six slices of pie per year, according to the pie council, a figure that amounts to a good weekend for me. Seventy million pies are served for Thanksgiving, the high pie point of the year, says Hoskins.

The pie council puts on the National Pie Championship, won last year by Phyllis Bartholomew of Columbus, Neb., for her cherry-red raspberry pie. The most noteworthy entrant the kumquat oatmeal pie didn't place.

"We are dedicated to keeping the art (of pie-making) going," says Hoskins.

It's the diners, the family-style restaurants where fresh pies sit under glass, that are keeping that art alive, we pie aficionados concur. Try ordering a wedge of pie at one of the snootier restaurants in town.

Locally, John's Flaming Hearth in Niagara Falls is renowned for its velvety pumpkin ice cream pie, and the Old Orchard Inn in East Aurora serves a lemon angel pie good enough to earn the cooks their wings.

Butterwood, the only local restaurant that serves dessert exclusively, has shipped its Incredible Caramel Apple Pie to satisfied customers around the world including the White House.

The week of Thanksgiving, Butterwood will make and sell about 600 fresh caramel apple and pumpkin pies, Gagnon says. The rest of the year, pie holds up well in sales compared to Butterwood's fancier confections, like the raspberry truffle bombe and the opera torte.

Butterwood's caramel apple pie uses a light, flaky crust for the base; Crispin apples that stand up to the baking well; and a streusel topping that's crumbly, but not too crunchy, and holds the caramel topping.

"Will (Childs, the pie master at Butterwood) is meticulous in his approach to pie making," says Gagnon with appropriate awe. "It's his mission that every pie will be perfect."

I've been blessed with a family of good cooks capable of that perfection, including my mother, my Aunt Rita, and my late Aunt Betty, who sliced her pie apples potato-chip thin and bought lard for the crusts at the Broadway Market.

And more than one girlfriend has wooed me with amateur but heartfelt attempts at a cherry pie, including one baked as a peace offering.

But for the best pie, I turn to my grandmother, Evelyn.

She learned from her mother, a farmer's wife who went to work as the first pastry chef at the Sears Roebuck Co. store on Main Street and Delavan Avenue.

My great-grandmother later managed the restaurant at the Hygrade meatpacking plant on William Street near the city's old stockyards. "She always made her own pies. She made 15 to 20 pies a day," my grandmother says.

My grandmother is now old enough that a good grandson shouldn't print her age in this magazine. She was a very young girl when she learned how to cook on a child's electric stove set up in their kitchen.

At 16, my grandmother filled in for her mother for a week at the Hygrade plant, taking a trolley from Lockport to Buffalo at 5 each morning to make the coffee and start baking pies for the lunch-hour crowd.

My grandmother still makes pies the same way her mother did, and she recently showed me how to make a cherry pie her favorite and mine.

She picks up her cherries from Federal Bakers Supply Corp., a wholesale supply house, in 30-pound batches that she stores in small plastic containers in a big freezer in her basement.

Her flour sits in an old, 10-pound aluminum sifter that slides out on guide rails from her cupboard. "It's as old as the house," she says. "I don't know if they sell these anymore."

She keeps her Crisco shortening chilled, because it works up into the flour better. She carefully measures the right amount of water for the crust, because too much makes it tough.

She's taken the handles off her rolling pin so she can apply a more even pressure to the dough. She sprinkles flour on the countertop, then runs the rolling pin across the crust with the palms of her hands.

For the top crust, she uses a table knife to cut slits in the dough. The pattern has been in the family for generations, passed down from her great-grandmother.

She mixes sugar and flour with the bright red frozen cherries, and they tumble into the pie tin. She lines the edge of the pie crust with cherry juice or melted butter, to seal it to the top crust.

"You know how you tell it's rich?" she asks, pointing to the crust. "See how it bubbles? Like a croissant."

The finished pie sits on the wooden countertop, waiting to go into the hot oven and, later, my stomach. I ask my grandmother why pie remains so popular. She is silent for a moment.

"I think they're very American," she says. "That more than anything."

Evelyn Watson's Fresh Cherry Pie

(modified to use frozen sour cherries)

NOTE: Have bottom and top crust ready before preparing filling.

Flaky Pie Crust

2 cups flour, sifted

2/3 cup shortening, butter-flavored

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons water

Blend flour, shortening and salt in a pastry blender until the mix starts to crumble, then add water. Too much liquid makes for a tough, not flaky, crust.

Form the dough into a ball, then separate it into two portions for the top and bottom. Flatten on lightly floured surface with rolling pin until 1/8 -inch thick.

When you place bottom crust in pie pan, trim excess dough from the rim of the pie plate.

Filling

4 cups frozen cherries (do not defrost)

1 1/4 cups sugar

4 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Red food coloring

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Place fruit in a large bowl, adding 4 to 5 drops of red food coloring. Fold gently to slush cherries. Mix sugar, flour and salt together. Add dry mix to cherries, folding only until fruit is coated. Pour into the pastry-lined pie pan. Drizzle the melted butter over the fruit.

Lightly wet the edge of the bottom crust with water or melted butter to seal the top to the bottom.

Cut slits in top before placing crust on pie. Tuck the overhanging edge under the edge of the bottom crust to seal the pie.

Cook the pie in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 50 minutes. Frozen cherries may require extended baking time of 10 to 20 minutes. If the center part of the top crust looks glossy, it needs more time.

Let the pie cool and set before serving.

Stephen Watson covers higher education for The News. This is his first story for First Sunday.

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