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Kate McDermott, master pie teacher, demonstrates t...
Kate McDermott, master pie teacher, demonstrates t...: Kate McDermott master pie teacher demonstrates her pie crust recipe.
Summer's last berries cry out for a tart shell, a lattice-top pie, or maybe the latest trend: handheld mini-pies. / Brian Leatart/Getty Images


Pie! Oh, my! Nothing’s more American than pie in the summertime.

Here it comes to the Labor Day picnic table, fruit juices sparkling beneath a lattice top. There it sits, a pool of rich chocolate sporting a blue ribbon at the fair. Look! The beloved birthday party finale — a cloud of lemon custard with meringue peaks quivering in the easy breeze.

We’ve craved these tastes since we first heard the three little kittens who lost their mittens were punished with no pie. Pie has been built into our holidays since poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an ode to The Pumpkin in 1850, locking pie to the Thanksgiving menu.

Our culture is packed with pie symbolism. It’s gluttony: Thanks, Georgie Porgie. It’s funny: Laurel and Hardy’s epic pie fight scene in the 1927 film Battle of the Century now circulates on YouTube. Other cultures hurl their shoes as an insult. In the West, we hurl pies.

Pie has been part of Western culinary history since the first cooks with access to pig fat and wheat could make a thick, sturdy dough casing to slow-roast meat — or perhaps four and 20 blackbirds. Indeed, the word “pie” might come from magpies, known to snatch up and hoard anything that catches their eyes, Janet Clarkson writes in Pie, a Global History.

Yes, the British savor Cornish pasties, Jamaicans munch spicy meat pies, and Latin Americans snack on empanadas. Americans have savory pies, too, but Whittier never wrote a poem about chicken pot pie. Dessert is where we excel. You know, as American as apple...

It’s more than patriotic devotion. Pie is personal. Cut into a slice, and stories pour out like sugared berries.

At a welcome dinner for six students at her four-day Art of the Pie Camp in Port Angeles, Wash., Kate McDermott, who calls herself a “pie practitioner,” asked each to name the person he or she most wanted to give a pie. Grandma won by a mile.

Unfortunately, Granny never wrote down her recipes. Mom’s at work. We’re busy, too. And, well, let’s admit it: We suffer fear of making crust from scratch.

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Go for it! say pie pros McDermott and Beth Howard of the Pitchfork Pie Stand at the Eldon, Iowa, house that Grant Wood painted in American Gothic. Both offer classes and workshops to show the timid that a luscious pie, nestled in a tender flaky crust, is within anyone’s grasp. Literally.

Plunge your hands in fearlessly, eschewing food processors. Let your fingers fluff the flour, smush in the fat of choice (lard, Crisco and butter all have passionate followers). Dribble on ice water, squeeze a dough ball together, then wield the rolling pin.

Pie baking is sensual.

Touch the dough.

See a crust turn golden.

Smell butter and spices.

Hear the bubble and hiss of well-cooked fruit that signals the pie is finished baking.

“Once you bake a great pie,” McDermott says, “you can never go back. It’s like a gateway drug.”

Tasting a great pie takes you away. Baking with the most flavorful fresh fruit — McDermott calls it “pie-worthy” — brings the sun, rain and minerals of the soil where it grew to the table.

Think New York apples. Georgia peaches. Iowa’s state fruit, the huckleberry, is always on the Obama White House Thanksgiving pie menu. Sour cherries give zing to pies in Washington, where the pie campers picked enough for three pies full.

Every pie recipe book is spiced by the author’s personal experiences. Howard tells of sustaining herself in a time of grief through loving communities built around baking, in Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie. Naturopathic doctor, chef and blogger Jean Layton of Bellingham, Wash., who also coached at Art of the Pie Camp, wrote Gluten-Free Baking for Dummies, with recipes developed to heal and nourish her family. Adrienne Kane devotes her United States of Pie to regional favorites rooted in county fairs and church suppers. Ashley English’s A Year of Pies tours the harvest calendar.

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“Pies fit right in to the current resurgence in Americana and everything artisan,” says English, of Candler, N.C. “We’re turning back to a hands-on approach.”

They also fit with the TV-cooking-show competitive fervor. The American Pie Council’s annual championships drew 1,000 entries in 2012, including an inventive winner, Strawberry Kiwi Green Tea Pie. A popular category was “mini-pies you can enjoy alone,” says Linda Hoskins, executive director of the pie council.

Couple nostalgia for the taste of Grandma’s pies with mini-pies’ cuteness factor, and you’ve got a winner, says Travis Rea manager of food development for Williams-Sonoma.

“A mini-pie is handheld and easier to eat. A pie shop can sell it on the go, and you don’t have to go back to your office and cut it,” Rea says.

“Five years ago, pie was not a big deal outside of old-school diners. Now there are entire shops dedicated to reviving grandma’s recipes.”

Pies are even — wait for it — good for your health!

“Baking engages children and gets them to eat their fruit, too,” Rea says. “It all fits with today’s grow-your-own, do-it-yourself, farm-to-table trends.”

As pie camp nears the last day, the table at McDermott’s cottage is loaded with sweet and savory pies of all sizes. The bakers take off their juice-stained aprons. Talk turns to the pies of autumn, when berries give way to apples at the farm stand.

Pie knows no offseason. As long as there is an urge to give love, to touch another heart, there will be pie.


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