Life is messy.
There are certain detours none of us can avoid, such as the death of a loved one: father, mother, sister, brother, friend, wife, child, husband. Life doesn’t always give notice on those bypasses. Some are unexpected. Others allow us time to prepare for the inevitable change of scenery.
Regardless of circumstances under which people leave our lives, there’s grief: an in-limbo, sometimes inconsolable period of figuring out the new normal of daily existence.
I lost my husband, Richard, to cancer in April 2008. He was sick for two years, and in that time, countless friends and many strangers delivered food to our doorstep. I wished just one more casserole reminiscent of a church potluck, a quart of homemade chicken-matzo-ball soup from his mother’s freezer or a perfectly cooked brisket would vanquish his terminal diagnosis.
After he was gone, I didn’t binge on potato chips or stand in front of the freezer scooping ice cream into my quivering mouth. Instead, I reconnected with dishes that shaped memories of our 18-year marriage.
Crispy fried chicken and mounds of mashed potatoes drenched in gravy from Stroud’s. Brunch at Grand Street Café. Winstead’s steakburgers and tart limeades. Jasper’s family-recipe lasagna and cannoli. Grilled sausages from Werner’s on Saturdays.
And pie was a sweet comforter, the dessert Richard requested on his birthday instead of decorated cake. Everywhere I ate those first two years after he died, pie was the final course.
Friends delivered pies and invited me to home-cooked dinners where, for dessert, they offered hunks of pie. I went out with friends just for pie and coffee. Sometimes I ate pie for breakfast, watching pink-and-orange sunrises illuminate the woods and pond outside my kitchen window.
Blueberry, Richard’s preferred flavor. Lemon meringue. Chocolate crème. Apple, always a la mode. Strawberry rhubarb.
And then on Jan. 23, 2011, I found my kindred pie spirit. It was a Sunday morning, and I was indulging in a ritual Richard and I had established early in our relationship: listening to National Public Radio, reading the paper and sipping coffee from a thick white mug while munching on French pastries from Napoleon Bakery. Then-host of “Weekend Sunday Edition,” Liane Hansen, introduced Beth Howard, writer/blogger/pie baker and Iowa resident.
In a two-minute chat on National Pie Day, I found myself moved to tears. Howard spoke eloquently about pie and the nurturing role it has played throughout her life.
At age 17, Howard stole apples from an orchard and later befriended the owner, who happened to be a pastry chef willing to share his passion for making pie. After abandoning a stressful dot-com job in California, Howard escaped to Malibu, where she baked pies for minimum wage but thrived on the satisfaction it gave her. Customers, including celebrities, clamored for her creations.
During the NPR radio interview, Howard spoke about Marcus, her 43-year-old husband, who had died from a ruptured aorta 16 months earlier. It was then that Howard witnessed pie’s therapeutic powers. Reeling from grief and back in her native Iowa, she stumbled across a house for rent in Eldon — the one made famous in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting. Howard signed a lease, moved in with her two dogs and started baking pies in the iconic home’s postage stamp-size kitchen. Howard opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand in the southeastern Iowa burg and adapted to the constant flow of tourists peeking in the windows of her fabled home. She snapped pictures of people standing in the classic “American Gothic” pose, fresh-baked pies in their hands, in front of the house.
Howard parlayed what had started as a salve for a broken heart following Marcus’ sudden death into a pie party of sorts. She invited the world to join her in discovering pie’s curative nature with her first book, “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.”
A book tour and more NPR interviews followed, along with national television appearances, a TED talk, pie demos and workshops, and a growing crop of pan fans who related to her message.
Perhaps one of the most poignant demonstrations of Howard’s pie philosophy came during the aftermath of the December 2012 Newtown, Conn., school tragedy. She and a team of people baked 240 apple pies — her signature, and the recipe she made for Marcus during their courtship — and hauled them in her 24-foot-long camper to the shocked New England community.
For three days, Howard and volunteers distributed slice after slice of free pie — to grieving parents, townspeople, schoolchildren, media, the curious. Howard appeared on “Good Morning America” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” where she told a grieving nation that pie “is meant to be shared and given away.”
“Pie makes people happy,” she often says during interviews. “It offers comfort.”
Later that Sunday in January, I found Howard on Facebook and private messaged her. We shared bits and pieces about our losses and how each person embarks on his or her own grief journey.
“There is no rulebook,” I wrote. “And the minute someone tells me how I should be feeling, I run the other way.”
“Come up to Iowa and make some pie,” she urged. “It’s very healing.”
Although I didn’t make the trek to Eldon to bake pie with Howard then, we finally met in Kansas City last month, six years to the day Richard died.
Pie as a metaphor
Beth Howard, 51, is part pie evangelist, part pie cheerleader.
A wisp of a woman, she climbs onto her invisible pulpit, spreading the dessert’s gospel. Tendrils of escaped hair from a tight ponytail float about her face, dancing in the breeze created by flour-dusted hands fluttering in the air. A faded red-checked apron I swear Howard borrowed from my great-grandmother’s 1950s kitchen is tied around her sliver of a waist.
“When I hear the magic words, ‘I can’t believe I made a pie,’ I’ve done my job,” Howard says to the group of 12 students gathered at Craig Adcock’s Table Ocho in Lenexa for a hands-on pie workshop.
Aproned students poised at makeshift bake stations in the shotgun-style space hang on Howard’s words. Neatly arranged on vintage Formica-topped tables and stainless steel tables is mandatory pie-making equipment: mixing bowls, rolling pins, measuring cups. Empty pie tins glisten. Shiny Granny Smith apples are piled into big bowls.
Howard is in Kansas City on the last leg of the tour promoting her latest book, “Ms. American Pie: Buttery Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales From the American Gothic House” (Race Point Publishing). The cookbook is a delicious tumble of pie recipes, memoir and a town hall meeting about pie’s connective powers.
Howard shares pie’s soulful qualities — how the homey, familiar dessert connects the dots between food, family and community. How a slice of pie satisfies partakers far beyond mere sustenance.
Table Ocho is Howard’s final hands-on pie class before she climbs into her Shasta RV — the one she and Marcus purchased in Portland, Ore. many years ago and the same one that delivered 20 dozen pies to Newtown — and heads back north to speck-on-the-map Eldon. But tonight she is at home in Adcock’s welcoming storefront, thoroughly immersed in the pie-making moment, encouraging never-ever and seasoned pie bakers alike to be confident.
“I’m here to help you get over the fear and not be intimidated,” Howard continues, scooping a non-precise cup of flour and dumping it into a bright blue bowl. “Pie is a metaphor. It’s about meeting challenges in life and moving forward to the next one. It’s about making someone else smile.”
Against the backdrop of the school chalkboard Adcock repurposed into a canvas for Table Ocho’s menu du jour, Howard debunks popular pie crust-baking theory. Some students scribble notes. Others nod their heads in agreement.
“If you only have salted butter, that’s OK,” she says. “And use the two best tools for mixing pie crust: your hands.”
Howard, who eschews kitchen gadgetry, demonstrates her technique, sifting ingredients with her hands as if they were salad tongs.
“If you want to knead, make bread, not pie,” Howard admonishes. “Be gentle. Enjoy the tactile experience.”
Throughout the three-hour workshop, Howard glides up and down the narrow room, offering encouragement, tips and sage advice. Cheryl Johnson, Howard’s Iowa childhood friend who now lives in Overland Park, is among the group. “This is my first pie,” she says, rolling a from-scratch crust and laying it in the pan, carefully crimping the edges.
Adcock, creator of one of Kansas City’s most celebrated sweets, Jude’s Rum Cakes, sits off to the side, perched on a chair. He smiles as students relax and heed Howard’s words.
“Tonight is intimate and exemplifies the power of inclusion, which is what pie is all about,” he says. “Beth is helping everyone engage their senses, making dough with their hands, connect with one another.”
Howard continues her tender sermon.
“Making pie isn’t complicated,” she says. “It’s simple, approachable.”
Two hours later, 12 pies are slipped into ovens to bake. Howard wipes her hands on her apron, congratulating students.
“You were confident. You all got on the horse and rode.”
As the pies bubble and are pulled from the ovens, the room fills with the scents of cinnamon, butter and fresh fruit. Howard begins to sign each attendee’s copy of her book.
Kathy Baker, manager of interlibrary loans at Louisburg Library in Louisburg, Kan., pushes her book across the flour-spattered table to Howard. The two connected on Facebook last year, and Baker brought Howard to the Miami County library for a sold-out pie demo the previous evening.
“My mother passed away in February 2013, and I had taken care of her for seven years,” Baker says. “She was known in my small hometown of Pleasanton, Kansas, as an amazing pie baker, especially for her apple pies.”
Baker wanted to honor her mother’s memory by learning to make pie. She had read about Howard’s pie epiphany somewhere on social media. “I’m pretty sure my mother would never believe I am making pies now,” Baker admits.
Howard’s eyes mist as she inscribes the inside panel of her book. “To Kathy, I came to Kansas City all because of you. Thank you for reaching out on Facebook and for being a fan in the first place. Your pie turned out beautifully. Keep baking and making your mom proud,” she writes.
Baker clutches Howard’s book. There’s a silent exchange between the two women.
I understand. Life is messy. Pie helps clean it up.
Honk if you love pie
Just like the 12 students at the Table Ocho pie workshop, I soak in Howard’s instructive words: Pie is about comfort, simplicity, grounding.
I invite Howard to lunch at Rye, Colby and Megan Garrelts’ acclaimed homage to Midwestern fare in Leawood. After finding a parking space for the RV in the congested lot, we settle in for platters of fried chicken, creamy grits and shrimp and slices of Megan’s ethereal pie.
Megan joins us as we talk pie. “We all have memories around pie,” she says. “I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and my mom baked cherry pies with the fruit harvested from our backyard tree.”
Rye goes through at least eight pies a day and sells to-go pie packaged in a brown box tied with a nostalgic blue gingham ribbon.
“Pie is a great neutralizer,” Megan says. “That, and a cup of coffee and conversation.”
Megan excuses herself, and Howard and I eagerly continue a conversation we started in 2011.
“Yesterday was the six-year anniversary of Richard’s death,” I say. “It was a tough one.”
Howard talks about Marcus and how she gradually pieced together her life following his death. “Pie,” she says. “Who would have thought that would be my grief therapy?”
Howard squeals as our server delivers three slices of pie: lemon meringue, coconut crème and banana crème. Steaming cups of coffee are placed in front of us. An unscripted eating-of-the-pie ceremony begins. Tucking the black-checked napkin into her blouse, Howard glides a fork through the golden sculpted meringue.
“Ohhhhhh,” she moans, eyes closed, fork hovering in midair.
Alternately taking forkfuls from each slice, we share the challenges of being widows. How to wade through grief. How grief never really goes away, just changes in intensity. Howard polishes off the lemon meringue, squishing the final, buttery crumbs between the fork’s tines. Pushing her chair away from the table she declares, “I’m stuffed.” After lunch we stroll to the camper, its side emblazoned with a heart-shaped pie and slogan on a blue gingham background: Pie Across the Nation. Howard gives me a tour of the cramped quarters, worse for the wear after being on the road from Albuquerque to Phoenix and Dallas to Kansas City over the past month. Propped on the instrument panel, behind the steering wheel, is Marcus’ photo. It’s always there, she explains. As a widow in solidarity, I know what she means to say: He is always there. Never far from my mind. Outside the RV, Howard and I exchange hugs and the promise to meet in Eldon for a therapeutic pie-baking session at the “American Gothic” house.
I spy a bumper sticker plastered on the vehicle’s rear: “Honk if you love pie.”
“Do people honk?” I wonder aloud.
“All the time,” Beth says. “All the time.”
Situated in the driver’s seat with Marcus’ picture to keep her company on the 235-mile trip to Iowa, Howard turns the key. As if on cue, honks sound from cars driving along Mission Road. Ms. American Pie waves to strangers who get it.
Pie is universal.
Beth Howard’s Signature Apple Pie
Makes 1 double-crust pie
Basic pie dough:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into large chunks
1/2 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus at least 1/2 cup extra for rolling
Dash of salt
Ice water (fill a full cup but use only enough to moisten dough)
7 to 10 large Granny Smith apples, peeled (see tip below)
1/2 teaspoon salt (you’ll sprinkle this on, so don’t worry about precise amount)
1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon (use however much you like, but remember it’s a powerful spice)
3/4 cup sugar (more or less, depending on your taste, tartness of apples and number of apples)
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour (to thicken the filling)
1 tablespoon butter, to pat on top of filling
1 beaten egg, to brush on top crust
To make the crust: In a deep, large bowl, work the butter and shortening into the flour and salt with your hands until you have almond- and pea-sized lumps of butter.
Then, drizzling in ice water a little at a time, “toss” the water around with your fingers spread, as if the flour were a salad and your hands were the salad tongs. Don’t spend a lot of time mixing the dough, just focus on getting it moistened. Translation: With each addition of water, toss about four times and then STOP, add more water, and repeat.
When the dough holds together on its own (and with enough water, it will), do a “squeeze test.” If it falls apart, you need to add more water. If it is soggy and sticky, you might need to sprinkle flour onto it until the wetness is balanced out. The key is to not overwork the dough! It takes very little time and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t!
Now divide the dough in two balls (or three, if your pie dishes are smaller) and form each into a disk shape.
Sprinkle flour under and on top of your dough to keep it from sticking to your rolling surface. Roll to a thinness where the dough almost seems transparent.
Measure the size of the dough by holding your pie plate above it. It’s big enough if you have enough extra width to compensate for the depth and width of your dish, plus 1 to 2 inches overhang.
Slowly and gently — SERIOUSLY, TAKE YOUR TIME! — lift the dough off the rolling surface, nudging flour under with the scraper as you lift, and fold the dough back. When you are sure your dough is 100 percent free and clear from the surface, bring your pie dish close to it and then drag your dough over to your dish. (Holding the folded edge will give you a better grip and keep your dough from tearing.)
Place the folded edge halfway across your dish, allowing the dough of the covered half to drape over the side. Slowly and carefully unfold the dough until it lies fully across the pie dish.
Lift the edges and let gravity ease the dough down to sit snugly in the dish, using the light touch of a finger if you need to push any remaining air space out of the corners as you go.
Trim excess dough to about one inch from the dish edge (I use scissors), leaving ample dough to make crimped, fluted edges.
To make the filling: Slice half of the peeled apples directly into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently to remove extra space between slices. Fill the dish enough so you don’t see through the first layer to the bottom crust.
Cover with half of salt, cinnamon, sugar and flour.
Slice the remaining apples into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently on top of first layer, and cover with second half of ingredients.
Add a pat of butter on top, then cover with the top crust.
Trim the edges with scissors, leaving about 1 to 2 inches overhang, and then roll the top and bottom crust together underhand so that it’s sealed and sits on the rim of your pie plate.
Crimp the edge with your fingers or a fork, then brush with a beaten egg. (The egg gives the pie a nice golden-brown shine. Do be careful not to let egg pool in crevices. (You will use about half an egg per pie.)
Use a knife to poke vent holes in the top (get creative here with a pattern), then bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to set and brown the crust.
Turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until juice bubbles. Keep an eye on it as it bakes. If it gets too dark, turn down the temperature.
To be sure it’s done, poke with a knife through the vent holes to make sure apples have softened. Do not overbake or apples will turn mushy.
Variety is the spice of life and pie: It’s OK to use a variety of apples. Try Braeburn and Royal Gala. I don’t use Fuji (they are too juicy) or Red Delicious (they have no taste). Tart apples work best for pie. The number of apples you use will depend on the size of apple and the size of pie dish, but the general amount is about 3 pounds per 10-inch pie.
Beth’s tip: Slicing your apples too thick will mean your pie takes longer to bake. But slicing them too thin will translate into filling that’s like applesauce. I don’t like to suggest numbers, but think 1/4 inch thick. Also, keeping your slices a consistent size will help the pie bake more evenly.
Keep Calm! Don’t worry about your apples turning brown. I mean, think about it: what color is cinnamon? Exactly! No one will ever know.
Per serving: 523 calories (46 percent from fat), 27 grams total fat (14 grams saturated), 61 milligrams cholesterol, 66 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 277 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 1 double-crust pie
Basic Pie Dough for double-crust pie (see Apple Pie recipe)
2 pints whole fresh strawberries, cleaned, de-stemmed, and cut into halves or quarters (about 3 cups)
3 cups (about 1 pound) sliced fresh rhubarb (1 inch per slice) (about 8 medium stalks)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup tapioca
1 tablespoon butter, to pat on top of filling
1 beaten egg, to brush on top crust
Prepare the Basic Pie Dough for a double-crust recipe.
To make the filling: In a large bowl, combine strawberries, rhubarb, sugar and tapioca. Let sit for 20 minutes to let tapioca activate, then pour into pie shell. Add a pat of butter on top, then cover with top crust. Trim and crimp edge of crust, brush with beaten egg, then poke vent holes. Bake at 425 F for 15 to 20 minutes to set and brown the crust, then turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, until filling is bubbling and thickened.
Per serving: 526 calories (46 percent from fat), 27 grams total fat (13 grams saturated), 61 milligrams cholesterol, 66 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 177 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
On the Web
To follow Beth Howard on her blog, go to TheWorldNeedsMorePie.com.