A Bad Catholic Defends Pie

I, of all people, have no right to make this kind of assumption, but I’m betting Slate contributor Nate Heller is not a Catholic. Not to prosyletize or anything, but he really ought to think about signing up. He’d be a natural. All the best Catholics I know have a strong fussy streak; they are ruled by an all-powerful gag reflect. Everything about the liturgy has to be just so, or else they flip out. When considering the list of things they’re not allowed to do with a consenting adult, they sigh with relief instead of bursting into tears.

But Little Lord Helleroy here — well, he takes the cake, and I employ that cliche advisedly. He’s so fastidious, he can barely stand to eat a piece of pie:

It goes like this: You’re sitting at a large picnic in early summer—plastic forks, burgers, corn in your teeth—when someone leaves the table and returns with a large pan. “I brought a pie,” he says, setting it down in front of you. A spatula emerges. People coo. This is the start of an unpleasant afternoon.

The pie, because it is a pie, does not so much “slice” as volcanically erupt under the pressure of the knife, oozing its livid fluid everywhere; your own piece, when it comes, is a miniature apocalypse of broken pastry parts and heat-blitzed fruit. You demur, mumbling about having eaten too much cornbread. Someone’s aging, wild-eyed mother stares you down. “It’s pie,” she says. You are handed a fork. You start to peck at a morsel of fruit. Your plate is promptly whisked away again: Because it’s hot outside, you’re told, you’re supposed to enjoy your dessert “a la mode.” The pie is warm; the ice cream melts at once. You contemplate what now looks like a slice of jammy toast that has been soaked in milk for half a day and masticated by a dog. You work your fork into the only structure still intact, the woody, crenulated crust, beating and twisting this bumper of dough against each leverageable surface on your plate, trying to break it up. Your fork loses a prong. Abandoning all hope, you finally drive your broken-fork-with-giant-crust-piece through the mire of sloppy dough and heft the entire, dripping mass into your mouth. “Mmm,” someone says. “Isn’t it so great to have pie?”

Uses a lot of words to say “ick,” doesn’t he? Can’t you just see him as one of those EMs who grimaces whenver someone holds out his hands for the Blessed Sacrament? But wait, there’s more. According to Sister Nathaniel Mary, pie’s not just bad because it’s messy; it’s bad because it’s foreign:

Except it’s not. Pie is an interloper trading on a false history and a tangle of confusion about its cultural role. Its past is unremarkable and un-American. As you may recall from your middle-school history books, many accoutrements of Western life first appeared in Egypt and then spread to the Romans via Greece. Prophylactics are a notable example. Pie is another one. The pies of the ancients, rather than being oozing desserts, were combinations of savory foods baked in a pot made of tough dough. (In our evolutionary tree of Western cooking, pies, tellingly, share a branch with the most hit-or-miss of all edible things, the casserole.) This crust-pot baking method spread through Europe and gained popularity through the Middle Ages, since the dough shell, called a bake-meat (later, just as appetizingly, a coffin), allowed meats to stew without losing moisture. It also helped seal off the meal and slow down spoilage. “For hundreds of years,” Janet Clarkson points out in her jaunty account of pie development, Pie: A Global History, “it was the only form of baking container—meaning everything was pie.” Pie culture grew with the advent of modern pastry dough during the 16th century, at which point cooks in more ambitious kitchens started to experiment with sweeter fillings. (Queen Elizabeth is said to have eaten some of the first fruit pies.) This is the true origin of our pie tradition. Early apple pies weren’t American and sweet at all. They were unsugared, tough, and manufactured by the British

Okay, first of all, the English, Welsh and Scots didn’t start calling themselves “British” until the union of the crowns in 1707, but that’s beside the point. The point is, so what if pies came from foreign parts? So did my great-grandparents; so did your great-grandparents, Nate — probably from the same shtetl! But I know that wasn’t your main point, either, so I won’t dwell on it. The real takeaway here is that some of the best foods in the world are godawful messy: anything with barbecue sauce, for example, especially ribs. Have you ever met anyone who can eat a rack of the things without looking like Fred Flintstone? Me neither. Then there’s anything with grease inside, like fresh-fried sausage. Once I stuck a fork into a piece of kielbasa and was nearly blinded by a geyser of hot, fresh grease. Best breakfast I ever ate.

And then tere’s shellfish. In a way, this is the neatest food of all, because all the meat comes neatly tucked inside a nice smooth shell. But here’s nature’s cruel joke; unless you have the jaws of a chimp, you have to impose chaos on order. You must violate nature’s meticulous design. To get at the meat, you must subject every part of that dainty little shell to the most wanton violence, and then, after you’ve actually gotten some on your fork, you’ve got to dip it in gooey melted butter. If you leave out the last step, you might as well stay home, dripping marshmallows in salt water.

My introduction to crab came fairly late in life, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. I was29, and had just flown to Ft. Myers, Florida, with a female friend, planning to help her ferry her dead grandmoter’s car back to Phoenix. We arrived at the home of one of her gruff, manly uncles, where we were soon joined by another gruff, manly uncle. The two had both served in Vietnam, where they’d picked up all sorts of vices, several of which we indulged in before heading uot to dinner. After a couple shots of rum, we switched to a very different agent, which made our clothes smell funny, but which probably improved our appetite considerably.

The gruff, manly uncles wanted to show us local color, and local color happened to be seafood. Feeling adventurous, I ordered Marlyand blue crab. Between the time I placed the order and the time it arrived, I consumed three martinis. (Whether this means that Maryland blue crab takes a long time to prepare, or that I drink fast is a fit subject for debate, but not here.)

With the little monsters arrayed on the plate before me, I attacked, bending and cracking the shells like hundred-year-old breadsticks. I once inside, I used the hook to dig for the meat like a dentist digs for plaque. The legs went pop like thick twigs; the crlaws like stubborn walnuts. By the end of the meal, I’d consumed 3,000 calories, burned off 3,000, and was wearing an equal number on my bib.

Toward the end of the meal, one of the gruff, manly uncles raised an eyebrow and said, “You might have done better with those." Following his outstreched finger, I noticed, for the first time, a small metal hammer, along with a cracking instrument, such as my grandmother used to keep in her nut bowl.

Details, details. Tt was fun in a distinctly pagan way. In subduing those crabs with my hands, I lost myself in my food, dined with Diyonisus. To this day, I’ve never hunted my meal, but that evening, I did something even more deliciously primitive: I desecrated it, like the royalists who subjected Cromwell’s corpse to a hanging, drawing and quartering.

If I can do that, Nate, surely you can stomach a tiny piece of unresisting pie, right?

If not, then — as Marie Antoinette probably never said — go and eat cake.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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