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Jun 30, 2014 08:27AM

Slice and share: Pie lessons learned at the American Gothic house


By Sarah J. Gardner, sjgardner@qconline.com
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Kathryn Gamble / Race Point Publishing, 2014
Beth Howard holding a homemade banana cream pie.
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Kathryn Gamble / Race Point Publishing, 2014
A key lime pie featured in Beth Howard's cookbook, "Ms. American Pie: Buttery Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House."
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Kathryn Gamble / Race Point Publishing, 2014
A view from inside the American Gothic house looking out through the window made famous by the painting.
"The pilgrims made pie. The pioneers made pie. Did the pilgrims and pioneers fuss the way chefs are suggesting we should? Did they fret and agonize and berate themselves about their pies not being perfect? Did they refrigerate their bowls and utensils? Did they use food processors? No!" -- Beth Howard, "Ms. American Pie: Buttery Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House"

The summer humidity was just beginning to set in as my friend Silvia, visiting from Germany, and I made the drive to the small town of Eldon, Iowa, last July. A faint haze hung over the fields of corn we passed mile after mile. But in the car, our conversation was full of pie.

"Americans love pie. But we're kind of scared of it, too, or at least of making it," I said, doing my best to explain the special place this dessert holds on the national table. "Everyone knows what a good pie is, but very few people would say they know how to bake a good pie. It's the crust. It's complicated."

Fortunately, Silvia was not stuck with my halting explanation: We were on our way to meet Beth Howard, author, pie baker, and current resident of the American Gothic house, that modest home with arched second-story windows made famous by painter Grant Wood. Beth had agreed to let us lend a hand with the pies being made for her Pitchfork Pie Stand and, while we peeled fruit, to share a bit of the insight she tries to impart in pie-baking classes she teaches right in the kitchen of the historic home.

Her biggest message? Pie does not have to be complicated.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding — or, in this case, pie. And there was plenty of proof in evidence as Beth welcomed us into her home. The photographer taking pictures for Beth's cookbook, "Ms. American Pie," had just left the day before, she explained. In her wake were all the pies Beth had baked to illustrate the recipes in her book: Apple crumb pie. Blueberry pie. Shaker orange and Shaker lemon pies. A chess pie and a s'more pie. Little grasshopper pies baked in half-pint jars.

"We'll get started washing fruit in a minute," said Beth, handing us a pair of forks and plates. "But before we do that, which pie would you like to try first?"

Pie is not about precision

What motivated her to start teaching pie-baking classes, said Beth in a subsequent interview, was to "take the fear out of pie." So, she began welcoming people into her home to do exactly that.

For the classes being offered this summer, the size is limited to six people per session, which allows Beth to give each student individual attention. It also allows everyone to fit into the small interior of the American Gothic house. "It's so fun to be in a historic house," said Beth, explaining that for many who come to her classes, the unique location "makes it really special."

Students can sign up for the classes through the "pie parties" tab on her website, TheWorldNeedsMorePie.com. The lessons, which cost $150 per student, include hands-on instruction, all baking supplies, a copy of Beth's cookbook, tips on troubleshooting your pie, and, of course, a whole pie to take home that you made yourself.

But the most valuable thing students may take away is Beth's core message. "What I teach is that pie is not about precision," she said. "It doesn't have to be so meticulous.

"People will follow the recipe and say, 'I put five tablespoons in and the crust won't hold together.' And I say, 'Yeah, because you followed the recipe. You have to give yourself permission to work with what's in front of you. To put another tablespoon of water in.' I always say a recipe is a guideline."

Although she can share tricks like how to give yourself one less dish to wash when finished (cut the fruit over the bottom crust instead of into a bowl!), in the end Beth said she hopes students walk away with something a bit bigger.

"My message really isn't about the pie, it's making something homemade and sharing it with others to make them feel better. It's about making other people happy, you know? It's a win-win."

Pie is made to share

I'm not going to lie. On the day Silvia and I spent with Beth in the American Gothic house, we ate a lot of pie. And we peeled a lot of apples. And we laughed a lot as we swapped stories — all of which probably did more to convey what makes pie such a special part of the American dining experience than any faltering explanation I could have offered in the car ride over.

Really, it comes down to the fact that we rarely eat pie by ourselves. It's a shared experience. That you're eating something sweet and flaky and indulgent only makes the time together that much better.

And learning to bake pies in the American Gothic house? That's an experience neither Silvia nor I are likely to forget any time soon.

Sarah J. Gardner is the editor of Radish magazine. To learn more about Beth Howard and sign up for available pie baking classes, visit theworldneedsmorepie.com. Copies of her cookbook, "Ms. American Pie: Buttery Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House" (2014 Race Point Publishing, 208 pages, $28 hardcover), are available online and in bookstores.





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