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The Limitless Possibilities of Pie

Three recent pie-related releases consider how we use pie to understand — and sometimes idealize — the United States

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Lille Allen/Eater

In 2016, Stacey Mei Yan Fong set out to make a pie for each state. The goal was to create 50 distinct pies, each an ode to a particular place as well as the people who live there. Seven years later, her book, 50 Pies, 50 States: An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the United States Through Pie, is finally here. Pie is “a metaphor for life in America,” says Fong, who immigrated from Hong Kong to Georgia in 2006. “The beauty of pie,” she says, “is that it’s a blank canvas. It can be savory; it can be sweet.”

Born in Singapore and raised in Hong Kong, Fong’s early exposure was primarily to meat pie (both places are former British colonies, she points out). Sweet pie, less common to her, felt American, like what people in movies ate at diners. When visa issues forced Fong to decide whether to stay in the United States or go back abroad, she chose to make the U.S. her home, and her state pies project began as a fun distraction from the tedious process of applying for permanent residency. Not only would she bake a pie inspired by each state, but she’d then give it to a friend from that state. Fong explains the idea as: “What am I going to learn about this country that I’ve chosen to call home, through pie?”

Pie, especially apple, has become a singular culinary symbol of U.S. culture. Fong’s cookbook and other recent pie-related releases, like Cake Zine’s “Humble Pie” and Rossi Anastopoulo’s Sweet Land of Liberty, reimagine not just pie, but also the concept of the United States that it invokes. That sense of “Americanness” is itself a construct, built out of generations of expectations, hopes, and norms. Through pie, these releases consider how we imagine and even idealize this country, and how else pie might speak to our multitude of experiences here.

Fong’s book traces the life and community she’s built in the U.S. Accompanying each pie recipe are stories about the relevant state and a dedication to a local friend. Her edible United States involves strawberry mayhaw jelly pie with beignet toppers for Louisiana; blueberry and Moxie pie for Maine; and corn dog-hotdish pie with funnel cake topping for Minnesota. She includes classics, but for the most part, “these are my interpretations of the states,” Fong says. “It’s my journey and my exploration of what, like, West Virginia means to me.”

Her approach to pie is forward-thinking: Alongside those distinctly North American creations are pie recipes inspired by her former homes in Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Immigrant food has always been a kind of third-culture cooking, but codifying and embracing that mashup of cultures is especially en vogue in the U.S. right now. By comparison, Anastopoulo’s Sweet Land of Liberty, released in October of last year, uses pie to look backward, unpacking the country’s history through 11 pies, with apple first in her analysis.

Apple pie, she explains, already had a foothold in England in the 16th century. So when settlers arrived on North American shores and found only sad crabapples, they cultivated new apples to use as staple foods. Accordingly, the farming of apples was a part of the colonial project, she argues, introducing British customs and traditions, as well as bolstering an unearned sense of ownership over the land.

In the early days, colonists adapted recipes from British cookbooks, lending apple pie a sense of something borrowed, Anastopoulo writes. A turning point came with Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery in 1796. Considered the first cookbook written and published in the U.S., it redefined apple pie as American, and a symbol of national identity was born. The actual recipe, Anastopoulo points out, didn’t differ much from previous versions. But this is the lore-building we do through food: We use it to confirm our sense of self and our place in the world.

Even Cake Zine, the niche independent publication that exemplifies the recent pandemic-spurred cake renaissance, is putting cake aside in favor of pie: Its newest issue, which is available to order on its website, is titled “Humble Pie.”

With the goal of exploring society through sweets, founders Aliza Abarbanel and Tanya Bush wanted to focus on pie in part to bring savory cooking into Cake Zine’s purview, but also to move away from the opulence of cake. “Pie has been used to delight and surprise, and to humble and humiliate,” Bush says. Accordingly, the essays, short stories, poetry, and recipes in “Humble Pie” poke at grief, shame, scarcity, and even rejection and lust through the lens of Love Island.

As with Fong’s work, the national symbolism of pie felt unavoidable. Pie evokes “things that are nostalgic, even for an earlier era of America,” says Abarbanel. Even if we don’t want to live in those previous eras, we’re drawn to the associated ideas of coziness, grandmothers, and desserts cooling on window sills, she notes. “The Americana of pie is something that’s established in a way that cake doesn’t really have,” Abarbanel says.

In an article in the issue titled “American as Japanese Fruit Pie,” Elyse Inamine probes the uniquely American invention that is the South’s beloved Japanese fruit pie. Finding that it isn’t Japanese at all, Inamine presents the pie as a vestige of early-1900s Japonisme, named in a way that allowed U.S. eaters to imagine an exoticized, faraway Japan without leaving the country. It’s a pie that feels like the other but is actually a projection of the self, Inamine concludes.

Despite its inherent nostalgia, pie is always evolving, a continuing reflection of our changing country. “Humble Pie” provides a series of recipes for a new school of desperation pies, with an intro written by Anastopoulo. In it, Fong includes a recipe for a Spam musubi pie. Spam sits on the border of foreign and domestic: It’s an American invention whose popularity internationally and within immigrant communities in the U.S. is a direct result of the American military presence abroad. Fong’s Spam musubi pie doesn’t look like any pie I’ve ever seen on my holiday table, but it’s just as American as pecan and pumpkin.

Now that 50 Pies, 50 States is out, Fong is excited about the conversations the cookbook will open up — particularly about how other people’s conceptions of a state’s pie might differ from her own. “I’d love to know: What would you have done for that state?” she says.

If cake — a celebratory exaggeration of a dessert — embodies who we want to be, these books show us how pie, in all its stripped-down humbleness, represents who we think we are.