Somewhere on a back road between California and Iowa there’s an RV loaded for pie. It’s being driven by America’s foremost pie evangelist who is crossing America with a couple of furry gourmets to bring people warmth, comfort and healing by the slice.
Beth Howard grabbed the nation’s attention with the 2012 release of her book, Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie, which told the story of loving and losing her husband, Marcus Iken, and the simple truths illuminated by pie that helped her heal.
Born in iconic Attumwah, Iowa (home of Walter “Radar” O’Reilly of M*A*S*H fame) Howard’s love of adventure led her to a career as an outdoor adventure journalist, public relations executive, producer, international entrepreneur and Internet innovator. But after far too many 80-hour weeks, Howard said, “Goodbye, cubicle; hello, pie,” and began baking pies for the Malibu Kitchen in California.
After a couple of years Howard returned to being a Web producer and fell in love with Iken. The happy couple lived around the world, including Mexico, Oregon and Germany for six years until his sudden death from a ruptured aorta in 2009. Submerged in an ocean of grief, Howard turned to what she knew best to find her way back to the surface—pie.
Howard gave away slices of homemade pie on a street corner in Los Angeles and in front of town hall in Newtown, Connecticut. “It was a chance to help people who were grieving come together as a community and finally feel as though there was something they could contribute. They were no longer helpless,” she says. People drove around town to find the “pie truck,” as they called her RV, so they could help make pie for their neighbors.
“There’s something meditative about the act of creating a pie,” Howard says. The rhythmic chopping and peeling, the focus on creating something for another’s pleasure can be calming and soothing. Ultimately, making a pie is about making others happy.
Howard has taught pie making to schoolchildren in South African townships and businessmen in Tokyo and in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, they all react the same. “They realize that pie, like life, isn’t meant to be perfect and they can’t wait to share their creation with others,” Howard says.
That’s the magic of pie.
While pies with lavender, candied ginger, chili, black pepper and salted caramel may be all the rage on the coasts, Beth Howard sticks with the pure, unadulterated Midwestern classics. “The fruit should speak for itself,” she says. That’s why the author of the upcoming cookbook Ms. American Pie: Butter Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House (April 2014) keeps things simple. She makes her crusts from half vegetable shortening, half butter and keeps the sugar and spices to a minimum. “A pie should be bursting with fruit flavor,” she says.
It’s not hard to imagine why a woman who lives in the iconic American Gothic House pictured in the famous Grant Wood painting would stick to her Midwestern roots. The simplicity highlights the things that really matter—like seasonal, locally sourced, impeccably fresh fruit and a crisp, flaky crust. “The fruit rich areas like Georgia or the Pacific Northwest have such a bounty of apple varieties. They don’t need much of anything to make an amazing pie,” she says.
There’s something remarkable about making a pie that brings the fruit from farm to table but it isn’t about striving for perfection. “A pie should look rustic and like the work of your own two hands,” she says.
While Howard isn’t one for trends—or having too many dishes to wash (after all, there aren’t dishwashers in RVs), she admits that there are some less well-known pies that deserve a chance. An avocado pie made with cream cheese and lemon and lime juice is one unexpected treat. Another is Shaker orange pie where whole oranges are sliced ribbon-thin and sprinkled with flour and sugar to create a pie as delicious as it is surprising. “The slicing is meditative and good exercise. People always ask me how I have such great muscle tone and I tell them it’s not exercise, it’s pie making,” Howard says.
So if life gives you lemons do what Howard does—grab a knife and make Shaker lemon pie.