Let us now give thanks for pie.

As Thanksgiving approaches, pie is much on our minds, especially if we’re the ones planning the menu. Of course we’ll have pumpkin and apple, but what else? Should we add pecan? Pear? Appease the chocoholics with chocolate-hazelnut? Tweak tradition with cranberry-caramel tart?

The possibilities are many on this most American of holidays, perhaps because pie is the most American of desserts. A few years ago, my sister biked across country (yes, over the Rockies and across the Great Plains, but that’s another story). Along the way, she told me later, she was struck by the presence of pie on American menus; it was everywhere, and yet each region had its own specialties—more so than cakes, cookies, or anything else.

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Nearly 150 years ago, Harriet Beecher Stowe marveled at the same phenomenon. Stowe’s best-known work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was credited by Abraham Lincoln with inciting the Civil War, but she also knew from pie.

Old Town FolksIn her 1869 novel Oldtown Folks, she wrote: “Pie is an English institution which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species. Not merely the old mince pie, but a thousand strictly American seedlings from that main stock, evinced the power of American housewives to adapt old institutions to new uses. Pumpkin pies, cranberry pies, huckleberry pies, cherry pies, green-currant pies, peach, pear, and plum pies, custard pies, apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies, pies with topcrust, and pies without—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied….”

It’s interesting that Stowe didn’t list apple first; if there’s any truth to the old saw, apple pie is a proxy for goodness, motherhood and America. But Stowe’s hierarchy makes sense, considering the revelations in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire (2005): Johnny Appleseed’s orchards produced tart apples used mostly for cider in an age when beer and wine were largely unaffordable. Only with Prohibition were apples cultivated primarily as fruit.

Botany of Desire

I wonder what Stowe would have made of pie’s evolution since 1869. Today, we eat pies that could have come straight from her kitchen, along with others she could hardly have imagined. Exhibit A: Teeny’s Tour of Pie (Workman Publishing), in which baker Teeny Lamothe recounts a year of apprenticeships in pie shops across the country, with recipes, profiles of her teachers, and musings on life as a pie baker.

Teenys Tour of Pie_lrg

You might wonder at her characterization of “lady bakers,” a diminutive she attempts to transform into a feminist designation. (Just a few years ago, using “girl,” “lady,” etc., as adjectives would have been rejected as patronizing, if not sexist. Times change.)

But there is much to like—and learn from—in this collection of 67 old and new recipes. Would Stowe have recognized LaMothe’s Green Chile Apple Pie with Cheddar Cheese Crust? Or her Grapefruit and Pomegranate Pie? Chai Cream Pie? Probably not.  But—to quote another famous pie maker—that’s a good thing. If innovation is in America’s DNA, it winds up in our pies, too.

So let’s give thanks—for pie, yes, and also for the bakers who keep the old traditions, and come up with enough new ones so that planning our Thanksgiving menu is always a pleasant dilemma.