Each autumn, some of the world's most prominent food scholars, chefs, journalists and enthusiasts gather together on the campus of the University of Mississippi for a symposium on the state of Southern food.
Overarching themes covered by the Southern Foodways Alliance in the previous 15 years have included the role of farmers, a study of global influences, the undercurrents of music and booze, just to name a few. The subject at the core of 2013's installment: Women at Work.
For two days, featured presenters and honorees like Diane Roberts, Vertamae Grosvenor, Emily Wallace, Candacy Taylor, Charlotte Druckman, among many others, spoke eloquently and enthusiastically of the essential roles that women have played in the creation of Southern food culture past and present.
Then it was time for dessert. Eatocracy's managing editor Kat Kinsman and New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson faced off in a tongue-in-cheek Lincoln-Douglas debate. The topic at hand: which holds more essential social and emotional currency in the South, pie or cake?
Kinsman defended the pro-pie position, and Severson took the side of cake. They tied, by an assessment of audience applause, but here in the spirit of National Dessert Day, we're serving up slices of both their arguments. Dig in.
Pie vs Cake Debate: The Case for Pie by Kat Kinsman
Presented October 5, 2013 at the University of Mississippi as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium on the topic of Women at Work
Friends, colleagues, family, I come to you today not to denigrate anyone’s beloved dessert, not to pooh-pooh anyone’s pudding, not to take my esteemed opponent’s cake (bless her heart), but rather to speak to you of the exalted state in which the the head, the hands and the heart find communion with fat, flour, filling and the benign guidance of bakers past to form a most wondrous alchemy.
I speak to you of the state of perfect piety.
First, matters of the head.
Now, unlike its gussied-up and admittedly lovely cousin, cake, the humble pie is born of economy and austerity -- a testament to its makers’ thriftiness, prowess and sensibility.
If we wanna get all historical about it, we can look to the Egyptians’ use of dough as a cooking, serving and storage vessel. We can note Medieval Britain’s fetish for stuffing meats, dates, currants and pepper into crusts (along with the occasional live bird and court dwarf) in order to serve and preserve it.
The Pilgrims (who never got invited to the live bird pie parties, anyhow) adapted some of the same strategy when they set up shop in the new world (minus the whole morally dicey dwarf encasement part of it).
When faced with the abundance -- and cruelly short season of -- fruit and game in their adopted land, and a finite and ever dwindling supply of flour too scant to yield bread (let alone a fancy-pants cake), those resourceful, ocean-crossing upstarts realized that their best bet for sustaining themselves through a raw and wicked winter and go about the business of nation building -- was to roll pie.
Those strategically crafted crusts were stretched across spiced fillings (usually cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, along with dried fruit), keeping them fresh and in play during the leaner times. Those hardy souls who emerged at the end of the long winter forged forth to the West, and more importantly -- the South, where they hit the pie ingredient jackpot.
Suddenly, berries and muscadines, nuts, sweet potatoes and stone fruit -- not to mention cream and buttermilk from non-starving cows and lard from deliciously fatty fat fat pigs -- became available to supplant those hardy and damnable apples in the settlers’ diets.
And the ladies -- of course it was ladies, the men were all off with, like, railroad spikes and moustache wax and stuff -- the ladies went hog wild with the possibilities.
As we all know, in the South, there is perhaps no currency more vaunted and valuable to a than having a recipe with an ingredient that no one else can figure out.
(“I just know that MurJean Hodnett uses Cremora in her chess pie when she makes it at home, but she swears that recipe she gave to the bulletin is exactly how she makes it.”)
Tsk tsk MurJean. (And in my house, we call that a “lessipe.”)
So while there is now a particular canon of classic pie formats -- your fruit pies, cream pies, tomato pies, nut pies, custard pies, chocolate pies, meringue pies, molasses pies, mince pies, sweet potato pies, onion pies a la Eudora Welty, savory meat pies, not to mention single crust, double crust, lattice crust, hand pies and so on -- there is enough variance to allow each happy homemaker to put her own stamp upon it. And believe that hers is the superior version.
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy? Why yes she can -- and she can do it thriftily and she’s famous all over the county for it. I oughta marry that girl...(Well, if MurJean Hodnett says no. Have you TRIED her chess pie?!)
Lard-crust tomato pie by chef Vivian Howard