By Leslie Bilderback 11/01/2010
For this Thanksgiving, I have vowed not to write yet another article about the perfect turkey. Nor will I opine on the great side-dish-you-never-thought-of that will forever elevate your status as a cook. For those articles, feel free to reference any periodical printed during the past 70 Novembers.
I do sympathize with you, though, as you brace for another season as endurance cook, argument arbiter and family cruise director. (See, just thinking about it has sent your pulse racing.) On Thanksgiving, even though we are supposed to bask in the warm glow of family togetherness, conflict is inevitable. Heck, it’s a part of our heritage. The first Thanksgiving was not a big-buckled, feather-headdressed love fest. The pilgrims came to the New World pitifully unprepared to live off the land. They took the Indians’ generous handouts and thanked them later with a massacre and a ceremonious display of the chief’s head on a pike. (Yeah, they leave that part out in fourth grade.) And every November since, be it by annoyance or emotional blitzkrieg, our patience has been tested on the fourth Thursday.
But never fear. I have a secret weapon.
Yes, America, pie is the answer. It is the culinary equivalent of Zoloft. A bad mood is simply not possible when you’re staring at puffy golden crust with berry juices bubbling through flaky strips of dough, or billowing clouds of meringue floating on a tangy bed of lemon sunshine. Four out of five doctors agree that unhappiness is a physical impossibility for anyone confronted with mountains of whipped cream dolloped atop a black-bottom stratum of chocolate cream.
Sure, you have pie every year. But have you been using it correctly? Pie is your counterinsurgency plan against Thanksgiving’s full-frontal attack of football-induced high testosterone levels, self-centered teenagers and the random frustration that often accompanies your more lubricated guests.
Is Grandpa telling his stupid jokes again? A big slice of sweet potato pie will plug that hole. Cousin Ethel still boasting about her mediocre offspring? Distract her with a slice of chocolate pecan. Can’t get your kids off Facebook? A wedge of key lime should do the trick.
The power of pie is mysterious. Sure, it’s folksy, down home and reminds you of your mom. (Or the mom you are supposed to have, with a gingham apron, housecoat and pin curls — not the one heading off to Pilates with her Louis Vuitton gym bag.) But pie has something else. Like baby bunnies or a man in a dress, pie magically induces smiling. (Together, the three form the Axis of Mirth.)
And pie is the great equalizer. It is hard to be snooty, or bully someone, with a hunk of lattice-topped boysenberry on your fork. We should deploy a boatload of pie with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces as they administer calm and concord in Congo. And imagine for a moment the possibilities if Hillary brought pie to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps shoofly? I’m for sure going to send Al-Qaeda some hot apple pie topped with melted New York white cheddar. A country with the freedom to combine sweet and savory in such an ingenious way can’t be all bad. Yep, 10 years from now, when we live in a world without airport X-ray scanners, you’ll have pie to thank. And from that time forward, all art and literature will be dedicated to the celebration of pie:
Flaky, juicy, warm
Wedge of possibilities
Sweet hope on a fork
Imagine: world peace of pie.
But until then, we just need to keep eating it. While I prefer my pie homemade, I’ll eat store-bought pie when the conditions are right. In my experience (which is ample), the good pie places all share a certain ambience: They are throwback diners with booths and nary a tablecloth in sight. There is at least one surly waitress and a Mike Hammer type at the counter (doubtless washing down a slice with a cup o' joe before drillin’ some dope peddler full of lead). The best pie I ever had was in such a place: a diner in Cherokee, Oklahoma. Most of the food was iffy. I am pretty sure my tuna melt was seasoned with cigarette ashes. But the amazing lemon meringue finale was ample compensation. (When you live in Cherokee, Oklahoma, you have time to perfect such things.)
There are plenty of great places where you (and the Pilates mom) can get pie in L.A. Lots of folks swear by places like Du-par’s or The Apple Pan. But if I’m in the market for pie, I am going to look for a place with “pie” in the name. That’s just good pie sense.
The House of Pies is a safe bet. Just ask any cop. Or screenwriter. Formerly a huge chain of A-frame family restaurants, there are only a few left. Luckily for us, one is at Franklin and Vermont in Los Feliz. It’s open 24 hours, but all the good pie eatin’ happens between 2 and 5 a.m., when the pie comes with freak show à la mode.
If you prefer to savor your pie in a tamer environment, then head to Pasadena’s Pie ’n Burger at California Boulevard and Lake Avenue. I think it’s the best pie in town and apparently so do they — you notice it’s not called Burger ’n Pie. That’s bold pie confidence, my friends. You should feel free to order it that way too. First pie, then burger. Or maybe just more pie.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef, cookbook author and lead pastry instructor at École de Cuisine Pasadena. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.