American Pie: Beth Howard's Next Piece
You missed it.
Yep, you blew it. You might have heard about the woman selling homemade pies out of the iconic Grant Wood American Gothic house at her “The Pitchfork Pie Stand” and thought you’d make the one trek of these days. And if you were one of the people that did make the trip, if you were one of the lucky ones who made your way to Eldon, posing stoically with a fork in hand in front of the house, your stomach full of the season’s best pie, well … start your bragging now. After turning out about 100 pies a weekend for the last three years, master pie maker Beth Howard officially shut down her weekend pie stand on Labor Day, save for select special weekends. Beth has found another chapter of her life has opened up and she’s ready to take her show on the road. And when I say “show,” I mean pie. Except this time she’s not making the pie, you are.
In the last few years, teaching pie making has become central to her life. Her small and large group “Pie Making Parties” are a destination attraction for any foodie. She’s taught local high school kids the key to making amazing dough is rolling out one that is not evenly mixed, but almost marbled with almond size pieces of butter speckled throughout. She’s encouraged nervous newbies to go off recipe and shocked practiced crust makers by encouraging them to add more water if they think it’s needed. And last winter after fundraising to take her RV to Newtown, Connecticut and handing out slices and whole pies all over the mourning community, she then taught classes in Newtown and then came back to teach more. She’s taught in Capetown and Tokyo, Iowa and Illinois and hopes to travel the world with her lessons. And as you might have guessed, pie making is really her tool in building a greater cause. Pie is not just a slice of deliciousness. It’s not just a dessert and it never has been just a dessert. The second it touches your hands and you stare at the recipe with the intention of sharing it -- you and the pie are both changed.
Beth Howard will slam a cook book shut if the recipe calls for a food processor.
“I need to use my hands.” Beth says, “Pie should be simple, created with your hands, earthy and nourishing. There is no place for appliances in pie.”
It’s that hands-on, handmade, do-it-yourself practice that serves as her teaching foundation and along the way she throws perfection right out the window. Beth’s methods are not about doing it the right way; they are about finding your own way, within her kitchen-tested practice in pie making.
And what is that greater cause? Try answering that question with a question. What do you think of when you think of pie? What do you think when someone brings you a homemade pie or you make a pie for a friend? Beth calls her “Pitchfork Pie Stand” a “labor of love” because, when you make pie with your hands, using real, fresh, seasonal ingredients, it is labor intensive and can be expensive. There are easier gifts to give and as a business it has to stop being about making money. You can’t really make real, sustainable money with a pie stand. Even if you rely on volunteer labor from all the sweet retired ladies in Eldon who volunteer practically every week it’s still break even. Even if, in an act of small town kindness and respect, those same ladies still come to the stand that next Saturday and offer to pay for the same pies they volunteered to make-you’re still barely making a profit. So why do it? Why make pies professionally? Why not just buy a pie to bring to a family party? Why make something as temporal, as equally time consuming and fleeting as a pie? It is simple -- the act of making pie is about spreading love and happiness. Yep. Pie is love. But, you already knew that.
“When someone says my pie reminds them of their grandmother’s pie, you realize it’s all about nostalgia and a memory of love.” And, says Beth Howard, “There is no higher compliment.”
Though the act of sharing of pie generally results in the tender, delicious feelings of being cared for, the pie maker is learning more than just the sharing of their newly cultivated talent. The student pie maker is learning a skill that can be repeated, a go-to skill that can help celebrate new neighbors, become a tradition for a holiday, bridge times of crisis and even smooth hurt feelings or subdue painful memories. And the student is eager to learn from Beth, because in their gut, they’ve come to know these more ethereal qualities of pie with every piece they’ve ever eaten. And they want a piece of that. In this way, learning to make pie is empowerment or “em-pie-werment” (ahem) and the pie maker is a harbinger of pleasure, giving the high sign that really, every little thing is going to be all right.
Beth Howard is a qualified teacher of both the physical nature of pie and its emotional counterpart. She came to pie after what she described as a career turn that taught her that she was “a little too entrepreneurial to be employable.” In the height of the lucrative dot com Babylon of the late 90s, she jumped ship to become a pie baker to the stars, something that fulfilled her with its combination of tangible purpose and kitchen camaraderie. And then, it happened. Made famous in her first book “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie”, Beth’s life changed forever when her husband Marcus died suddenly. The honest, soul-searching book chronicles their passionate, complicated relationship and her equally complicated grief. You see, Beth’s husband Marcus died the same day he was supposed to sign the divorce papers that neither of them really wanted to him to sign. He died thinking that his marriage was over and Beth lived on thinking that her last-ditch attempt of threatening divorce in order to unite them had caused him to die of a broken heart. She lived in the shadow of this heartbreak, unfinished and unable to mend. She cried for a year.
And then one day she was driving through her home state of Iowa and a moment of spontaneity caused her to follow a sign to “Eldon, Iowa: Home of the Grant Wood American Gothic House.” And there it was: a simple little house with an odd window that really could be in any small town in Iowa, but this one had a “for rent” sign. So Beth Howard, beautiful cosmopolitan woman, entrepreneurial and independent, newly and famously widowed, signed a lease stipulating that she would treat the tourists that flocked to this little house with kindness.
The little town of Eldon, Iowa (pop. 900) welcomed her, treated her like family and helped her to open her broken heart. She started making pies to survive and that’s exactly what it did. Pie making got her through, it sustained her and it rebuilt her shattered core in a way that time couldn’t. Pie has a way of doing that. And along the way, her fans, forks in hand, started politely asking if she could show them how to make pies like hers. It’s one thing to share a Beth Howard pie with a friend, but it’s another to be able to say
“I learned to make pie from this amazing woman and now I made one for you.”
“Not to sound, you know… but (teaching pie making) is about paying it forward. It’s lots of hard work and teaching people to make their own pies is more… exponential.” And this, from a woman who has made thousands of people happy they made the drive for nothing more than her pie and a glimpse of a house made famous by Grant Wood.
Beth’s classes are what she describes as having “a bit of an irreverent style”. Though the pie-making process may not have the reputation as being easy and forgiving, Beth teaches her students that you can break many of the rules that seem to have become written in stone. Those rules scare people away from trying their hand at making their own, but she does have one rule that can’t be broken: use real ingredients. Pie filling is not something that comes out of a can. Pie crust is not something you buy in a tin in the frozen section. Pie filling, like anything else, is best when using seasonal ingredients. You’d never find a peach pie in the spring at Beth Howard’s pie stand, and if you want to make great pie, the rule of using seasonal fruit, and going with the most local ingredients will yield the best results. And, remember the most important rule of all: share the love, pass the pie.
More to Come
There is another big piece to Beth Howard’s pie-centric tale. The woman who encourages her students to go oﬀ recipe (why waste an extra handful of berries?) has taken the inevitable step of releasing a pie focused cookbook. The spring of 2014 book will feature 75 Beth-tested pie recipes from the Pitchfork Pie Stand, will include about 10 essays and enough photos of her amazing pies to inspire you to make them all. When asked which is her favorite pie in the book, she was crazy about the peanut butter pie, which she personally tested by sticking a spoon in the pie dish, savoring every bite, much like the folks who can’t make it oﬀ her rented porch before sticking a fork in. So, if you can’t make it to a Beth Howard pie making class, then do the next best thing an keep an eye out for the new release.