Unsurprisingly, the best pie scene in 20th century literature belongs to Roald Dahl, who wrote as vividly about food as he wrote about crummy parents, child-eating giants, sadistic schoolmarms, and the bright, plucky kids who best them. In Danny, The Champion of the World, a kindly small-town doctor pays a house call on Danny’s dad, leaving Danny, who hasn’t eaten in 24 hours, with “something huge and round wrapped up in greaseproof paper”:
“Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the greaseproof paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with a rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slice, I cut another and ate that too. God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought. And God bless Mrs. Spencer as well.”
For some reason, this description of the pie Danny eats, alone in the tiny caravan he shares with his wounded and temporarily immobile father, has stayed with me more than any of the book’s many memorable passages. Dahl relished trafficking in warped food fantasies imaginative children might gleefully dream up and later, as adults, wiser and, by Dahl’s subversive standards, probably much less fun, still enjoy: The BFG‘s flatulent frobscottle, the grotesque chocolate cake-scarfing sequence in Matilda, and pretty much all of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Yet this pie, by Dahl’s standards, a straightforward, entirely believable concoction, occupies a special corner of memory. The pie is a simple, hearty dish, prepared by the sympathetic doctor’s wife for a hungry boy who has no one to make him pies. Danny’s mother is dead, and his father broke his leg trying to steal pheasants from a villainous beer tycoon. The boy deserves a pie, and Dahl makes sure he gets one — because pies are the sort of thing bright, plucky children shouldn’t have to do without.
The scene is moving, sure — especially when you’re in 3rd grade — but the pie in question also sounds pretty good: grand, nourishing, and fanciful — the way a pie should.
When I contemplate “pie”, my mind races back centuries, through whirlwinds of sweet, stewed fillings and pressed pastry, past a light-speed procession of empty window-sills, chanted nursery rhymes, and county fairs, all the way back to Medieval Europe. I imagine great, honking, burnished-brown mountains of pastry hugging undisclosed fillings in broad, round pans, steam spitting through slits carved into the surface. Outside the crusts, cheery plump pie-people in tunics sit around a long table in a great hall. Someone drags forth an over-sized knife to carve slices, to see what lurks within — maybe spiced plums, an array of berries, or some assemblage of juicy meat parts trapped between layers of dough, suspended in sauce like succulent specimens in amber, with perhaps a slender bird leg or two poking cautiously from the top crust. Even if you know what kind of pie you’re about to inhale, the pleasant prospect of unearthing delicious hidden mysteries — like the hard-boiled eggs in Danny’s pie — inevitably accompanies the pie form. Only when you actually crack into a pie, can you truly solve the mystery within. Pies are also a little funny, and not only because they’re the target of a South Park character’s unwavering obsession. I didn’t know how funny pie could be until, at the age of twelve, I went to England with my family and watched, from a window seat on a Dover-bound train, a hulking, squinty-eyed English lad flail at his pencil-thin younger brother in the aisle, braying again and again: “Edward, quit hogging all the pie!”
Yes, pie provokes passion, more so than most desserts, but it’s not popular just because it’s evocative of anything; it’s popular because it’s good. Aron Kay should have picked a lamer food to start hurling into the faces of famous people with offensive political platforms and/or excessively high opinions of themselves — like runny porridge or gas station tamales. The formula for pie is deceptively uncomplicated and unassailable in its dazzling simplicity, really as close to perfect as it gets. Every great pie, regardless of provenance, hinges on interplay between its two components, crust and filling: in a classic American fruit pie, the salty, butter-rich crust balances and adds complexity to a sweet filling; in Tunisian brik, a brittle stack of crunchy phyllo-like pastry provides a bland, texturally interesting foil to the heady, moist mixture of tuna, egg, onions, and capers stuffed inside.
I’m not going to pretend I’m a pie expert, a true aficionado. I adore pie primarily in theory; I do not bake it myself, nor do I frequently purchase it from bakeries and diners. I like the much-litigated Derby pie, in no small part because we’re pretty much from the same place. The Bay Area is obviously home to some good pie too. Even though I usually head there with other things in mind (namely, artichoke soup and great fish) I’ve always championed Pescadero’s Duarte’s Tavern for its sublime pie made with local olallieberries, the tart product of a berry soap opera.
You probably read about Pie Truck on Urban Daddy last week. With the latest local food renaissance happening on wheels, roving carts and underground delivery services get more tweets than Shaquille O’ Neal, and blogs put new-comers on blast within days of their first sale. We may be approaching gastronomic Thunderdome, a new quasi-post-apocalyptic condition of eating through recession, where restaurants, having struggled, gradually shutter and practically disappear altogether, surrendering the pitted scene to scrappy, subsistence-level free-agents — wagon-pushers and van vendors — with no regard for increasingly irrelevant health code regulations, much less entrepreneurial convention.
Pie Truck is one of the latest freelance foodie endeavors to garner city-wide attention and, as it turns out, it’s a lovely, deserving operation. I hollered at Pie Truck proprietor Chris Bauer on Wednesday of last week. Chris is a former architect, brother to Matt Bauer, the fantastic banjo-slinging singer-songwriter who once called San Francisco home. I asked Chris if he’d deliver to the Richmond, where I’d be house-and-dog-sitting for my dad all week. He said he could. To make my regular Saturday morning pick-up basketball game, I’d have to be away from the house during his normal delivery hours. I said I’d slip the money under the mat if he’d leave the pies. That would be fine, he said.
On Saturday, I made it back to the house — sweaty, exhausted, and famished — at around 11:15 a.m. No pie, I thought, staring at the steps leading up to the door. My little wad of bills still peeked out from under the mat. I watched the news and drank some juice. Noon approached. Did he forget, I wondered, checking the street through the window. I kept checking every few minutes. I chased the dog around the house to distract myself. He’s totally not coming, I thought as another 30 minutes passed. I watched more television. I changed the channel several hundred times. I checked the street again. I looked at the clock and shook my head, despondent. The elusive pie-man was surely a no-show. He was a faker, not a baker. He was so underground, so sneaky, so profoundly and diabolically aligned with the inherent mystery of his chosen product that he did not deliver anything at all. That was, in fact, his whole deal, I thought, becoming a little angry as I contemplated cooking up a new blog topic on shortish notice. My oxygen-deprived brain throbbing from the effort such irrational pondering required, I hit the showers. As I emerged from the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of a man’s head bobbing very briefly through the frame of the front window. I climbed into clothes as fast as I could and raced to the door. Two boxes, one small and white, the other large and pink, sat on the doorstep. The money was gone. My pies were here. I dashed down the stairs and scanned the street. There was not a truck or a pie-man in sight. He’d come after all — and left as swiftly as he’d arrived.
Ten minutes later, I sat down to a lunch of oven-warmed pie. The 5″ chicken pot pie was drier on the inside than I’d expected, intense and savory, not creamy, the slightly peppery, golden strings of chicken spun around celery, peas, and carrots beneath the puffy dome of crust.
I ate half and moved on. The 10″ apple pie was truly excellent. I ate two wedges, just like Danny, and surrendered. The apple filling tasted like mulled cider, deep and warm, just sweet enough; the crust was thick, slightly doughy yet delicious — a most happy ending to a short pie story I feared would never come full circle.