IF THE FOURTH OF July could request a birthday cake, it would be pie. Perhaps a pie with Roman candles stuck in it, maybe with a brace of sparklers - but a pie.
The pie, as metaphor, runs through American rhetoric. As culinary reality, the pie has been part of American celebration since long before there was a republic to celebrate.
Yet, we didn't create the pie - not even the apple pie - although we have embraced it to an extent that few societies have.
At least we did for a while. Pies, like many desserts, began to go out of fashion during the diet-conscious, fat-free frettings of the 1980s. Which led to a sad scene I witnessed a few weeks ago at Claire's Pantry in Lake City. A woman walked into the restaurant and ordered a diet cola - and a piece of banana-cream pie.
I grew up eating pies. The earliest treats I can remember were majestic Sunday creations of lemon-meringue pies, which my mother made flawlessly.
I later moved on to custard pies, and finally decided (during high school and college) that the two best times to eat pies were either with breakfast or instead of breakfast. For those purposes, tart berry and fruit pies seemed to work best.
I still love cherry, tart apple, rhubarb and sour-cherry pies in the morning.
And, as it happens, eating pies for breakfast isn't as outrageous an indulgence as it seems. James Beard, in "American Cookery," noted that pie once was originally morning food: "In early
America and well into the 19th century, pie was a standard breakfast dish. Since men of rural families rose early, and had an hour or more of outside chores before breakfast, there was time to make such treats."
Where did pies come from? Indeed, what does the word "pie" mean?
It's a genuine mystery. Language scholars have been unable to trace the word to any one source. It's believed by some to be a derivation from magpie, a bird that gathers a variety of foodstuffs and other objects, because old English pies were usually collections of assorted odds and ends and food scraps mixed with sweets for preservatives.
The Romans made pies, or at least used pastes of flour and water to seal casseroles. The colonial-era British were enthusiastic pie bakers. Remember Simple Simon? And, yes, some early British pies did contain live birds. Old recipes tell how to make the crust, what size hole to cut in it to slip the birds in, and so forth.
The "four and twenty blackbirds," by the way, were not intended to be eaten. It was a table-side stunt intended as a surprise for special guests.
Even good old American apple pie came from Britain. It arrived in the new world with early British colonials. The first plantings of English apple trees were in Rhode Island in the 1650s.
Meat pies and fish pies preceded fruit pies. Ladled over with melted fats and butter, they could be sealed inside a fat-laden crust and kept for days before spoilage began.
Back then, a true pie had to have a covering crust. Uncovered fruit or custard pies were considered to be puddings.
I first ran into commercially baked pies when I was kid growing up in Connecticut. A distant German-American relative was a pieman. He did a thriving business driving a bakery truck. At the end of the day, the unsold pies often were distributed among the extended family - and throughout the neighborhood.
I often took day-old individual-sized pies to school for lunch. I remember liking the berry pies best - and thinking that the lemon pies were inferior to my mother's.
The name of the pie company, by the way, was Frisbee. It became, through no fault of its own, the origin of the word for the game that developed on various Connecticut college campuses (mainly at Yale, to give credit where it is due) of hurling inverted metal pie plates at each other in what were sometimes dangerous games of acrobatic catch.
Frisbee became tame, with time and plastic. And pies began to fade from fashion - with some notable exceptions. A few breakfast chains kept up a lively commerce in pies. Some coffeehouses made them. And some dedicated curators of American traditions maintained a specialty that went beyond fruit pies in season.
About a year ago, after a decade of weight-watching, I decided that an occasional piece of pie was not only good for the soul but also was acceptable to the waistline.
I tried the franchised pies of Marie Callender's (one at 408 Bellevue Square and the other at 9538 First Ave. N.E., near Northgate) and found them - for a large restaurant-bakery - impressive.
Some California-based friends (where the chain originated) swear by them.
Marie Callender began baking pies for a group of restaurant clients in Orange County, Calif., in 1947. She started off with 10 a day. Callender's 170-odd restaurants now feature about 30 different kinds. "They are all fresh," said assistant manager Dan Kelleher. "If we baked it on Monday and it's still around on Tuesday, it gets tossed. We bake them all around the clock."
Their best sellers are the fruit and berry pies in season, along with tart pippin apple, lemon meringue, custard and a nice banana-cream pie.
Prices are from $2.25 to $3.25 a slice.
Callender's crusts, incidentally, are cholesterol-free. Made with a canola-oil shortening, they are surprisingly light and flavorful.
Coco's (seven places in the Puget Sound area), is another West Coast chain with California (Irvine) origins that features pies. They are made fresh daily in each restaurant, but in pre-made crusts, made from a vegetable-oil shortening.
"No lard," said a shift manager.
Coco's does a thriving business with fresh berry pies in season, festooning the restaurants with promotional art, and laying out racks of gleaming pies in cooler cases near the entrances. This spring's strawberry feature led to a serious case of journalistic overdose. Really excellent berries in huge amounts.
Biringer Farms in the Pike Place Market is headquartered in Marysville and usually has from two to a half-dozen varieties ready to serve at $1.95 a slice, along with deep-dish pies and cobblers. The fruit is invariably superior (try the marionberry; it's exceptional), but crusts are sometimes soft.
There's not much sit-down space near its Post Alley location, and during busy summer days, the tables have been known to miss the clean-up attention they might require.
Claire's Pantry, with locations in Lake City and Richmond Beach, has always specialized in fresh-baked pies and they do them very well. Crusts are substantial and firm. Berry pies are particularly good. Their rhubarb pie tends to be a bit sweet.
In two weeks of dedicated munching, the best pies I sampled were those at Brusseau's, 117 Fifth Ave. S., in Edmonds.
William Keegan bought the restaurant-deli from Jerilyn Brusseau last summer. Keegan, who was with the restaurant 15 years ago, is himself a baker. Products in general are excellent; the pies (baked by Leslie Thomas and Debbie Jeske) are superb.
They make three forms of rhubarb (plain, mixed with strawberry and mixed with raspberry) which have that tantalizing balance between tart and fruit-sweet. The raspberry-rhubarb is really choice.
Also excellent is their pecan pie, a confection that is all too often made oversweet and cloying elsewhere. Brusseau's does it so that the fragrance of the roasted nuts comes through.
The pie crusts at Brusseau's are the real thing, as Keegan noted: "They are made with butter, flour, eggs, salt and lemon juice. They are all hand-done. The best thing about our bakers is that they are always improving upon their recipes. Some people think they have it right and stop. We don't."
Brusseau's best seller in season is their marionberry pie.
"It's a Northwest favorite," Keegan said.
And one of mine.
(Copyright 1993, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.) John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times photographer.
--------------- MARIONBERRY PIE --------------- Makes 1 (9-inch) pie
PASTRY: 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour. 1/2 teaspoon salt. 1 teaspoon sugar. 1 1/2 cubes (6 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces. 1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice.
FILLING: 2 pounds fresh or frozen marionberries or blackberries. 1 cup sugar. 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. 3 1/2 tablespoons flour. 1 tablespoon butter. 1 teaspoon sugar.
1. To prepare the pastry: In a food processor combine the flour, salt, sugar and butter, processing until butter is blended but the mix is still granular. Add the egg mixture and process just until the dough forms a ball. Form into two balls and set aside while preparing the filling. 2. To prepare the filling: Combine the berries, 1 cup sugar, lemon juice and flour. Set aside. 3. Roll out half of the pastry in a circle to fit a 9-inch pie pan; trim excess dough. Pile the filling in the shell and dot with butter. Roll out the remaining dough and fit over the top. (Or cut into strips and form a lattice top.) Tuck in the excess dough and crimp the edge. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar. 4. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake on the bottom rack of a preheated 375-degree oven 1 hour for fresh berries, 1 1/2 hours if berries are still frozen. Let set before cutting.
-- Note: The unbaked pie may be frozen for later use. Bake from the frozen state in a preheated 375-degree oven 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours.