Four years ago almost to the day I arrived in Des Moines Iowa for the first time in 30 years.
I was born and raised in Iowa. I was born in Ottumwa and lived there until I was 12. Then we moved to Davenport where I graduated early from high school at 17 and announced that I was never coming back.
I went to college in Olympia, Washington, and went on to have a zillion different careers — coffee entrepreneur, public relations, journalism writing for magazines, web producer. My jobs took me all over the world but never back to Iowa.
Four years ago — August 2010 — was the one year anniversary of my husband Marcus’s sudden and unexpected death. He died of a ruptured aorta. He was 43. I gave myself one year to grieve. I was living in Portland Oregon. When that year was up I decided I needed to be somewhere else, somewhere grounding and nurturing on the one-year anniversary of his death. There was only one place I wanted to be. And that was Iowa. I had childhood memories of summer — the smell of freshly cut grass, the sight of puffy white clouds against an expansive blue sky, and the feel of how the humidity warms the bones. Oregon summers were too cold and rainy for me.
I would go to Iowa, I had determined, but what would I do? Well, the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death happened to coincide with the Iowa State fair. And the Iowa State fair is synonymous with pie. I don’t know about the pie competition specifically, but the food competition at the Iowa State fair is the biggest of all state fairs. I volunteered to be a pie judge.
I had long been involved in pie and it featured prominently in my life. I always tell the story that I was born because of pie. How when my mom and dad were dating in Milwaukee Wisconsin my mom knew that my dad’s favorite pie with banana cream. So she invited him over for dinner one night. Though in Iowa it’s not called dinner, it’s called supper. I learned that the hard way. Anyway, my mom invited my dad over for supper and she made him tuna casserole, Jell-O salad, and a homemade banana cream pie. That pie prompted him to propose to her. My parents are here tonight by the way. They are still married. And my mom still makes my dad banana cream pie. And that tells you something that the power of pie.
I didn’t learn to make pie from my mom. I learned when I was 17 and on a bicycle trip down the West coast. My biking friend and I came upon what appeared to be an abandoned orchard somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula and stopped to help ourselves to a free snack. An old man stormed out of the house and after he got done yelling at us realized we were just nice kids from Iowa. Turns out he was a retired pastry chef from the Merchant Marines. He invited us into his house and taught us how to make apple pie.
I made many pies after that — not all of them good. My crust was practically inedible it was so hard. I was guilty of overworking the dough. But I still managed to impress prospective husbands.
I had a dot com job in 1999 and 2000, where I worked 16-hour days in front of a computer. It was this job that inadvertently turned me into a full-time pie baker. I got up the courage to quit my six-figure job and told my bosses I wanted to go do something with my hands, that I wanted to engage my senses, that I wanted to make pie. And that’s what I did. I moved from San Francisco back to Los Angeles and got a job at a gourmet take out called Mary’s Kitchen.
I had heard about Mary’s, located in Malibu. It was new and it was supposed to have great pie. I went there to check it out and they didn’t have any pie. I asked why and they said “We’re too busy to make any.” So I said — I blurted out — “I’ll make it for you.” And they asked, “Well, what are your qualifications.” And I said, “I’m from Iowa.” And I got hired. I worked there for a year and learned to make all kinds of pies. But apparently I still hadn’t gotten the knack of the seduction pie because for all the pies I made for Robert Downey Jr. he still didn’t ask me out on a date. Could have been because he was in rehab at the time.
It was during my pie baking job in Malibu when I met Marcus. I made him a pie — a pie that prompted him to propose me to — it was apple — and we got married. We lived in Germany, Portland, Mexico, and then he died. We were married six years.
So after that year of grieving, after taking the road trip from Portland to Iowa, after the state fair that August of 2010 — after judging something like 17 different categories of pie and eating hundreds of bites of pie — and sorry to say, not all of it was good pie —I drove 90 miles southeast of Des Moines down to my birthplace of Ottumwa. I figured I wasn’t going to be back in Iowa again anytime soon — if ever — so I should go see all my old childhood haunts.
I drove all over Ottumwa, emailing pictures from my phone to my family as I navigated the town. And then I got back on the highway — the FOUR LANE as they so proudly call it— and was on my way to Davenport to see our other family homes, as well as my high school, the one I got kicked out of — and then I saw a road sign. It said “AMERICAN GOTHIC HOUSE, 6 MILES.” I had no idea the house was there — just 15 miles from my birthplace. Of course I had heard of it. And I knew the famous painting of the couple with the pitchfork — I even knew the painting was by Norman Rockwell.
[I had to pause here for the uproarious laughter.]
And, yes, I know — now — that the painting is by Grant Wood.
I pulled into the visitor center parking lot and it was love at first sight. The little white house was recognizable in an instant. It looked exactly like in the painting, with the famous Gothic window. It looked really small. Like a doll house. Built on a movie set. I loved not just the house but all the open land surrounding it, a green park-like setting. I went into the museum and learned that the house was a rental — and looking at the museum timeline saw that the last tenant had been there two years previously. I started asking questions. I got the phone number for the landlord — the house is owned by the State Historical Society of Iowa — and two weeks later I moved in.
I thought I would live in the house for maybe three months. But that detour, that fork on the road, has lasted four years.
I spent the first few months — after scrubbing the house to the bone — it hadn’t been lived in in over two years and the spiders and mice had moved in — making pie. I opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand as a fluke, a little side job to keep me busy and help me engage not only with the tourists but the community. I never expected to stay for the winter — I thought I would visit my parents in Southern California — but I survived the subzero temps and the deep snow. Even without winter tires on my Mini Cooper. Of course I learned my lesson and have a set of winter tires now. Mainly, I spent the first winter writing my memoir, “Making Piece.” I sat at my kitchen table wearing my fleece pants and Ugg boots, drinking lattes, and writing writing writing. I am always amazed that I possess such discipline. It’s true what they say, if you want to write a book, you have to be able to keep your butt in the chair.
I continued running the Pitchfork Pie Stand, but only in the summers. I did it for the next four summers, including the first half of this one. And it grew and grew and grew — until it outgrew my tiny little kitchen in my tiny little house.
It grew past my ability to haul 50-pound bags of flour and sugar, and hundreds of pounds of apples, peaches, strawberries, and the like.
It grew beyond the capacity of table space. I sacrificed both my living room and my office for the pie stand. We pushed furniture against the walls to make space for the folding tables where we could roll dough and assemble pies.
I moved my oven to the back porch to make more space in the kitchen, and to keep the house from getting too hot from all that oven heat.
The pie stand grew too big for the customers, who lined up out the door and all the way down the sidewalk.
And it grew beyond my ability to be NICE. I was so exhausted and stressed trying to get all those pies made — over a hundred pies, weekend after weekend — that I finally decided I just couldn’t do it anymore.
A lot of people have been disappointed about this. My buttery good pie had turned the American Gothic House into a popular destination for pie lovers. Too popular. But fear not, I say! I wrote a second book — this time a cookbook, called “Ms. American Pie” — and in it are all the recipes from my pie stand and more. So you can make your own. Or as I have been known to say, “Make your own damn pie.” I even had t-shirts made that say this. Much to my mother’s disapproval.
In fact there are recipes in the book from the Iowa State Fair — from bakers whose pies I had tasted when I was a pie judge four years ago. Pies by blue ribbon winners like Kathleen Beebout and Lana Ross. There is even a whole chapter called “Pies to Compete in the Iowa State Fair.” Bringing life around full circle, we are sponsoring a pie contest tomorrow at the state fair — it’s at 2PM in the Elwell Family Food Center — and contestants have to make a pie from the state fair chapter of my cookbook.
But in the cookbook there are also other chapters — like 100 Reasons not to open a Pie Stand (just kidding), Pies to Seduce — starring my mom’s banana cream pie recipe — and Pies to Heal.
I got an email last night from a Facebook follower who asked me “What kind of pie should I make to honor Robin Williams? I am feeling so sad.” I didn’t really know what to say — even though I wrote an entire memoir about this subject and several essays in my cookbook. I finally told her apple. I like making apple pie because having to peel and slice the apples slows me down and I find the process meditative and soothing. I told her that when Nora Ephron died I was sad about the world losing such a great talent. So I made an apple pie and cut out extra dough to add her initials on top. Making that pie did provide solace and it did make me feel like I was honoring her and I highly recommend doing this and then sharing it with someone. Because there’s not just comfort in pie, but comfort in community.
It doesn’t matter what kind of pie you make — and whether that pie is to heal or comfort or say thank you or seduce or to compete in a state fair. The point is that there is value in making your own pie, in taking the time to create something from scratch, using your own hands, putting your heart and soul into your work, sending loving thoughts into that pie for the person you’re making it for.
In a few days it will be the five-year anniversary of my husband’s death. I am still here in Iowa. I am still appreciating the smell of the freshly cut grass and the huge blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I am still soothed by how the humidity warms my bones.
I am not grieving the way I was when I arrived back here four years ago. I have come a very long way in my journey. I spent more nights than I care to think about bawling my eyes out in my bed — my bed that sits directly behind the lace curtain that covers that famous Gothic window. But the peace and quiet that house offered me for writing — and the appreciative pie-loving visitors it offered me during my pie stand seasons — have been an ideal combination to help me get my balance back. My heart will never be completely healed but I’ve learned a hugely important lesson — that giving of yourself to make others feel better in turn makes you feel better. And when pie is part of that giving, well, it’s guaranteed to make everyone feel especially good.