Pie Society: A Slice of Wisconsin
By Terese Allen | Photos By REAP Food Group 0
If I could choose an historical era to live in, I might go for pioneer times in Wisconsin, if only so that I could eat pie for breakfast. Times may have been tough back then, what with having to break soil, raise crops, hunt and fish and build one’s own home, but the reward could be had during any meal of the day: a hearty, handmade pastry filled to bursting with the nearby bounty.
Pie for breakfast…and lunch and dinner? Sweet.
Pie came to America with the first English settlers, but by the time the Wisconsin territory was being settled, it had taken on its uniquely American character. “Pie spoke of promises and mysteries and new songs to be sung,” wrote Anne Dimock in her book, Humble Pie. The promise was of prosperity; the song, a celebration of freedom. Like the émigrés who made this region their home, pie could be anything it wanted to be: a hardworking, no-nonsense pork pasty; a road-friendly affair stuffed with dried apples; a fancy, fruit-laden tart, lush with hand-churned butter pastry and thickened cream.
The mix of immigrant groups that gave Wisconsin its ethnic flavor flavored its pies, too. During the early 19th century, the Cornish tucked pasties into lunch boxes or the pockets of their overalls and carried them into the lead mines in and around Mineral Point. Today the signature pasty contains beef, potatoes and onions, but in the old days nearly anything could go into the turnovers: vegetables, meats, fruits, eggs, greens. (Area residents today still share a bit of folklore about how the Cornish considered themselves particularly virtuous; they say the Devil avoided their kitchens for fear that he would be put into a pasty.) Sometimes the miner’s wife would build a pastry wall in the center of her husband’s pie, filling one side with a savory entrée, the other with stewed sweetened fruit. That way, he’d get a dessert along with his meal.
The Germans ate zweibelkuchen, or onion pie, and the Swiss made a savory custard pie with Gruyere cheese. In southern Door County, where Flemish and Walloon Belgians farmed, the favorite was (and still is) Belgian pie, which boasts a sweetened, yeast-raised crust, a prune filling and cottage cheese custard on top. Yankees, already familiar with American squash, grew pumpkins for their pies, and Norwegians nurtured their cool-weather “pie plant,” or rhubarb, and baked it into pie for Syttende Mai (17th of May), the Norwegian day of independence.
As time went on, the state’s pie culture took on regional styles that showcased crops and wild foods thriving around the state. On the orchard-happy Bayfield peninsula, apple pie is king. Home bakers of the Northwoods take pride in their wild blueberry and maple-nut pies. And of course you can’t say “Door County” without thinking of a plump, lattice-topped pie loaded with puckery Montmorency cherries.
With so much pie variety in Wisconsin, it’s no surprise that we don’t have an official State Pie. How could we choose? But if we did, it would have to be some kind of cream pie, to honor our dairy heritage.
Pies can offer a taste of place in very specific locales, too. Apple pie baked in a brown bag is the Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago. Sour cream raisin pie is Osseo’s famed Norske Nook. And fudge bottom pie? We all know that’s the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Deep Dish Meaning
Writing in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, contributor Pat Willard invokes pie as the “embodiment of the nation’s abundant goodness,” with an “overarching theme of universality…and a sublime place in our collective heritage.” I think pies have something to say about Wisconsin, too. They express our sense of humor, for one thing—surely any state with a candy called the Cow Pie must have a good sense of humor. Or consider the guy I once saw at a pie fundraiser: his tee-shirt read, “Jesus Saves….Room for Pie.”
Like many a Wisconsinite, pie is thrifty, practical and hard-working. It doesn’t have an agenda or blow its own horn. Pie is friendly and gregarious, and it loves a good party.
All for Pie and Pie for All
Pie also has a big heart. At an annual Celebrity Pie Auction in La Crosse, big shots such as the local sheriff, a TV news anchor and even a Packer Elvis impersonator strut their personal pie creations to bring in money for the YWCA. (The event is on August 20 this year; see www.ywcalax.org). One of most beloved pie events in the region is REAP Food Group’s Pie Palooza, an unconventional Sunday brunch which showcases local ingredients in pies baked by some of the area’s most talented professional bakers and chefs. A ticket to the 10th annual Pie Palooza, scheduled for November 2 at the Goodman Community Center in Madison, will get you a choice of two slices of sweet or savory pie, a farm-fresh salad, beverages and ice cream. But be forewarned. There is one difficult thing about attending this event: deciding which pies to try, since the selection is extraordinary—everything from roasted shallot Gouda quiche to lavender honey tart. Proceeds support programs that promote sustainably grown foods in schools, restaurants, health care facilities and home kitchens.
Humble, a small, pie-focused bakery in Madison, supports local farmers and producers by purchasing as much as possible from them. “Our goal is to use more and more local items as we grow,” say siblings Shelley Cross and Jill Long. “We are really excited by what's growing out there. We used wild sorrel last summer for the first time and fell in love. We want to bake with ground cherries this year, too.” (Read more about humble - yes, with a lowercase "h" - here.)
Pie pleasure can be had at nearly any food service establishment in the state, from small-town bakeries to high-end urban bistros. But if there’s one best setting to get your pie on, it’s got to be at a local diner, where patrons such as Joanne Raetz Stuttgen, who wrote in Café Wisconsin, “search for things reminiscent of the past and symbolic of a way of life...shaped by the hand, enriched by the heart and impressed with community.” Over a wedge of coconut cream at the Unique Café in Boscobel or a slice of lemon meringue at the Viroqua Family Restaurant, pie eaters forge social bonds, craft networks of support and experience a little piece of local heaven.
Yes, pie does all this, and more.
Even at breakfast.
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