For this week's review of High 5 Pie and Pie in Fremont, I ate a lot of pie. Some of it was good pie, most of it was not. All of my eating (including the half-dozen bright-and-shiny, industrially made Dolly Madison fruit pies I bought from the local grocery store in order to wash the memory of the awful hand pies at High 5 from my brain) was predicated on the insistence by many learned food writers and catalogers of taste and appetite that pie, in all its varied forms, was going to be the hot new thing in 2011--that it was going to be the new cupcake, and that wise bakers would, on January 1, toss all their cupcake tins into the trash and go running through the streets searching for lard and 9-inch pans and pie weights.
This kind of thing happens every year. Food writers, on the whole, are just as lazy as everyone else when the holiday season rolls around. They want something fast, cheap, and easy to fill all those column inches in the debauched days between Christmas and New Year's Eve. And nothing is faster, cheaper, or easier than writing trend stories--wrap-ups of things that are new, things that are hot, things that have lost their luster in the past 365.A trend story serves a triple purpose. First, because it is ostensibly talking about current events and tastes, it seems like news even though it really isn't. Second, it can appear to have taken loads of research--careful consideration of many variables, the study of long columns of figures, and repeated phone calls to the Apple Growers Union and the Cranberry Defense Fund--even though, for the most part, said stories are pulled completely from the ass, based entirely on opinion and speculation, and are generally written while hungover, past deadline, and between mid-afternoon episodes of Judge Judy.
Finally, the trend story has one other thing going for it: People love them. No matter how ridiculous, no matter how ill-informed, readers love a trend story because, no matter which side of the internal debate they fall on, it gives them something to argue about. BLANK is the new BLANK is like catnip for loosely invested readers, the ultimate hit of fluff. And those blanks can be anything. Jean shorts are the new hot pants. Weed is the new beer. Black is the new blonde. Whatever. And in the food world, people just go nuts for them. Saying that anything is the new anything is tantamount to walking into a punk club and slapping a little KC and the Sunshine Band on the juke, or sitting down at a Boeing bar and complaining loudly about how EADS was robbed on that new tanker contract. You're probably going to start a fight.
But even though I can understand the attraction of a trend story--because I too am occasionally lazy, always up against a deadline, and enjoy starting fights just for the pure, giddy thrill of it--this whole Pie vs. Cupcakes thing bothered me right from the start. And the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Because even as featherweight as your average trend story is, there are still some rules:
1) You can't call a trend dead while it is still very much alive. You can wish it dead. You can imagine its imminent demise. Like bacon, you can certainly say it has jumped the shark. But someone can't just say that the cupcake trend is dead when, in any major city, you can't huck a brick without a reasonable chance it will go through the window of the local cupcakery. Much as I hate them, cupcakes are still everywhere. And no matter how many times some uppity food writer says they are over, the 10 bazillion soccer moms who daily fill the shops say otherwise. Numbers don't lie.
2) You can't call a thing a trend just because you like it. If you could, I would never stop writing articles about how free tacos, blow jobs, and going to work at noon are the new hot things.
3) A thing doesn't get to be a new trend if it has never gone away. One of the first rallying cries of the "pie is the new cupcakes" media gang-bang was an article in the New York Times dining section, published on November 16, 2010, entitled "Pie to Cupcake: Time's Up." In it, Julia Moskin essentially staked her claim to the dawning of a new trend because there were restaurants serving pie in New York and San Francisco. She wrote:
"Pie had been lurking below the radar in recent years: taking cover during the ice cream trend, perhaps waiting to see which way the macaron tide would turn. (For proof that the cupcake craze has gone too far, consider the new turkey cranberry cupcake with gravy in the batter from Yummy Cupcakes in Los Angeles.) Suddenly, New York and San Francisco are national centers of pie innovation. In Brooklyn, a pair of sisters from South Dakota are integrating sea salt and caramel into their apple pie and inventing aromatic fillings like cranberry-sage and pear-rosewater. In the East Village, at Momofuku Milk Bar, the pastry chef, Christina Tosi, has transferred the buttery, caramelized flavors of apple pie into a layer cake, with apple filling between the layers and crumbs of pie crust in the frosting."
A couple of things. One, I'm pretty sure that any grandmother in the world would punch someone for making a pear-and-rosewater pie. Mine would, and she's 98 and has never baked a pie in her life. She'd do it just on principle. Also, pie has never lurked. Pie is too proud for that. And if there was no pie in your neighborhood for the past several years, then I just feel bad for you.
Finally (and this is important), something doesn't get to be a trend JUST BECAUSE IT'S BEING DONE AT FUCKING MOMOFUKU. Awesome as that restaurant might be, it does not stand as the ultimate arbiter of taste nationwide. Go anywhere outside the five boroughs, and you will see that pie (good pie, even great pie, and not the crap pie being done to hump the zeitgeist) has been, like, the sixth food group of the American appetite forever. Along with cheeseburgers, casseroles (in the potluck church picnic style, not the French style), Twinkies, and barbecue, pie stands as one of the elemental dishes in the American canon. It is immutable, inextricable. Pie was here before you and pie will be here long after you are gone. In a million little roadside diners, truck stops, and neighborhood cafes, pie is how you know a meal is over. Recipes are guarded like blood, like breath--passed down like genetics from one generation to the next. Pie is immortal, enshrined for all time in the phrase "As American as Mom and apple pie." Something that forms one of the two defining elements of Americana does not suddenly become a trend just because someone in Gowanus or the Mission District decides to import the native brilliance and humble greatness of the pie into some place where it wasn't before.
This is flyover blindness in its most extreme form--the willful and deliberate ignorance of the existence of any place that is not New York or California, the refusal to admit that anything is actual or real until it arrives at the Port Authority terminal or gets sold from a cart on Fulton Street. For as long as there have been flour and grandmothers, pie has been a part of American cuisine--not a trend or a fad or a gimmick for stripping cash from yuppies, but a central pillar of both home cookery and the diner menu. I have had better pie drunk on a hot, still afternoon in Arkansas than will likely ever be made by someone trying to "bring pie back," because the very notion of pie ever having been gone speaks volumes of the attention being paid to anything happening outside the charmed neighborhoods of food's most elite.
So is pie the new cupcake? Hell, no. On their best day, no cupcake in the world could hold a candle to a slice of bright cherry diner pie, set on a cracked white plate and served by the hands that had made it a few hours before. Pie laughs at the notion of trend and fad. It is beyond that the way the sun is beyond a 40-watt bulb. And when all the hoopla about pies and cupcakes (and macaroons and cookies and milkshakes and god knows what else) dies down, pie will still be there for you, proud as it ever was and diminished not at all.