Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, and sometimes it’s Chiron and Demetrius, baked in that pie whereof their mother daintily hath fed, eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
Pies get thrown, of course. It’s such a stale gag to take a cream pie in the face that somebody is always trying to get the last word on the pie-throwing topic. Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops drove the idea into the ground starting in the mid-teens, so in 1927, to put the bit to rest, Laurel And Hardy attempted to stage a pie fight after which there would not need to be any more pie fights—in a movie called The Battle Of The Century, the long-missing second reel of which was recently discovered to the delight of people old enough to miss those guys.
In the ’70s, Mel Brooks tried once again to stage the actual last necessary pie fight in Blazing Saddles (after The Great Race had tried to do so in the ’60s). And recently, our hero Finn in Adventure Time created (accidentally and with divine aid) an ongoing character, his loyal Never-Ending Pie-Throwing Robot, or NEPTR. Pie-throwing has been a meta-ironic way to get a laugh for years.
To be honest, pie seems like it’s kind of asking to be messed with. Pie fights, yes, but also pie sex, pie-fueled barf, pie-camouflaged murder most foul, windowsill pie theft, pie with the flesh of a mother’s sons baked right in and deviously fed to her—the examples go on and on. Righteously angry women are not portrayed in stories such as The Help baking vengeance into a cake.
Why mess with pie? It’s such a convivial food, and ideal for sharing—the escaped convicts in the Coens’ odyssey O Brother, Where Art Thou? were never closer than when sharing stolen pie. Pie brings us together and lightens the mood, and seems to recall simpler times, despite being tricky to make: It’s hard to get every component just the way you want it, from crust to filling to general appearance. Similar to the ability to brew decent coffee, some people just have a knack for pie-making.
In Labor Day, Josh Brolin has the knack. He holds a family hostage, yet wins the confidence of Kate Winslet and her son—his victims—pretty much at the moment he sensually demonstrates pie-making. The movie uses his homey skill to imply that at heart he’s a decent, trustable soul, bathed in golden light and peach juice. He even states his case for redemption pretty explicitly: “Pie crust is a very forgiving thing; you can make all kinds of mistakes…” Critics were not quite as forgiving as pie crust.
There’s lots of ways pie can go wrong (despite Andy Griffith’s claims in this old lemon-meringue filling ad)—and that includes the reception it receives.
No pie? Aunt Bee is confused. She sits back down. Clearly something is amiss here—into which the viewer can easily infer a larger plot complication, because the gifted writers of The Andy Griffith Show had the power to maintain the sort of mild but unrelenting tension that demands a viewer sit still and follow even a simple story through all three traditional acts. They managed to sketch the microcosm of Mayberry with beautifully specific details, and pie is as much an emblem of the show as Barney’s single, pocketed bullet.
Aunt Bee takes the resistance to her apple pie (and Barney’s goofy advice) pretty well, but it’s hard to come up with something more heartbreaking in general than the rebuffed offer of a lovingly made pie—a pie whose maker anticipated smiles and nods. That vulnerable aura doesn’t even require a direct snub, just a sense of having gone unappreciated. That might explain why, at times, pies have an air of melancholy that sets them apart from other foods: Pies are hopeful things, presented with optimism to a world that might not fully appreciate them, and it often seems heartbreakingly inevitable that the world can’t measure up to their goodness—similar to certain people who aren’t really equipped for life’s harshness yet must cope with it. Pies don’t cause melancholy, but they tend to accompany it.
And, of course, shaking off that melancholy, it’s probably the pie’s cozy reputation that makes it such a tempting vehicle for corruption. Pie is an excellent cover for subversive intent—including, of course, dirty, rotten, filthy sexual innuendo—but more than that, it sits there all sweet and vulnerable on its cooling rack, a perfect temptation for schemers and devils. Pie sets up contrast. Snow White is in the market for an apple to put in a pie so pure that those perfect judges of character—Disney woodland creatures—help out; somehow the interruption of pie-making widens the chasm between Snow’s goodness and the jealous queen’s evil pitching of the poisoned apple as if she were selling snake oil. Also there’s real evil in a diner filled with the unfriendly Jim Crow racists of Eddie Murphy’s Life in which a couple of black travelers are greeted with cruel, unwarranted threats to their life over pie. And there’s an endlessly discussed undercurrent of malevolence beneath every moment of Twin Peaks, which is made all the more threatening by the contrasting surface cheer—and famous pie—of the diner.
All of which leads us back to Minny’s “terrible awful,” in The Help. The klannish housewife who makes her life hell is such a broadly drawn Cruella Deville of a racist, we’re easily led as readers and viewers to approve of Minny’s decision to feed desecrated pie to the villainess. But it’s the device of pie that’s key here—Miss Hilly should have been more suspicious than the plot allows her to be; the entire story pretty much depends on the innocence and friendliness of pie to maintain our disbelief. Who would suspect a pie? We’re asked to accept that even scheming Hilly could never think of pie as anything but a peace-making, bygones-are-bygones gift. Since the shame of being fooled and urgency of keeping hidden her ingestion of shit is what will presumably protect the potentially endangered cooks and maids from Hilly’s retribution, that pie is essentially a whipped-cream-adorned deus ex machina made with that good vanilla from Mexico. Deus ex crustum, perhaps.
It’s magical chocolate pie. And it’s a matter of perspective and the judgment of readers whether it’s a good pie or a bad pie. Pie can be ambiguous: it might contain goodness and might contain four-and-20 blackbirds. This ambiguity is why I think we have our perfect pie spokesman in Andy Griffith.
Andy Griffith—both the character he plays on his TV show and, because it seems such an effortless performance, possibly the man himself—appears to be entirely good, at a glance. And yet, because we know the South’s history, and we know there are few if any African Americans in Mayberry, and we know that sometimes Sheriff Andy can stop being friendly and turn serious, we wonder. We wonder what’s inside.
With A Face In The Crowd, Griffith began his motion-picture career playing a complicated, unpleasant character—and in Waitress, his last role, he at least pretends to be a curmudgeon. Of course, the plot of Waitress requires that he turn out to be sweet—he’s the deus ex crusty-old-rich-guy the plot requires for the rom to be a com. The movie itself is a pleasant affair in which the eponymous restaurant server has a knack for making pies—she freestyles recipes based on her mood, naming them appropriately based on which chapter of the story needs telling.
So in a career that’s inarguably pie-centric, Andy Griffith’s characters manage to evoke both the sweet and the tart. Which leads to a comic by the Friedman brothers that can make the light and flaky crust of stories told in The Andy Griffith Show seem like missed opportunities at best, and evasion at the worst: Every Mayberry tale of an eventually harmless dynamite-eating goat can seem to be just a diversion from the larger, untold story. That story is jarringly convincingly told by the Friedmans in a couple brisk pages (reprinted in the first issue of Art Spiegelman’s Raw). This is an excerpt:
The comic begins and ends with pie in its first and last panels, and has the familiar feel of a typical episode’s opening moments—but soon Goober gives Andy and Barney a call from the filling station when an African American man stops for gas. Changing from their “pie sounds good” demeanor into heartless Klansmen, Andy and Barney end up leading the town in lynching the motorist, with a grotesquely rendered Aunt Bee delivering a death blow using the same rolling pin, we assume, she used to make the pie. It all happens in just a few panels of awful yet believable dialogue, and we know that high-profile members of certain real-world communities must have been involved, at some point, in such awful acts. It’s a short, terrible, well-done, powerful comic: It might have happened. The Friedman brothers brought together realistic drawings, soul-sickening history we try to forget, and the threat of making us laugh at something we want to cry about, then bookended the horror with anticipation of pie.
That’s an effective way to confront racism: more effective than using it as the catalyst for the good fortune of a white novelist writing about it, as in The Help, or simply distracting us all from the topic’s ugliness with marvelously told yet ultimately anodyne small-town tales set right in the region where the worst was possible. And it works well to frame the horror with pie—you can imagine what probably, possibly would have happened to Sidney Poitier in In The Heat Of The Night if there’d been dessert waiting at Rod Steiger’s house, making his sheriff less open to letting Mr. Tibbs explain himself.
Pie is the perfect, messed-up frame for such an efficiently presented story. It’s so wholesome, somehow it’s just asking to be used as an ironic or drastically contrasting element.
Talk about a terrible awful.
Upcoming: The breakfast machine