How many times are you going to get the chance to spend the day baking pies inside one of America’s most famous landmarks? It’s safe to say that no one will ever invite me to bake with them at the Empire State Building. I’ll never roll dough on the Golden Gate Bridge, or slide a plump pie into a hot oven at the White House. But Beth Howard, the gracious lady who lives in the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, invited me to bake pies with her at this humble home made famous in the Grant Wood painting. She opened her kitchen to a complete stranger, based only on our shared love of pie; we each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. I was not going to pass up an opportunity like that.
You might recall from my earlier posts (here, here and here) that Beth was the one who made my trip to Iowa possible. I had emailed her after hearing her tale of pie redemption on National Public Radio, because her pie passion made it clear that she was a pie sister I needed to know. And because she had spoken so warmly of the Iowa state fair, which my pie-loving friend Lesli had urged me to go to, since it would be “pie heaven.” Beth emailed back with far more than a hello; she asked if I’d like an introduction to the lady who brought in pie judges for the fair. And that’s how I ended up wearing a judge’s badge and taking a spot at the tasting table.
Beth found me a place to stay in Des Moines, too. It’s hard for normal people to understand, but we who are so over-the-top passionate about piemaking recognize kindred spirits in one another, and we bond. When I opened my home to Kate McDermott, my Seattle pie guru, for workshops in June, a few of my friends were a little fearful that I had lost my sane sense of safety and skepticism. How, they asked, could you let a strange woman sleep in your house for four nights? What if she’s an ax murderer? Pie-making and ax murdering just don’t mix; I knew my faith would be borne out, and Kate was not only a lovely houseguest, but is now a good friend with plans to return.
Beth’s piemaker friend, the bubbly Kathleen Beebout, proved as gracious and generous a hostess as Kate was a
houseguest. As I told you, she not only saved the energy to escort me around the fair after the pie-judging, but she spent the rest of the evening chatting with me and pouring me wine in her kitchen while she made a coconut cream pie. She gave me an adorable room in her charming old house, took me to the incredible Des Moines farmer’s market the next morning, and made sure I was always in her rear-view mirror as we caravanned to Eldon to bake with Beth.
So it was on this updraft of fellowship and generosity that I arrived at the little white farmhouse in the rural community of Eldon, a couple hours’ drive southeast of Des
Moines. Kathleen had prepared and packed an entire dinner party in the trunk of her car, down to the smallest detail of cutlery, knowing we all would be exhausted after a day of baking. So we knew we had a lovely unwinding to look forward to: guests were invited, and were in Kathleen’s capable hands.
But first there was baking to do. A ton of baking. Really fast.
You see, Beth had just returned in the wee hours of that morning from Los Angeles, where she had taped the Marie Osmond show in the wake of the tour to promote her new book, Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie. She had left the Friday night pie-prep in the hands of a small crew of teenagers she had trained to do the job, but came home to find that not only had they screwed up all the pies they made–half the inventory Beth was counting on to open the Pitchfork Pie Stand that day–but they had left the kitchen a god-awful mess, too. So when Kathleen and I stepped out of our cars at 9 a.m., we hugged an exhausted, at-her-wits-end-already Beth, and headed straight for the kitchen.
While the lattes brewed, we dove into the pie making. Beth’s stand sells about 100 pies each weekend, and would be opening in less than three hours. Luckily, Kathleen had packed the leftover pies she had entered in various contests at the state fair; so the day’s first customers happily bought slices of gooseberry and mixed berry pie while the three of us mixed and rolled out dough. Beth whisked the first round of pies–Shaker lemon–into the oven, and we moved right into the apple two-crust and apple crumb.
Chatting and sipping coffee, we took turns on mixing-and-rolling-dough duty, and on apple coring/slicing/peeling duty. Somewhere in the haze of the apple pie chapter, Dianne and Neal Rinehart–Beth’s friends and the sponsors of the peach pie contest she judges at the fair–dropped by to say hi. Not the sort of people who need to be asked, they saw our sweaty foreheads, our floury faces and arms, our half-drunk coffee and our racing from table to oven, and they dropped their stuff, rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. Suddenly, that tiny kitchen felt big enough–and big-hearted enough–to accommodate all five of us as we formed an efficient piemaking crew.
When Kathleen’s friend Ned showed up in early afternoon, he was dispatched to customer-service duty in the pie stand, which operates out of the house’s little sitting room. He gamely sold pies and made change while the rest of us scurried around in the kitchen.
The American Gothic House is not your typical place to live; tourists are constantly poking around, peering in the windows, and opening the creaky screen door to the kitchen and assuming they can just come on in and look around (especially when they smell pie baking). Beth has become adept at diplomatically rerouting them to the only public space in the house (the front room where the pie stand is). But she also takes breaks to uphold her duty as resident of one of America’s great icons; she obligingly fetches the pitchfork so they can pose for pictures out front, offers them a little friendly chat, and lets them know about the old-time costumes they can borrow for their portraits from the visitors’ center next door.
Somehow, amid Beth’s tourist-hosting duties, and all of our rolling, filling, slicing, shaping and baking, the hours passed and we found ourselves churning out pies by the dozen. Some customers had to wait a bit for pies to cool, but they snapped them up as soon as they could. At 5 p.m., Beth brought in the Pitchfork Pie Stand sign, marking the end of one hell of a pie-making day. The Rineharts headed on their merry way, and the rest of us–joined now by Beth’s sweetie, Matt–cheered a successful day of baking by moving directly into cleanup and dinner preparation.
With Beth in recovery mode and Kathleen firmly in charge, a backyard dinner party took shape in no time flat. Ned moved graciously from pie-selling duty into grillmeister mode. He obliged Kathleen by first grilling the gorgeous Italian bread she had brought from the Des Moines farmer’s market. While he presided over a sizzling array of marinated beef and pork, she turned the grilled bread into scrumptious, fresh-tomatoey bruschetta. We snacked and got right into the wine while Ned grilled.
Beth’s friend Patti joined us, and the six of us worked our way through the bruschetta to the tangy bean-and-corn salad, grilled meats, and grilled eggplant and zucchini. As the light faded, and the little circle of candles on the table illuminated us, we chatted about Iowa, politics and other things, slowly working our way toward dessert. Kathleen’s coconut cream pie–from a recipe in Beth’s book, by prize-winning local baker Arlene Kildow–was a huge hit. Beth liked it so much, in fact, that she licked the plate.
Eventually, the exhaustion of the day toppled us, and one by one, the guests left, and the rest of us tumbled off to bed. After a sound sleep and a farewell coffee the next morning, sitting in the sun in front of the American Gothic House–in front of the American Gothic House! Just sitting there! Sipping coffee in our bare feet!--it was hugs all around, pledges to return for the fair and more baking next year, and for me, a drive through the Iowa farmland, back to the airport.
I drove the quiet two-lane road, listening to the country music weekly top-hits countdown, with all the images of my time in Iowa running through my head like a slide show. A once-in-a-lifetime weekend, with big-hearted souls who extended friendship to me, all because of pie. I came back home ready to pass that spirit on to others.