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The Blessed Season of Chemical Pie

“You brought a pie! Thank you!” I exclaim, while pretending to be distracted so that my guest who was thoughtful enough to bring food to my gathering won’t see my snarky face.

If my kids followed this blog (they don’t), they would be rolling their eyes about my longstanding obsession with what I call “chemical pie”. My nearest family members know perfectly well what chemical pies are and how I feel about them, but anyone outside of our immediate family has no idea, because if they did, they would not bring a confection made of glucono delta lactone into my house.

To my cherished in-laws, you must know by now that I love you and appreciate you. To my friends who are not obsessed with cooking, the same goes for you. To all of you—friends and family— I am coming out of the closet about store pies. Forgive me for being an insufferable ingrate.

I am not trying to brag, but I make everything from scratch with a few exceptions. I got this from my parents who lived through the Depression. And, I am lucky enough to be married to someone who likes to grow things as much as I like to cook. I often boast to My Royal Consort that I am a vision of home economy.

Already I can hear the cacophony of protests from those of you who are fans of chemical pies. “But I can’t make a good piecrust”, “I hate to bake, waaaaaaaah”. That is fine. I do not expect you to drive yourself crazy with recalcitrant piecrust just to make me happy. When we first met, I never made pie baking a prerequisite to being my friend. I accept you just as you are, so please, never feel that you must bring me a chemical pie from Stop & Shop or the farm stand. I will still be your friend. I understand that not everyone can be as industrious and gifted as I am.

It wasn’t until we started hosting potluck house concerts back in the early aughts that chemical pies entered my life in a meaningful way. After the chairs had been put away, the trash taken out, the furniture put back and the hangovers vanquished, there would still be this troublesome assortment of chemical pies in various states of saccharine disarray piled up in a gooey heap on my kitchen counter.

Back then, our boys were voracious pre-teens, but even they would quickly grow weary of the cloying chem-pies, and would abandon them after a few days. Because I am nothing if not thrifty, I would skimp on buying them snacks for the week, figuring that if they wanted sugary snacks they could just eat pie, but the pies would remain uneaten, persistently drifting around the kitchen  like beach flotsam.

Eventually, I would have to concede that even my boys, who claimed to be chronically starving and suffering from rickets, were not going to eat those chemical pies. Thanks to science, the pies remained stable and inert after a week of being unrefrigerated. Eventually I would concede defeat and haul all the pies down off the top of the fridge and begin dumping them.

But how do you dispose of a chemical pie? Does it belong in the compost or in the trash? To this day I still don’t know, and six days after Thanksgiving, I am facing this same question once again. Thing 1 decamped back to Vermont on Friday with one of my homemade pumpkin pies, and Thing 2 refused to board a plane with so much as a slice of the chemical pie that I had hidden in his carry-on, because he claimed to be unclear about how he would eat it without a fork. I was left with a small-scale environmental catastrophe on my countertop.

Meanwhile, the chemical pies, now over a week old, mock me from atop the fridge, tempting me with their good looks. If those pies were an ensemble of aging movie stars, and I was a director, I would cast them in leading roles because they look that good.

After disposing of the pies themselves, there is the little matter of the baking tins. Do I save them in case I want to make a pie and bring it somewhere? Maybe I will reuse the tins in a craft project, or make a scarecrow and hang the pie tins from strings in the blueberry patch to frighten birds away.

And then there are those industrial plastic clamshells that enclose the chemical pie in a petrochemical cocoon. They are rugged and indestructible. Unless you use tin snips or pinking shears to cut them apart, the clamshells will turn your trashcan into a big plastic void. The containers are so sturdy that they could easily imprison a live rodent and they are only recyclable in certain places.

I don’t want to create the impression that I consider myself too rarefied to eat a little chemical pie once in awhile. Marijuana is illegal for a reason, the reason being that it is a gateway drug. In my case, marijuana is a gateway drug to chemical pie. Under the influence, I will bypass the peanut butter, the cashews, the whole-wheat cracker, and gorge on the chemical pie until my tongue sprouts blisters and my throat closes up.

During this Thanksgiving season I have sampled several of the pies and have the following reviews. As I mentioned, one of the pies, a vivid magenta-colored confection that I think was intended to approximate cherry pie, was tasty but caused my mouth to break out in hives. The pumpkin pie that I tried to sneak past the TSA was fairly benign, closely resembling library paste in both texture and flavor.

The real standout in our assortment of leftover chemical pie was the blueberry. There is no other way to describe this pie other then to say that the filling closely resembled in texture, hue and flavor a pie filling produced by a wild bear that had recently feasted on blueberries (not that I have first hand experience tasting pie filling made my bears).

Instead of wasting the many perfectly preserved pies that linger long after the holiday or potluck, try these activities.

  1. Separate the list of ingredients from the pie box, cross out the main ingredient and guess what kind of pie it is. For example, read the ingredients below and guess what kind of pie it is. Pumpkin? Blueberry? Apple?

____________, water, wheat flour, sugar, palm oil, eggs, corn syrup, non-fat milk, dairy whey, butter, food starch mod, dextrose, salt, spices, mono and diglycerides, carob bean, xanthan gum, carrageenan, potassium chloride, whole wheat, graham flour, palm kernel oil, molasses, honey, baking soda, natural and artificial flavors, glucono delta lactone, citric acid, ascorbic acid, potassium sorbate, sodium propionate

  1. Chemical pies are often surprisingly heavy. Try to estimate the specific gravity of a pumpkin pie. How does it compare to a berry pie? A chiffon pie?
  2.  Berry pies are bound together by a mucilaginous substance. Make your own festive post-it notes by cutting paper into 2” x 2” squares and using your finger to paint a sticky strip along the top edge.
  3. Try using the lattice piecrust as a stencil to create a fun pattern.
  4. Collect a slice from each pie and see how long it takes for each slice to coalesce into something unrecognizable. Tip: this activity can do double duty as a science fair project in the spring if you start now.
  5. Chemical pies make great lipstick. Get a flirty look with cherry pie, or go goth with blueberry. Not only are the pie fillings vivid and playful, they taste just like potassium sorbate.
  6. Target shooting is a great way to relax and unwind after the holidays. If those pie tins are still full of pie, you can still shoot them—just don’t step in it in the spring after the snow melts.
  7. Sponsor a pie-eating contests with generous cash prizes for anyone who can eat a chemical pie.
  8. During this holiday season, remember those less fortunate and consider donating your uneaten chemical pies to the local food pantry. Poor and food-insecure people love sodium propionate just as much as the next guy.

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4 comments

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  1. Jody Petersen says:

    Hmm, curious. I wonder if this might be a regional thing…In my circle of friends and acquaintances in the mountain west no one would ever consider bringing a “chemical” pie to a gathering. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one at any social function. I do see them at the grocery store and they are frightening to be sure.

    But there are a lot of Mormons in my community and I have no doubt that ALL their parties have an abundance of chemical pie offerings!

    More grant writing here Liz!

    Jody

  2. Catherine Rutherfurd says:

    I love pie.

  3. Karin Aukerman says:

    I’m glad this arrived in my email this morning. It gives a new meaning to Thanksgiving, holiday meals and pies! I admit, I use the Pillsbury prepared pie crust, and am seriously rethinking this in view of your post. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. admin says:

      I have had your pies and you have nothing to worry about.

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