Rossi Anastopoulo, blog editor for King Arthur Baking Company, received the 2019 International Association of Culinary Professionals Award for Narrative Food Writing for her piece on the bean pie and the Nation of Islam. In Sweet Land of Liberty (Abrams, Oct.), she dishes the stories behind 11 noteworthy pies and traces 400 years of rich and troubled history from the colonial era to the present day. Anastopoulo spoke with PW about research, recipes, and reexamining history in tumultuous times.

Why pie?

I love pie; it’s delicious. And although versions of it exist in many different countries and cultures, American pie is so distinct to this nation. It’s amorphous and malleable and versatile, which makes it a great lens for telling broader stories about our country and its history. Also, pies and, more broadly, desserts, are unnecessary. When people make them, it really can be very instructive. Settlers going west made mock apple pie to evoke their mother’s apple pie. It wasn’t to fulfill a nutritional need, but an emotional one. Pie has evolved and adapted to encompass so many things. Apple pie can be made with real apples or with crackers—two distinct approaches and two entirely different entry points into a story.

What were your research challenges and triumphs?

Access, especially for older pies. We don’t have as many records from hundreds of years ago. For example, I read that Abraham Lincoln liked a certain bakery that served pecan pie; I wished I could find a menu from that bakery. The flip side was true for some of the later pies: the breadth of information was often hard to wrap my arms around. The final chapter is on how apple pie became a symbol of America and how the saying “as American as apple pie” became prevalent. That meant sorting through almost a century’s worth of newspapers.

The coolest parts were when I had a theory and then found the info to back it up. The pumpkin pie evolved with Thanksgiving and became a manufactured symbol of an America that completely erased Indigenous traditions. I found an anecdote from a boarding school that sought to assimilate Indigenous children, and they were served pumpkin pie during a Thanksgiving celebration. I wasn’t happy to find that, but it really did so perfectly illustrate this type of story.

What does it mean to be writing about American history in these times?

I wanted to write about the darker side of American history and the painful moments in which “American values” were actually about the wrong things. I desperately didn’t want it to come across as a blind patriotic ode to the United States of America. The legacies of racism and sexism are woven into the fabric of our history. So many of the themes in the book are visible in the social justice issues of today.

Which pie stories are you most excited for the reader to discover?

Abby Fisher and her sweet potato pie because, one, she’s such an important cookbook author in the history of American food, and two, the pie’s a little bit unexpected. There are no spices in it—just sweet potatoes and a little bit of orange juice. When I served it to my family, they thought it was one of the best sweet potato pies they’d ever eaten. It’s an interesting recipe from a baking perspective and an eating one.

Return to main feature.