SOME THINGS ARE worth turning on the oven for in August. Pie is one. Summer, perhaps even more than fall, is ripe with pie possibilities: fragrant peach, juicy blackberry, tart-sweet cherry, or strawberry-rhubarb. More obscure fillings might include green tomatoes or Concord grapes. On the hottest nights, I have seen warm pie disappear faster than the vanilla ice cream on top, with nary a complaint--except perhaps from the cook who was in the hot kitchen.
Our national dessert, in fact, has its floury roots in the warm climates of Greece and Italy. Among the first to perfect flour-grinding techniques, the Greeks made fine honey pastries that were famous in the ancient world. Political and cultural conquests had royal Roman tart bakers trying new pie ingredients such as cheese, wine, olive oil, milk, and spices. Their huge pies enveloped fish, songbirds, ham, or figs in a pastry crust. The culinary custom spread with the Roman Empire.
The French developed pastry making into an art, and William the Conqueror--accompanied by his pastry chef--took pie to England, where herb tarts, custards, and small meat pastries became standard fare. The Pilgrims brought treasured family pie recipes with them to the New World and adapted to local ingredients such as molasses, sweet potatoes, and fruits. Scarce food could be stretched to serve more people when sauced and served with a double crust or topped with mashed potatoes.
Our American forebears happily ate pie for breakfast, lunch, and supper. One of the few things I know about the grandfather I never met is that he wanted my grandmother to make him a pie every day. My grandmother taught me properly to reverence this food, and gave me her time-tested recipe for a flawless pie crust--that most feared kitchen art.