On Pie: A Tool of Feminist Power and Resistance for Centuries
Pie is a funny thing. Both unbelievably simple (they don't say "easy as pie" for nothing) and endlessly complicated. It's a kindergarten-level basic equation: crust + filling. But that crust must be kept flaky and that filling must not be too runny and you need to cut vents in the top lest steam overwhelm the whole proceeding. Similarly, the crust itself is made from just four ingredients. But those four ingredients must be ice cold and handled with the delicate touch of a grandmother.
Pie is intimidating to a lot of people. It's also the essence of summer and love and celebration to even more. In the south, where I'm from, it's practically a cultural landmark.
It's also been a tool of feminist power and resistance for centuries.
In southern cities during the 19th century, trained black domestic workers operated pie stalls, earning an income and financial freedom in a society designed to prevent them from doing so. At "farm women markets" during the early 20th century, rural housewives (mostly white), sold pies and other homemade products to provide substantial income that frequently kept their families afloat, particularly during the Depression. Selling pies at curb markets transformed these women into entrepreneurial businesswomen who were empowered and independent.
In 1904, Dr. Mary McLeod founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. She began the school with five girls and little money, so in order to earn capital to keep the school open, Dr. Bethune would bake and sell sweet potato pies. She primarily sold to white clientele, and she would go to resort towns nearby to access these customers. The enterprise proved successful and the school remained open; today it continues to exists as Bethune Cookman University, a prominent HBCU.
During the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s, Georgia Gilmore, a local cook, organized the “Club from Nowhere,” which raised money by selling pies and cakes at locations like beauty parlors, laundromats, and gas stations in order to fund carpools. This “pie and cake money” was then used to buy station wagons for the boycott, making pie a tangible tool to advance social change.
In Arkansas, where fried pies are the norm, pie-making became a means of female socialization and community in a male-dominated society. It was over hot oil and rolled dough that women were able to connect in a shared female space, building primarily feminine relationships that touched upon the difficulties and triumphs of female identity.
Throughout American history, particularly in the south, pie has been a dish created by women, from enslaved female domestic workers to street vendors to housewives to hired help. It was women who made the pies that tell the story of history, and thus it was women who championed the changes, innovations, and steadfast traditions that have defined this dish. As a result, pie recipes have become a cultural heirloom to be passed down from one generation of women to the next, creating a link across centuries and decades.
Many people associate pie with their mothers or grandmothers, because it was these figures who made pies for their family or taught them how to do so themselves. The art of pie-making may be declining and devalued, but the potency of this dish lives on. As we celebrate this season of produce and bounty and pie, let us remember our link to the fierce female pie makers who've blazed the way before us.