Dessert debate: cake vs pie
October 14th, 2013
12:00 PM ET
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Each autumn, some of the world's most prominent food scholars, chefs, journalists and enthusiasts gather together on the campus of the University of Mississippi for a symposium on the state of Southern food. Overarching themes covered by the Southern Foodways Alliance in the previous 15 years have included the role of farmers, a study of global influences, the undercurrents of music and booze, just to name a few. The subject at the core of 2013's installment: Women at Work.

For two days, featured presenters and honorees like Diane Roberts, Vertamae Grosvenor, Emily Wallace, Candacy Taylor, Charlotte Druckman, among many others, spoke eloquently and enthusiastically of the essential roles that women have played in the creation of Southern food culture past and present.

Then it was time for dessert. Eatocracy's managing editor Kat Kinsman and New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson faced off in a tongue-in-cheek Lincoln-Douglas debate. The topic at hand: which holds more essential social and emotional currency in the South, pie or cake?

Kinsman defended the pro-pie position, and Severson took the side of cake. They tied, by an assessment of audience applause, but here in the spirit of National Dessert Day, we're serving up slices of both their arguments. Dig in.

Pie vs Cake Debate: The Case for Pie by Kat Kinsman
Presented October 5, 2013 at the University of Mississippi as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium on the topic of Women at Work

Friends, colleagues, family, I come to you today not to denigrate anyone’s beloved dessert, not to pooh-pooh anyone’s pudding, not to take my esteemed opponent’s cake (bless her heart), but rather to speak to you of the exalted state in which the head, the hands and the heart find communion with fat, flour, filling and the benign guidance of bakers past to form a most wondrous alchemy.

I speak to you of the state of perfect piety.

- Head

First, matters of the head.

Now, unlike its gussied-up and admittedly lovely cousin, cake, the humble pie is born of economy and austerity - a testament to its makers’ thriftiness, prowess and sensibility.

If we wanna get all historical about it, we can look to the Egyptians’ use of dough as a cooking, serving and storage vessel. We can note Medieval Britain’s fetish for stuffing meats, dates, currants and pepper into crusts (along with the occasional live bird and court dwarf) in order to serve and preserve it.

The Pilgrims (who never got invited to the live bird pie parties, anyhow) adapted some of the same strategy when they set up shop in the new world (minus the whole morally dicey dwarf encasement part of it).

When faced with the abundance - and cruelly short season of - fruit and game in their adopted land, and a finite and ever dwindling supply of flour too scant to yield bread (let alone a fancy-pants cake), those resourceful, ocean-crossing upstarts realized that their best bet for sustaining themselves through a raw and wicked winter and go about the business of nation building - was to roll pie.

Those strategically crafted crusts were stretched across spiced fillings (usually cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, along with dried fruit), keeping them fresh and in play during the leaner times. Those hardy souls who emerged at the end of the long winter forged forth to the West, and more importantly - the South, where they hit the pie ingredient jackpot.

Suddenly, berries and muscadines, nuts, sweet potatoes and stone fruit - not to mention cream and buttermilk from non-starving cows and lard from deliciously fatty fat fat pigs - became available to supplant those hardy and damnable apples in the settlers’ diets.

And the ladies - of course it was ladies, the men were all off with, like, railroad spikes and moustache wax and stuff - the ladies went hog wild with the possibilities.

As we all know, in the South, there is perhaps no currency more vaunted and valuable than having a recipe with an ingredient that no one else can figure out.

(“I just know that Murjean Hodnett uses Cremora in her chess pie when she makes it at home, but she swears that recipe she gave to the bulletin is exactly how she makes it.”)

Tsk tsk Murjean. (And in my house, we call that a “lessipe.”)

So while there is now a particular canon of classic pie formats - your fruit pies, cream pies, tomato pies, nut pies, custard pies, chocolate pies, meringue pies, molasses pies, mince pies, sweet potato pies, onion pies a la Eudora Welty, savory meat pies, not to mention single crust, double crust, lattice crust, hand pies and so on - there is enough variance to allow each happy homemaker to put her own stamp upon it. And believe that hers is the superior version.

Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy? Why yes she can - and she can do it thriftily and she’s famous all over the county for it. I oughta marry that girl...(Well, if MurJean Hodnett says no. Have you TRIED her chess pie?!)

tomato pie
Lard-crust tomato pie by chef Vivian Howard

- Hands

But that girl...that woman...she is not baking alone.

Cake can happen at a remove - a spatula or box top’s distance away. To make a perfectly socially acceptable, “bring along to the covered dish” or “celebrate a family birthday” cake, these days, you don’t actually need to know much of the art of cake making.

Heck, some manner of sentient robot or a curious and peckish alien could conceivably roll or, you know, plop (whatever aliens do) into a kitchen, scan the side of a box, dump the ingredients into a mixer and churn out what most of us would accept as a reasonable rendition of the thing we know as cake, even if said RoboAlien never seen, tasted or probed a slice.

It is a dish for which a written-down recipe is perfectly sufficient - and whose flaws, both cosmetic and culinary, can easily be ameliorated with the application of a whole lot of frou-frou crap. Sometimes, the cake is a lie.

But pie - pie is naked, unapologetic and honest. It eschews geometric perfection and requires no extra adornment. What it does need is communion.

When you bake a pie, you are in the kitchen in the company of ghosts. If you are crafting a crust, it’s most likely because at some point in your life, someone thought well enough of you to stand beside you at a counter and gift the muscle memory from her hands to yours.

Your mother, your aunt, your grandmother, or - heaven forfend - your mother-in-law decided it was time to truly assume you into the sisterhood. She guided your fingers as they worked the flour into the fat, flicked in the water and kneaded it all to the proper mass.

The temperature, texture, give, and crumble and pull of the dough were committed unto your skin, and you were folded fully into your family’s legacy.

A cake can be piped, sprinkled and tweezed onto, but a pie - a pie must be touched to transubstantiate.

And once that crust has been mastered, the whole world is possible. And to be perfectly fair, a some people do opt for a pre-made or frozen crust.

But unlike a boxed-mix cake, which can be tarted up with frosting and frills and presented with a flourish of “Look at what I homemade for you!” - a woman who comes bearing a pie with a store-bought crust inevitably serves a little bit of self-shaming and apology on the side.

whiskey buttermilk pie
Whiskey buttermilk pie by chef Elizabeth Karmel

- Heart

Cake, as pretty, sweet and celebratory as it is, is an emotional and textural monolith. No matter the presence of multiple layers, it is much of a muchness, almost smug in its abundance of fat, egg, sugar and smear.

Cake, in its most exalted form, is showy. It is smooth-edged, statuesque and oooohhhhh - almost “too pretty to eat.” It is Carrie Underwood to pie’s June Carter Cash (and frankly, who’d you rather have at your table?).

In a pie-in-the-sky world, there would be nothing but birthdays, graduations, weddings and other occasions of full, plenty and completion to commemorate. But where cake is for celebration, pie is for affirmation.

Pie is culturally and socially multivalent in a way that cake is not. It is a labor of love - sometimes a rough-edged and ugly object that contains within it, a hope and a vote for sustenance on many levels.

Pie - no matter the baker and the eater - is a gift. It is also a marker of moments in an infinitely more wide-ranging way than cake ever is.

When it is the height of a season, and you want to honor and embrace the fruit of the groves, the bounty of the patch, or the brief and fleeting blossom of the vine, you roll out some pie dough.

When a friend is about to embark upon an undertaking that might require some sustenance and fortitude, you might send along a hand pie for their journey - a substantial pocket filled with your best wishes in a way a cupcake never could. You roll that pie.

And when there is sadness - an end of love, a decline of the corporeal, a cinching-in of income...or even a loss of life, you know what to do. Any Southern woman worth her Memama’s box of index cards does.

You tie on your apron, you flour the counter, you pick up that pin and You. Roll. Pie.

bean pie
Traditional bean pie by CNN photojournalist Anthony Umrani

My worthy opponent Kim Severson (who donned a dress for the first time in 25 years to mark the solemnity of the occasion) countered in part:

"Cake is the marker of holidays and life events, a way to say this thing, this moment, has meaning. Real meaning....If food has long been the central form entertainment in Southern life, cakes are the dramatic final act in the play. Cakes, whether from Costco, the corner bakery or countless Southern kitchens, mark the moments of our lives."

"Back when refined sugar and nuts and spices were luxuries, so was a cake. You were truly honored when someone made you one. Cakes say - you are important. Sure, pie is invited to the funeral repast, the church revival, and the family reunion. But it is the cake that is the prized guest."

"There is an alchemy in cake baking, a prescribed formula that must be followed. Butter is creamed with sugar. Leavening goes into flour. Flour mixes with liquid. Each step is as precise as a Bible verse, and requires the full trust of the cook who places pans of butter in the oven then waits with faith, believing - knowing – that a cake will emerge.

This is true faith, the kind that comes from generations of believers who stand on the shoulders of the cake makers who came before them."

For the rest of Kim Severson's case on behalf of cake, visit the New York Times Dining section, and weigh in below on which dessert takes the cake - or pie.

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Michelle Branch's brown sugar pineapple pie
The sweet appeal of bean pie
More about Southern food on Eatocracy

soundoff (94 Responses)
  1. Spydermine

    The age old question... answered in a rap battle.

    Cake VS Pie Rap Battle

    June 18, 2014 at 8:49 pm |
  2. shawn l

    Why is this old article dragged up again?

    March 15, 2014 at 5:06 am |
  3. Thinking things through

    Neither. Ice cream.

    March 14, 2014 at 7:28 pm |
  4. TNT

    @Kat K, Not only did you make the people there lol, I did, too! Great video! You make me want to vote for pie. Lol! 😛

    March 14, 2014 at 2:38 pm |
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