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.

Make perfect pie crust
Bringing healing to Newtown, one pie at a time
It's checkmate for chess pie
Michelle Branch's brown sugar pineapple pie
The sweet appeal of bean pie
More about Southern food on Eatocracy

soundoff (94 Responses)
  1. Margaret Morgan

    My mother made the best apple pie hands down! But it was her pie crust that won accolades from me. The best ever! And then there was my Nana's coconut cake! Made from scratch:cake flour,freshly laid eggs,vanilla and freshly shredded coconut! The moistest and tallest cake ever! Great childhood memories!

    January 24, 2014 at 6:42 am |
    • JellyBean

      My gawd that sounds sooo good. Recipe???

      January 24, 2014 at 7:58 am |
  2. chefsoundar

    Reblogged this on chefsoundar.

    October 17, 2013 at 2:25 am |
  3. jj

    This reminds me of the University of Chicago’s great debate between latkes and hamantashen.

    October 16, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  4. jj


    October 16, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  5. AleeD®

    Has anyone tried to combine the two? You can have ice cream pies (nods to DKCP, Cold Stone God) as well as ice cream cakes. Is it possible to make, for example, a red velvet pie? Cheesecake comes close with it's cake name and pie form.

    I wonder ....

    October 16, 2013 at 7:20 am |
    • AleeD®

      DKCP s/b DJCP

      October 16, 2013 at 7:23 am |
      • RichardHead

        Sounds like Pie Ah La Commode to me.....

        October 16, 2013 at 7:51 am |
  6. Chuck Norris

    Pie! Why? 2 reasons.
    1. I said so.
    2. Pizza.

    October 16, 2013 at 7:06 am |
    • JellyBean

      L M A O ! Thank you!

      January 24, 2014 at 8:41 am |
  7. Bakelite

    Where do I click to vote for, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen on CNN"?

    October 16, 2013 at 3:09 am |
    • JellyBean

      I suspect that the dumbest thing you have ever seen is your reflection in a mirror.

      January 24, 2014 at 8:44 am |
  8. cj

    IMO an exceptional pie will destroy an exceptional cake any day of the week...but if you are buying them at a restaurant or the average bakery the cake is a sure bet while a pie is not.

    October 15, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  9. Ajax

    Even asking such a question is outrageous. It's like asking "Whose life would you save? Your mother or your grandmother?" Even the thought of making such a choice leaves me feeling mentally unbalanced. YOU'RE TEARING ME APART!

    October 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Shhhh! I'm secretly Team Cookie.

      October 15, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
      • Ajax

        I was so blinded about that horrifying cake and pie question, I almost forgot about cookies. Thank you for snapping me back to reality. What would the world be like without cake, pie and cookies.

        October 16, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • maxgbernard

      Why can't we have cake AND pie?

      October 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
      • Ajax

        Well that's the point isn't it? We can have both, and cookies too. The people that pose these exclusionary questions are insane. Maybe they're Nazis.

        October 16, 2013 at 12:21 am |
  10. jj


    October 15, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • KHS

      Marie Antoinette decided that long ago. She said "Let them eat cake!

      October 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  11. narsa

    pie go go!

    October 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  12. C to the J

    Chocolate fudge cake with vanilla icing is my favorite dessert.
    I really don't care for pie at all. I don't like the dry crust.

    October 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  13. Kim

    Why didn't you have any delicious cake pictures in this article? Swaying the votes a little . . . . . .

    October 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      'Cause I was arguing for Team Pie!

      October 15, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  14. Liu

    I couldn't help but to think of Portal as well! Thank you for so thoroughly and truthfully understanding the significance of pie.

    October 15, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I couldn't not do it. I'm just glad people picked up on it!

      October 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  15. Kitty

    Pie, but cake is good too..but I really prefer pie.

    October 15, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  16. Steve Marriott

    I would definitely vote for Humble Pie!

    October 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  17. Brian

    The cake is a lie .

    October 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Brian

      But I was told there would be cake.

      October 15, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  18. S. B. Stein

    While yes the pie is humble and good, it takes some skill and style to make a cake. Either one can be bought in a store. Making a cake from scratch requires effort and shows much in the way of variety. How many "wedding pies" have you seen or heard of? When someone has a retirement party, there isn't a huge pie; there is a cake. That should make the point.

    October 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Oscar

      This isn't about skill and style. It's about what people like.

      October 15, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Ally

      I've been to weddings that had pies and even a selection of cookies instead of cake. I didn't want cake at my wedding because I've never liked it. Given the choice I would choose pie over cake 100% of the time.

      October 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Another Country

      My nephew had donuts at his wedding.

      October 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
      • palintwit

        Is your nephew a tea party patriot ?

        October 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
        • Another Country

          He could be, I've never asked.

          October 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
      • JellyBean

        Krispy Kream?

        January 24, 2014 at 8:02 am |
      • Another Country

        I have heard of that, but his was not. Are you a fan of their hot donuts?

        January 24, 2014 at 8:18 am |
        • JellyBean

          Absolutely, love KK. What kind of donuts did he serve? I think it is a great idea.

          January 24, 2014 at 8:38 am |
  19. Mark L

    Overall pie is better. But if you just compare the best you have had of each then I would say cake wins. The best cake I have ever had is better than the best pie. But the worst cake is much worse than the worst pie. Finally, average pie is much better than average cake. So overall I would have to say that I would rather chose pie over cake

    October 15, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  20. *

    Twinkies, nuf said!

    October 15, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  21. Leigh


    October 15, 2013 at 9:22 am |
  22. palintwit

    Tea party patriots enjoy road kill pie. Then they chug Everclear from a mason jar to wash it down.

    October 15, 2013 at 8:06 am |
    • Really?

      Wow, what an amusinig and original comment!
      You really have a wide and varied repertoire in your comedic talents.

      October 15, 2013 at 8:16 am |
      • palintwit

        I'm not trying to be funny. I am merely stating the facts.

        October 15, 2013 at 10:05 am |
        • Nira

          You need to research your facts before you post.
          We drink TEA from those mason jars, of course.

          October 15, 2013 at 10:20 am |
        • IT's True@Nira

          "Research" and "Facts" are two words that should never be used when discussing the far left.

          October 15, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  23. sam stone

    Pie, no doubt

    October 15, 2013 at 5:11 am |
  24. muertobella

    Ok all you pie lovers are WRONG, three milk wedding cake reigns supreme!!!

    October 15, 2013 at 2:58 am |
  25. oksunny

    Pie. Always, always, pie

    October 14, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  26. JellyBean

    Is that Ms. Kinsman in the photo?

    October 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Yup. I'm on the right.

      October 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  27. RichardHead

    Decisions...Decisions. Which one shall I pick?

    October 14, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • AleeD®

      Um ... change it up and pick cherry pie? ~_~

      October 14, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
      • RichardHead@AleeD

        That was your Que 'Sista . Good help is hard to find these days......

        October 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  28. Pacific Merchants

    Pie!!!! Always pie!

    October 14, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  29. wait

    why do we have to choose? They are both great. When I want pie, I want pie. The same with cake.

    October 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  30. RedskinsFan

    Sorry, as the only boy in the family to learn how to make my grandma's classic pie crust, or how to make her cherished bourbon pecan pie recipe, pie wins. Easy to learn, difficult to master, the best dessert there is. Also, pumpkin pie is my favorite all-time dessert... and pumpkin cakes are usually terrible.

    October 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
  31. Another Voice

    Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, but I love pumpkin pie, too. May I have a slice of each, please?

    October 14, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  32. Smarter than ewe

    Trimmed fur pie beats cake in my book.

    October 14, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  33. mtkaod


    October 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Doug

      Poundcake...hands down.

      October 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  34. Priscilla Sutton-Dieffenbacher

    Nothing beats a good slice of pie!

    October 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  35. sperry23

    Both. Period. End of discussion.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  36. sperry23

    Both. Period. Both.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  37. frostingfanatic

    As a Frosting Fanatic, there is no debate. Without a doubt, it's cake.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  38. Tina

    My 28 year old son has requested apple pie for his birthday instead of cake since he realized he COULD have pie instead of cake!

    October 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Smarter than ewe

      Time for junior to move out

      October 14, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
      • rosethorn1

        Lol! (sorry Tina, have to admit that was funny)

        January 23, 2014 at 12:57 pm |
  39. Michael Sawyer

    In the south, its all about the pie!

    October 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Michael Finn

      Wrong. North is all about the pie.

      October 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • jj

      In Pie Town it's all about pie.

      October 15, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  40. AleeD®

    I scream ... but that wasn't an option so I voted for cake. ~_~ Two -four hours in the fridge cold, multi-layered chocolate cake. Mmmm.

    However if it's pie that's in your eye – my favorite is Dutch-apple crumb. No a la mode please (I know it's counter intuitive, but it is what it is). The Cheesecake Factory has a Dutch Apple Streusel Cheesecake that is a great dessert. It's got a ratio of about half cheese cake to half crumb "topping" gently folded together. Nirvana.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  41. Doug

    I sure LOVE my baby's Poundcake!

    October 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  42. tom


    October 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  43. Mark

    Sorry, my favorite is neither. I prefer brownies.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • tom

      AKA cake

      October 14, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
      • observer59

        Yeah he needs to watch the gig on cake by Jim Gaffigan.

        October 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
      • Ally

        Ehhh.... I wouldn't call most brownies "cake". I know there are cake-like brownies made with flour and they have a "crumb" to them. But when I think brownie it's the dense, chewy, low / no flour ones.

        Same way I look at cheesecake. It's not really a cake. To me it's made with filling-like cream. So it's more like a pie to me. ~shrug~

        October 15, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  44. Truth™

    I was having lunch with a buddy of mine a while back, and the server said "Our special today is Chicken Pot Pit", to which he replied "Cool...three of my favorite things"...

    October 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • Truth™


      October 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • JellyBean

      Haha! The best.

      October 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
  45. JellyBean

    Had my first Muslim bean pie a few months back and boy was it the best.

    October 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • AleeD®@JellyBean

      Does that mean there are alot of sterile Muslims out there?

      October 15, 2013 at 7:06 am |
      • PandoraDoggle

        Wrong kind of beans.

        October 15, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
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