Unsurprisingly, the best pie scene in 20th century literature belongs to Roald Dahl, who wrote as vividly about food as he wrote about crummy parents, child-eating giants, sadistic schoolmarms, and the bright, plucky kids who best them. In Danny, The Champion of the World, a kindly small-town doctor pays a house call on Danny's dad, leaving Danny, who hasn't eaten in 24 hours, with "something huge and round wrapped up in greaseproof paper":
"Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the greaseproof paper from around the doctor's present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with a rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slice, I cut another and ate that too. God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought. And God bless Mrs. Spencer as well."
For some reason, this description of the pie Danny eats, alone in the tiny caravan he shares with his wounded and temporarily immobile father, has stayed with me more than any of the book's many memorable passages. Dahl relished trafficking in warped food fantasies imaginative children might gleefully dream up and later, as adults, wiser and, by Dahl's subversive standards, probably much less fun, still enjoy: The BFG's flatulent frobscottle, the grotesque chocolate cake-scarfing sequence in Matilda, and pretty much all of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Yet this pie, by Dahl's standards, a straightforward, entirely believable concoction, occupies a special corner of memory. The pie is a simple, hearty dish, prepared by the sympathetic doctor's wife for a hungry boy who has no one to make him pies. Danny's mother is dead, and his father broke his leg trying to steal pheasants from a villainous beer tycoon. The boy deserves a pie, and Dahl makes sure he gets one -- because pies are the sort of thing bright, plucky children shouldn't have to do without.
The scene is moving, sure -- especially when you're in 3rd grade -- but the pie in question also sounds pretty good: grand, nourishing, and fanciful -- the way a pie should.
When I contemplate "pie", my mind races back centuries, through whirlwinds of sweet, stewed fillings and pressed pastry, past a light-speed procession of empty window-sills, chanted nursery rhymes, and county fairs, all the way back to Medieval Europe. I imagine great, honking, burnished-brown mountains of pastry hugging undisclosed fillings in broad, round pans, steam spitting through slits carved into the surface. Outside the crusts, cheery plump pie-people in tunics sit around a long table in a great hall. Someone drags forth an over-sized knife to carve slices, to see what lurks within -- maybe spiced plums, an array of berries, or some assemblage of juicy meat parts trapped between layers of dough, suspended in sauce like succulent specimens in amber, with perhaps a slender bird leg or two poking cautiously from the top crust. Even if you know what kind of pie you're about to inhale, the pleasant prospect of unearthing delicious hidden mysteries -- like the hard-boiled eggs in Danny's pie -- inevitably accompanies the pie form. Only when you actually crack into a pie, can you truly solve the mystery within. Pies are also a little funny, and not only because they're the target of a South Park character's unwavering obsession. I didn't know how funny pie could be until, at the age of twelve, I went to England with my family and watched, from a window seat on a Dover-bound train, a hulking, squinty-eyed English lad flail at his pencil-thin younger brother in the aisle, braying again and again: "Edward, quit hogging all the pie!"
Yes, pie provokes passion, more so than most desserts, but it's not popular just because it's evocative of anything; it's popular because it's good. Aron Kay should have picked a lamer food to start hurling into the faces of famous people with offensive political platforms and/or excessively high opinions of themselves -- like runny porridge or gas station tamales. The formula for pie is deceptively uncomplicated and unassailable in its dazzling simplicity, really as close to perfect as it gets. Every great pie, regardless of provenance, hinges on interplay between its two components, crust and filling: in a classic American fruit pie, the salty, butter-rich crust balances and adds complexity to a sweet filling; in Tunisian brik, a brittle stack of crunchy phyllo-like pastry provides a bland, texturally interesting foil to the heady, moist mixture of tuna, egg, onions, and capers stuffed inside.