Beth Howard, on the porch of the American Gothic House in Eldon, bakes pies for the Pitchfork Pie Stand each year beginning Memorial Day weekend.
Five months after the unexpected death of her 43-year-old husband, Marcus, writer Beth Howard and a TV producer friend set out in Marcus’s RV, nicknamed "the Beast," to make a pilot for a TV show about pie. Although Howard didn’t realize it yet, this was just the beginning of a journey that would help her begin to heal from the devastating loss of her husband and the overwhelming grief and guilt that resulted. Along the way, she gave away pie on the streets of Los Angeles as part of the pie TV show, judged the Iowa State Fair pie contest, and unexpectedly found a new home for herself and her pies in the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.
In March 2012 Beth released her book Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie chronicling her journey. Beth is so skilled at describing her experiences and feelings that it makes for a read that is not only humorous and inspiring, but also painfully bittersweet as you experience her love and loss right along with her. You may also feel inspired to bake, or at least eat, a homemade pie. Pie, it turns out, is at the center of how she put her world back together.
When I ask Beth what it is about pie that helped her begin to heal, she tells me, "I think that the turning point was really that day that we were giving pie away on the street. . . . Giving to others makes them happy and in turn it makes you happy, so there was something about that day that made me realize there was still something important in life." Watching as strangers chatted and ate her pie, Beth saw that pie could be a means of bringing people together. "They discovered their own neighbors that they’d never even talked to, right there on the street, because of pie."
Later, still hoping to turn her pie documentary into a TV series, Beth traveled to Iowa to judge pies at the Iowa State Fair and to revisit her birthplace in Ottumwa. While driving from Ottumwa to Fairfield for a radio interview on KRUU FM, Beth saw a sign for the American Gothic House and made the life-changing decision to take the exit. Once there, she immediately fell in love. Amazingly, the house was available for rent.
The Pie Stand the House Built
Beth now lives in the Gothic House and sells homemade pies to the visiting tourists from the Pitchfork Pie Stand. But although pie and the Gothic House seem like the perfect fit, both quintessentially American, opening a pie stand didn’t occur to Beth right away.
"It wasn’t my first thought," she says. "It was like my third or fourth thought." To Beth it seemed like a perfect writer’s retreat, charming and peaceful even at the peak of tourist season. She imagined using it as a home base while she traveled. "And then I didn’t end up traveling, I ended up staying home. I just loved being there."
The pie stand idea came later after Eldon Mayor Shirley Stacey suggested that Beth open a pie shop. Shirley even had a building picked out! Beth was not initially enthusiastic; a pie shop seemed like too much work. But then she decided that a pie stand might be more manageable. "Here I was in farm country, Amish country—it seemed like that would be cute and charming and easy." She laughs at her own naiveté. "So not easy."
These days Beth spends her time writing in her sanctuary behind the famous window and her summers mixing and rolling pie dough and lifting pie in and out of the single oven in the cramped kitchen of the American Gothic House. Demand for her pies has been higher than expected and continues to grow, but don’t expect Beth to move her pie operation to a professional kitchen anytime soon. "I want to be able to say, ‘This pie was baked in the American Gothic House.
With contentment and passion in her voice as she talks about her new life, Beth has obviously found the perfect place for herself. When I ask her why she thinks she is so happy living in a tiny town of 900 in a state she thought she’d never return to after high school, she replies, "Well, because of that Grant Wood quote that I love so much: ‘I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.’ I’m like, ‘Hey Grant, way to go, thanks for saying that, I’m gonna borrow that quote.’ I have seen so many places and so I’m not feeling like I’m missing out so much any more. . . . I feel more vulnerable than I used to feel, so there’s something very comforting about being back in a nice quiet place, a nurturing place."
When I ask Beth if she thinks her time living and making pies in the Gothic House is just a temporary stop in her life while she continues healing, or if she thinks that she has found a permanent home, her answer is emphatically affirmative, "You start to make friends and put down a few roots and there’s the connections to my birthplace where people still remember me from when I was a little kid. You know, I’m not going to find that anywhere else in the world." She concludes, "I can’t even imagine where else I would want to live right now, there isn’t any place."
Pie Dough Antidote
Beth denies having any special talent for baking pie, attributing her success as a pie baker to having had a good teacher and lots of practice. She learned how to bake pies in a gourmet deli in 2001 after she quit her job working 16-hour days for a dot-com. "For me pie has always been this antidote to technology, and that’s why my philosophy is always keep it very simple and always make it by hand. You don’t want to lose out on that tactile experience by plugging in the Cuisinart. . . . Work it with your bare hands and feel it and let your intuition tell you when the dough has enough moisture, not the recipe. . . . The whole handmade part of it is the richness of the experience of making pie. You feel like an artist with your hands in the clay or the gardener with your hands in the soil." (Read Beth’s tips for making stress-free pie dough.)
This idea of getting your hands into the pie dough as a way to unplug and return to yourself comes up again and again. As we discuss how Beth came to live in Eldon and the role pie has played, we speculate about the combination of pie and grief that makes people respond so strongly to her story. I suggest that they’re both universal experiences, and one makes the other easier to deal with.
"Because it’s comfort food," Beth agrees. She tells me that the Amish even have a pie just for funerals. But for her, it’s not the pie itself that’s soothing. "It’s comforting to make [pie]—that’s what I really get out of it. The sharing of it is so wonderful. But when I can be by myself in the kitchen—and I do prefer to bake alone—and just let my thoughts wander and put my hands in the dough. . . ." This is what she finds truly satisfying. And if her pies are anywhere near as good as her book, one piece could never be enough.
The Pitchfork Pie Stand, at the American Gothic House Center in Eldon, Iowa, opens for the season on May 26, Saturdays and Sundays, 12 to 5 p.m.