Updated Monday, April 9, 2012 at 12:01 PM
Former Seattleite Beth M. Howard's book teaches craggy crusts and proposal-prompting recipes... but it's really a story about the healing powers of pie. Photo: Kathryn Gamble
The former Seattleite had left "a grueling, lucrative web-producing job" to talk her way into a pie-baking job at a Malibu bakery, selling "more than one pie to Robert Downey Jr." and baking strawberry-rhubarb creations for Dick Van Dyke. The kitchen work was grounding, healthy, a tangible skill. And it was a return to her roots -- her own parents got engaged over a slice of her mom's banana-cream pie -- in a modern world that lacked personal connections.
Her agent read the book halfway through, and felt the story lacked conflict and tension.
If only, for Howard's sake, it had stayed that way.
Shortly after, Howard's husband, Marcus Iken, died suddenly of a ruptured aorta. Stricken by grief and guilt, Howard went on a cross-country mission to share pies with the nation and "give something back to the world," handing out generous slices on National Pie Day, teaching 8-year-olds to bake, judging contests at the Iowa State Fair. And then, revisiting the town where she lived as a child in Iowa, she wound up unexpectedly renting the famed "American Gothic" house that inspired the classic painting, and opening -- what could be more iconic? -- her own luscious "Pitchfork Pie Stand" on the site.
She recently packed up her husband's RV -- learning to drive it was one more step on her journey -- with mixing bowls and rolling pins and sacks of flour and sugar, embarking on a cross-country tour for her book. She'll have a book signing and pie at High 5 Pie at 6 p.m. April 11, and will be at the University Bookstore for an author Q&A at 7 p.m. April 12, interviewed by local writer Diane Mapes, who knows a thing (or two) about life's unexpected twists.
We caught up with Howard from her home in Iowa before she headed West, and talked about small towns vs. big cities, pie vs. cookies, grief and love. Here are some edited excerpts from our conversation:
Q: As a former resident of Seattle (she worked on Microsoft's CEO summits), Portland, San Francisco, New York... how long does she expect to be in a tiny Iowa town?"
A: "Everyone keeps asking, so how long do you think you'll stay there? Everyone. Not to mention my mom, who was apartment hunting for me in L.A...
She (lived in Iowa years back) because my dad was from here. If I had been in that position I might not have liked it either, but I chose to be here. I just don't miss the traffic, I don't miss the expense of living in a big city...I can live so cheaply and that takes a lot of stress off. Plus, I think it's beautiful. There's so much open space...
"The people have been so generous and they've been amazingly welcoming. I have a variety of friends I never had when I lived in a big city: The 80-year-old couple who live behind me. The mayor. I go to pay my water bill at City Hall and (they say) 'Hey, we've got some macaroni and cheese and ham balls and chocolate cream pie!" Where does that happen? People are kind and generous and there's a giving spirit I haven't ever seen anywhere else. Not that it's expected, but that it's just the way people are."
Q: What's her best advice for pie baking?
A: Ignore the recipes. "People say, "But the recipe said 5 tablespoons of water!" Well, (maybe) your dough needs more water than that. You have to be able to relax about the rules, and it's such a metaphor for life. You have to pay attention to what's in front of you, and don't just go by someone else's guidelines. Your experience may be different, your humidity in the air may be different, and that's going to affect how much water you need in your pie dough. Your rolling surface at my house is going to be different than your house, and that's going to affect how your pie dough sticks to the counter or not. It's life lessons, not just pie lessons. I hope when people can overcome their fear and gain some confidence in making pie dough it will translate to other things. I know that sounds very heady, but I see that all the time."
Q: As a writer as well as a baker, how big does she want her summer pie business to get?
A: She's been a "reluctant businessperson," trying to figure out how to run a "casual cozy little pie stand" that keeps trying to get bigger. "People call the visitor center: "Is she open?" People want their pie," she said. She can fit nine pies in the oven at the historic little house at a time - and the house doesn't have the voltage for a second oven - but the real limiting factor is fitting all the dough in her refrigerator -- that, and her own time.
"I'm not shipping pies, I have no interest in that. Pie should be homemade. I'm not interested in having a sheeter and all the equipment. I always go back to, what would the pioneers do?...How to scale that, I don't know. That's why I try to put the focus on teaching pie classes rather than growing the pie retail side. That's really my mission, helping other people have that experience and have them make the pie. Then they can have the joy that comes with giving." Teaching pie classes "takes the fear out of it, and shows them all kinds of ways they can overcome that fear."
Q: Could the same lessons you learned about healing and happiness from baking pies hold true for other baked goods? Cookies?
A: In short, no. Pie is trickier, and puts more at stake. "Cookies, you can eat one. What I think is funny about pie is the risk. You make a pie and you don't get to taste it before you bring it to that dinner party and share it with others. I still do this, I hold my breath and say 'I hope it's good.'
Q: How did pie get to be everywhere all of a sudden?
A: "I do sort of bristle at the idea of pie being a trend. It's been around forever, it's not going anywhere. (But) I'm glad people are identifying with it, I think because it does represent simplicity, it's nostalgic I always say that pie builds community, and I think pie is a great conduit to bringing people together. My thing I've always observed is how sometimes, with a trend (if you want to call it that), people will try to start being innovative. And for me, I say no, you won't see me doing anything new or different, you won't find me putting basil in my pie or some dried orange-ginger. I just won't go there. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity."
Q: Was it hard to write to bluntly about her sorrow and guilt at her husband's death? (She and Marcus had been on the verge of divorce, still in love but sorely tested by his job overseas.)
A: "That's still so hard for me...I've done two book events, and I've cried at both of them. It's just, it's so bittersweet. I just feel guilty, almost. That's not fair -- (the book) is at the expense of Marcus dying, that's what it feels like. Everyone is like, no, he would be so happy you wrote that. How do you rationalize this?..."
Readers have thanked her for sharing a hard and true story rather than making it saccharine-sweet, saying it's helped them deal with their own tragedies. That's helped Howard too.
"I think the more honest people can be, the less alone we all feel in this world, the less shame we feel, the less guilt we feel... everyone is just trying to get by in life. We don't all know why we're here. We're trying to do the best we can, and it's not always easy and it's not always pretty. I just keep trying to move forward despite all the setbacks."
Q: Are you surprised to find yourself in that famous house, and glad to be where you are?
A: "I never though I could be so happy living somewhere so removed... I just don't need the stimulation and the fast pace that I thought I did. It's been so grounding, and I definitely know I feel more peaceful living here. I'd like to think that other people would sort of find that, would see the light in moving to smaller areas, because I think the rural areas are neglected and they need a shot in the arm. All these people opening up restaurants in Seattle, you could open up some really cute cafe in a small town for nothing. It would be great. You could realize your dream and do it in a small place. And you might be surprised how happy you could be there."