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 by chef Elizabeth Karmel
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.
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."