While growing up in Hong Kong, Stacey Mei Yan Fong fell in love with America … and pie. “In America and in movies or books that I read, everybody went on road trips. And everybody stopped at diners and got slices of pie. I was just, like, ‘I want to do that. I want to go on road trips, I want to move to America, I want to eat pie, like, every two hours when I need to use the restroom.'”
In 2016, after 11 years of eating pie in New York City, Fong wanted to know more about the rest of the country. “And I was, like, ‘Oh my God, I could learn about America through pie!'”
She launched a project called 50 Pies / 50 States. “I bake a pie for every single state. Because this project really is, like, a love letter to the country that I’ve chosen to call home,” she said.
Some pies are unusual, like her Oregon Marionberry and Pear Pie (“It’s a hybrid or a type of blackberry”). Some are more traditional, like Kentucky’s Derby Pie (“A Derby Pie is kind of like a pecan pie, but it’s walnuts and chocolate in it”).
And Tennessee got the star treatment: “Dolly Parton is, like, the love of my life,” Fong laughed.
“Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked, “Has she seen this?”
“I don’t think so, but I would absolutely lose my mind to meet her. So yeah, I had to make her out of pie.”
Pies in other parts of the world tend to be savory and part of the main course. In America, pies are more likely fruit-filled and served as dessert.
And something about pie makes Americans nostalgic: “Whenever my project gets brought up or if I start talking to someone,” Fong said, “they’ve only talked about, like, a good memory they’ve had associated to pie, right? ‘My mom made me pie.’ ‘There was pie at a holiday.’ ‘Pie reminds me of home.'”
One pie has achieved “All-American” status. Sanneh asked, “Why do you think it is that apple, out of all the different pies you could bake, why do you think that one has this position in this country?”
“An apple pie is always filled, like, so high,” Fong replied. “it’s like a symbol of this country’s bounty, and what this country has to offer.”
When it comes to apple pies, Kelefa Sanneh is not a neutral observer when he visited his wife, Sarah Sanneh, at her fried chicken shop, Pies ‘n’ Thighs, in Brooklyn, where she has been making award-winning pies for 15 years.
Kelefa asked, “If your restaurant had just been called Thighs instead of Pies ‘n’ Thighs, would people have not felt like they needed to order pie?”
“Absolutely, this is the lesson in marketing,” she replied.
The apple pie story is partly a marketing story. The idea that apples were All-Aamerican took hold in the 1700s, in the American colonies, where apples were not a native fruit. “They were planted, and originally planted for cider,” Sarah said.
In the 1800s, an evangelist known as Johnny Appleseed encouraged Americans to plant more apple trees, and some of those apples found their way into pie. And during World War II, people started saying, “As American as mom and apple pie.” The simple dessert had become a national tradition, and a symbol of American pride.
“That’s a funny thing about apple pie – it has already achieved perfection,” Sarah said. “So, if you go to the finest restaurant, or you go to a diner, there’s no better version of apple pie than apple pie.”
Sarah’s version starts with a generous helping of Granny Smith apples.
To watch a tutorial on preparing Sarah Sanneh’s classic apple pie, click on the video player below:
Kelefa asked, “Supermarket apple pies are really flat, and they fit in those white boxes. Yours, you need, like, a wedding cake box!”
“It’s like a pregnant belly,” Sarah said. “You really want it to have that perfect round [shape].”
For the filling, tuck in the apple wedges so that they don’t poke through the crust.
“I like a gap,” Sarah said. “I like to see that the apples were really domed, and then they cooked down, and that the crust has enough structure to, like, maintain itself without the apples.
“When you’re cutting into a pie, honestly, if you’re gonna keep it perfect, the best way to cut it is with scissors, not with a knife.”
“Once the scissors have cut the top bit, you use your knife to go all the way down through the bottom bit?”
Sarah dished out a slice, served with a scoop. “A la mode! The magical word that means, ‘Give me ice cream!'” Kelefa exclaimed.
As we celebrate July 4th, both Sarah Sanneh and Stacey Mei Yan Fong agree you can’t go wrong with apple pie – but then again, America is all about options.
Kelefa asked Sarah, “What would be your second choice?”
“Cherry pie,” she replied. “You don’t want a cream pie at Fourth of July. So, I would do cherry pie, still, you know, a classic American fruit.”
He asked Fong, “Do you think it’s time for our Fourth of July pie to change?”
“It could be whatever you want,” Fong said. “Like, Fourth of July is your holiday, and you can do whatever you want.”
For more info:
- Stacey Mei Yan Fong’s 50 Pies/50 States (Instagram)
- 50 Pies/50 States
- Pies ‘n’ Thighs, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Lauren Barnello.