As American as apple pie?


As American as apple pie?

This column first appeared in July, 2002.

Only in America, I guess, would something as American as apple pie make me feel so sad, and on the Fourth of July at that.

The Washington Post carried a story recently that launched this melancholy. A Brooklyn artist, Anissa Mack, assembled what’s called “an art installation” (my generation would have called it “a happening”) on the plaza in front of the Brooklyn Central Library.

Using grant money, Mack bought a child-sized cottage with a Dutch door – evocative of Hansel and Gretel, one observer remarked. Red-and-white checkered curtains hung in the windows; petunias bloomed in a window-box.

The artist equipped the house with a stove, and for several days a week this spring, baked apple pies – from scratch, one at a time – and set them on a window sill to cool.

Mack, 32, called the installation “Pies for a Passerby.” She was trying to illustrate a classic slice of Americana, what she called “an American cliche” serving up nostalgia for a simpler era, employing the pastry’s fragrance to reach out to a passersby who just might be tempted to snatch it.

The reporter who wrote the story, Alona Wartofsky, noted the reactions of those who stopped to look. And sniff. And snatch.

“What’s that?” a child asked her mother. “This lady’s making an apple pie, like in the old times, with real flour,” the mom replied. One suspects that this had never happened at their house.

Some stopped and took pictures, asked questions. An older woman asked if she could put in an order. A Rollerblader, cited by Wartofsky as possibly Brooklyn’s stupidest teenager, asked, “Is this a bathroom?”

A retired flight attendant said she liked the idea of “this young lady baking in a perfect little house,” doing something for others: “It’s so wholesome.”

Mack’s original idea, she said, was to explore different layers of meaning in the simple acts of coring and peeling and rolling flour and setting out pies, about one an hour. Besides the pie itself, there’s the idea of neighborhood and domesticity, but, several pies later, her perceptions began to change. “Maybe it’s not so much about an American icon,” she said, “but about how Americans act.”

A lawyer who planted herself in front of the window elbowed others out of the way to be in position for the next hot pie to emerge. When someone suggested she could just as easily go buy a pie, she said, “No way: I want one of these because I want to be part of something special.”

An upstate New York substitute teacher grabbed a pie “from in front of a small boy whose nose had been pressed against a window for hours.” To suggestions that sharing is a good thing, adults responded that they had gotten there first and were therefore entitled to “their” pie. A passing psychologist shook her head in disgust. “I’m appalled,” she said.

The artist, who had learned to bake from her father, a Connecticut schoolteacher, was amazed by the response to “Pies for a Passerby.” Some viewers brought her flowers and presents in appreciation, she told the reporter – while, outside, children and adults had begun clawing at the closed windows. Several teens chanted, “We want pie! We want pie!”

Mack thought the installation might inspire discussions on what art actually is. “People are having their expectations challenged,” she said, “and to me, that’s art.” Instead of such lofty discussions, however, most people just wanted to know when the next pie was coming out.

Why does this make me feel so sad? Maybe recent news of yet more fraud in big business is adding to my doleful mood. The greed of overpaid CEOs, the absence of basic integrity in many of our nation’s industries, manipulation by auditors – are these not symptoms of rot in the bedrock of American society? They are different from the behavior of some of the Brooklyn passersby only by degrees.

At a time when every public building and every front porch on Main Street sports the brave colors of the Stars and Stripes, are we confused about what it means to be patriotic?

Flying the flag is – well, as American as apple pie. But patriotism has nothing to do with flags and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and ranting about the words of the Pledge of Allegiance.

It has everything to do with honesty and compassion and the upholding of the democratic ideals this country has championed for 226 years. A Congress passionately reciting the Pledge on the capital steps does not impress me nearly as much as one that is wrestling seriously with campaign reform and health care issues.

Or maybe it’s just that for me, too, an apple pie is nearly as symbolic of home and country as the flag. My husband’s favorite dessert, apple pie – made from scratch, one at a time – will be served at our house this evening, alight with birthday candles, on the Eve of the Fourth.

Such symbolism is enough for me.

[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is]