Sweet Land of Liberty is a history with some recipes. As a lover of food and a lover of weird deep dives into history, this is definitely up my alley. I appreciated that Anastopoulos acknowledges the limitations of her hook, but really embraces it. Her chapters cover social movements, race relations, gender roles, industrialization of food, marketing, identity, and national mythology as those things play out through pie. It took me a few flip throughs and chapters to settle into what Rossi Anastopoulos is doing here. Sweet Land of Liberty might frustrate readers interested in history and readers interested in recipes, but for curious readers willing to let Anastopoulos do her own thing, this will be rewarding. I have some complaints. I am genuinely disappointed that no recipe for chocolate haupia pie was included, and I would have loved some pecan pie recipes without Karo syrup. Pecan pie is my second least favorite pie because I really dislike the Karo syrup glop (my lease favorite is raisin pie and I will never forgive the person who made that nightmare come true).
Rossi Anastopoulos starts with a politically fraught order of coffee and a slice of cherry pie – ordered by Ezell Blair Jr. at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. The pie became political and racially charged. Pie has been a weapon, sometimes literally, as when it was used to assault the protesters at the Woolworth’s counter, and in the 1990s and early 2000s when tofu cream pie (Chapter 11) was thrown by protesters. Every chapter was interesting in it’s own way. I would love to see this as a docuseries with each episode focusing on a pie, talking to historians, experts, and the people who make these pies in their homes or bakeries.
I made the sweet potato pie at the end of Chapter 4 – Abby Fisher’s Sweet Potato Pie, adapted from What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (1881). The cookbook is the first authored by an African American. The chapter on sweet potato pie explores it’s roots in the traditions brought over with kidnapped Africans, and it reclamation by Black Americans. Every other sweet potato pie I have had was spiced with at least cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, but Mrs. Fisher’s pie has none of that, just zested orange and orange juice. It was delicious. The earthy sweetness of the sweet potato paired with vibrant sweetness of the orange was uplifting and homey.
I grew up in a family that really only had three pies – pumpkin pie and pecan pie (the Thanksgiving pies), and the strawberry rhubarb pie my maternal grandmother made with the rhubarb in her garden. We definitely were not a pie crust family -pie crust was something you could buy at the store. But I have spent a chunk of the last 20 years working on perfecting a pie crust so flakey it shatters and melts in your mouth. My grandmothers were professional women ( a psychologist and a librarian/English teacher) who were also expected to cook for their families and they resented it. My love of cooking and baking, my pursuit of the perfect pie crust, my food as a love language is all possible because I don’t have to cook. I am not required by gender or race to prepare meals for other people. The sweet potato pie I made last night was made to make my dinner companions happy, but also a way for me to connect hands on with uglier aspects of my nation’s history and present.
Finally, pie is so powerful because, frankly, it’s pretty unnecessary. Unlike, you know, dinner, we only make and eat dessert because we want to. In times of hardship or stress—everything from war to revolution to poverty—there’s really no point in making dessert.
Rossi Anastopoulo knows, and her book reflects, that dessert is very important, especially in hard times. Pie is joy, love, and comfort. It’s also burdened with symbolism, history and politics. I was reminded of Sarah Vowel’s musings on the Starbuck’s café mocha,
Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.
Think about that the next time someone says “as American as apple pie.”
I received this as an advance reader copy from Abrams Press and NetGalley. My opinions are my own, freely and honestly given.