American Pie Culture

By Deborah Cassell

History dictates that traditional pie is an all-American staple, but modern times prove that this classic baked good is up to the challenge of meeting today’s changing tastes and trends.

Pie long ago achieved pop culture status through sometimes subtle and often blatant appearances in TV programs and classic commercials — not to mention its seasonal cameo roles on dinner tables nationwide. This year, the popular dessert hit the once-silver screen as the subject of a charming romantic comedy about a Southerner named Jenna who, despite her miserable life, makes great pie.
“Waitress” shows that this all-American baked good can take on many forms, from Jenna’s I Hate My Husband Pie (“You take bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel.”) to her Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having An Affair Pie (“You smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust.”) to her I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong And I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me Pie (Vanilla custard with banana. Hold the banana …”)
Frozen Pie Brands
(For 52 weeks ending June 17, 2007)
Rank Brands Dollar Sales (in millions) Dollar Sales % Change vs. Previous Year Dollar Share Dollar Share Change vs. Previous Year
1 Edwards $85,4 +2.75 24.3 +0.8
2 Mrs Smith’s Traditional Recipe $56.5 +166.1 16.1 +10.1
3 Marie Callenders $52.5 -4.2 15.0 -0.6
4 Sara Lee $50.4 -2.5 14.4 -0.3
5 Mrs Smith’s Special Recipe $24.9 +16.6 7.1 +1.0
6 Mrs Smith’s $18.0 -71.5 5.1 -12.8
7 Sara Lee Signature Selections $15.2 +19.1 4.3 +0.7
8 Mrs Smith’s Soda Shoppe $12.3 +3.5 3.5 +0.1
9 Claim Jumper $8.9 +27.2 2.5 +0.6
10 Weight Watchers Smart Ones $6.6 +24.8 1.9 +0.4
Total, including brands not shown $351.0 -0.5 100.0  
Source: Information Resources, Inc., Chicago
Total U.S. —Supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets (excluding Wal-Mart)
According to producers, more than 200 pies were made and filmed during the production of “Waitress” and were often enjoyed by the crew at the end of a day’s work. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the 858 entries baked for the American Pie Council’s 2007 National Pie Championships. Regardless, the edible stars of the film, as well as this year’s tasty APC entries, prove that pie is taking on innovative new personas — both onscreen and off.
Trends Talk
What makes great pie? Should it have a crust rolled out by someone’s grandmother, filled with 40 oz. of hand-picked variety apples from a local orchard and then baked in a high dome, as Scott Florence, president and CEO of Hill & Valley, Rock Island, Ill., so deliciously described during his presentation at the APC’s recent Pie Industry Seminar?
Realistically, no. But it still can have that made-from-scratch look and taste, Florence notes. Yes, pies always should have an aura of Americana.
That said, modern pies do differ from the ones Grandma used to make. For starters, they go beyond Thanksgiving-time pumpkin and apple to include varieties such as Mrs. Smith’s Traditional Recipe Coconut Custard and Cinnabon Apple Crumb pies, as well as Edwards brand Mocha Mudslide and Strawberry Sundae, all of which are produced by The Schwan Food Co., Marshall, Minn.
Meanwhile, Sara Lee’s Nostalgic Desserts answer consumers’ continuing desire for “comforting desserts that bring back their childhood, while offering new dessert options to operators,” according to Jason Katzman, vice president of bakery marketing, Sara Lee Foodservice, Neenah, Wis. Current introductions include Taffy Apple Hi Pie, Seven-Layer Pie, and Cookie Dough and Rocky Road cream pies.
“We’re seeing a trend toward more retro desserts that incorporate childhood flavors into innovative new desserts,” Katzman says. “Sara Lee Foodservice developed Sara Lee Nostalgic Desserts to help operators respond to this trend.”
Similarly, Mrs. Smith’s Soda Shoppe pies evoke sweet memories of jukeboxes and sock hops. Varieties in the line include Boston Cream, Chocolate Cream, Coconut Cream and Lemon Meringue.
Today’s pies also address another food industry-wide trend: portion control. New 100-calorie, hand-held, and single-serve and -slice products are ideal for small families, single people, empty nesters … and anyone who just wants a slice when they want it.
Examples include the Lifestream brand’s PIE-OH-MY! from Nature’s Path, Blaine, Wash. Made with organic whole grain flour, the line comes in apple, wildberry, dark cherry and pineapple flavors. In addition, Schwan’s Edwards brand — a pioneer in this segment — has added two crème pie flavors to its Pie Slices line: one made with Butterfinger and the other with Nestlé Crunch. Each package contains two individual slices.
Of course, Katzman notes, there also is a trend toward health and wellness.
For example, consumers are increasingly interested in low-sugar and no sugar-added products. Hill & Valley is a leader in this segment. Additional options are Sara Lee’s Chef Pierre No Sugar Added Hi Pies, and Mrs. Smith’s Special Recipe No Sugar Added Apple Pie and Reduced Sugar Pie Slices with Splenda.
Other top-of-mind trends include Kosher offerings; organic options; fortified items; dairy-, allergen- and gluten-free selections; and the elimination of those increasingly unpopular trans fats.
Trans Talk
Every segment of the food industry is impacted by concerns over trans fat content, especially since the Food and Drug Administration ordered manufacturers to start labeling the number of trans fat grams on product packages back in January of 2006. Pie producers are not immune to this movement, or the FDA’s mandate. However, it definitely presents a challenge.
“With pie, you need the solids for functionality and mouth-feel,” said Eric Olsen, a technnical sales/service representative for Bunge Oils, Bradley Ill., during his presentation to attendees at the APC’s spring seminar.
There might be no silver bullet when it comes to taking out trans fatty acids while retaining product quality, but there are several options for doing so. They include hydro technology, interesterification, palm and palm kernel products, meat fats, custom blending, reduced fat spreads and high-stability oils such as mid/high oleic varieties of canola, sunflower and safflower.
Interesterification has some functionality problems, but it might be a good fit for the pie industry, Olsen said. Meanwhile, meat fat availability is inconsistent and poses a problem for Kosher-conscious companies and consumers. Low-linolenic varieties of soybean oil are on the horizon, Olsen noted. All-purpose margarine and doughnut frying shortening are additional possibilities for pie bakers, he added.
However, palm oil products have had the biggest impact so far and could be a long-term fix, Olsen said, despite the fact that they can increase the saturated fat result. Although palm oil products are brittle at mix-in and temperature-dependent, they are “very functional,” he said, adding that there’s even a palm flake on the market.
Regardless of how pie producers plan to eliminate the trans fat, this issue is more than just a fad or passing fancy. Case in point: Both Sara Lee and Hill & Valley have issued trans fat-free products.
In the end, of course, what matters is what the consumer thinks. Whether it’s trans fat-free or not, pie is poised to hold its ground as the dessert of choice for millions of Americans — and not just around the holidays. As Jenna the waitress learns from her employer at Joe’s Pie Diner, it’s just as therapeutic to eat pie as it is to make it. And if you can’t bake your own, a good slice is never hard to find.
Editor’s Note: For more information about the American Pie Council and its events, visit

The 411 on ISB
• Sara Lee In-Store Bakery, Downer’s Grove, Ill., has started selling pies directly to in-store bakeries nationwide after serving the segment for many years. The company’s new vice president of in-store solutions, Kevin Schwab, will build and lead Sara Lee’s sales and marketing team in the ISB endeavor.
• Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, N.Y., and The Schwan Food Co., Marshall, Minn., have entered into an in-store bakery pie alliance that will allow Rich’s to offer its own line of products, as well as Schwan’s Mrs. Smith’s line of fruit, custard and crème pies in both ready-to-bake and fully baked/domed formats, according to Ray Burke, president of Rich Products’ ISB division. Cal Brink, president of Schwan’s ISB division, adds that “pies are the second most purchased in-store bakery item behind special-occasion cakes.”
Bite by Bite
Consumers who don’t want to make or buy a whole pie now can take just one bite … literally. In April, the Lamb Weston brand from ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb., introduced bite-size pies in five varieties: Pastry Crust Apple Bites, S-mores Specialty Pastry, Apple Cinni-Bites, and Cherry and Apple Pixies, each with an Ultragrain Whole White Wheat Flour Crust. The pies are fortified with vitamins, calcium and iron. For more information, visit
Pie Baking 101
Pie dough is basically made up of flour, fat, water and salt. So why aren’t all crusts created equal?
Well, depending on the type and amounts of ingredients used, the result can be very different. And the longer you blend the dough at different stages affects the flake. For example, over-mixing the flour and shortening will cause loss of flakiness, according to Tim Sieloff, a baking instructor at the American Institute of Baking International School of Baking, Manhattan Kan., who spoke at the American Pie Council’s Pie Industry Seminar this spring.
Resting the dough in a retarder for several hours or even overnight allows proper hydration of the flour, which improves sheeting capability, reduces crust shrinkage and minimizes the soaking of the crust, Sieloff added.
Other keys include monitoring the temperature and bake time and type of oven used.
Of course, the filling is just as important as the base, and there are plenty of ways to go wrong there, too. Pumpkin pies can blister or crack, meringues can bleed and any filling can “boil out,” Sieloff noted.
If it sounds like making pie isn’t as easy as they say, don’t worry. You can get help. For more information about the intricacies of commerical pie baking, contact Sieloff through