Monday, October 10, 2011

Discomfort Food: Pie Contest Raises Forks and Questions

Several weeks ago, I was scanning – and deleting - the daily dozens of advertisements in my email when my eye landed on the word, “pie.” Except for pumpkin pie during the holidays, I rarely eat the stuff. But the oddity of seeing it mentioned in an email from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art got my attention.

My hopeful Pie #50: Smoked Salmon Quiche with Spinach, Mushrooms, and Shallots

As it turned out, KCRW’s Evan Kleiman and LACMA were presenting the 3rd Annual Good Food Pie Contest at the museum on Sept 19. While I had never really thought of my famous quiche as a pie, I figured it would do, and blithely registered to enter the contest. Although I didn’t place, it was reward enough to see what the most creative bakers in Los Angeles, both amateur and professional, brought to the table.

The event was amazing on many levels. It propelled me to compete in an arena where I rarely felt competition – in the kitchen – teaching my inner Nancy Silverton a thing or two. It also brought a sprawling metropolis together over the homiest of creations, a fresh baked pie. And now that I have the technique for pâte brisée in my repertoire, I feel like a real baker.

"James and the Giant Peach" Pie, a fanciful tribute to LACMA's Tim Burton retrospective and first place winner in that category.

Although the day was full of good-natured competition and a general tossing-off of the diet restrictions of body-conscious Angelenos, I could not help but think of the contrast between the festivities in LACMA’s west courtyard and an exhibit that Shiho and I walked through on our way to the festivities.

Edward Kienholz’s sculpture “Five Car Stud (1969-1972)” was installed at LACMA shortly before the contest. The controversial work was never shown in the United States, but was stored for 40 years in the vaults of a Japanese museum after its first and only showing at the documenta V exhibit in Germany in 1972.

Kienholz’s work, which is constructed with found objects, is brutally honest, hard to look at, and hard not to look at. Although I was very young when I first saw “Back Seat Dodge ‘38” and “The Illegal Operation,” they struck me deeply at the time with a glimpse of a grotesque reality that lies beneath a thin veneer of calm and respectability.

As Shiho and I entered the Art of the Americas Building, we could see the exhibit from the lobby; it is the only work on display. I was startled by the sight of figures moving that I had thought were part of the dimly lit installation. Then I realized that they were actually other visitors to the museum.

The room is dark, illuminated only by the headlights of the vehicles that circle the central figures of the work. I was relieved that there were a few people milling about with us, as the darkness and vague impressions of figures engaged in a horrifying act of violence would have been unbearable without the reminder that we were in a crowded public place. The figures, which were cast from live models, represent five white men who are castrating a black man while his white female companion cowers in horror in a pickup truck. The figure of a small child in one of the cars also witnesses the scene. I am the sort of person who watches horror films through a screen of my fingers; I kept my head down most of the time and stared at the imprints our shoes made on the dirt-covered floor.

I had mainly entered the KCRW pie contest because it reminded me of what it must be like to live in a town like the fictional Mayberry, the setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.” In the show's mythically bucolic universe, the citizens of Mayberry compete in contests focused on domestic skills like putting up homemade pickles. The show makes me think of an America that I wish I lived in, where strangers were only friends you haven’t met yet, and every conflict is solved with everyone having learned their lesson in approximately 23 minutes.

However, even die-hard fans of the show admit that the near- absence of African Americans in North Carolina in the 1960s where the stories are set is strange. Although they are seen as onlookers or in crowds, only one episode - ironically produced when the show went to “color” – features a speaking part by a black actor.

While preparing to celebrate this mythical America of county fairs and blue ribbons with the KCRW pie contest, I heard the story of Troy Davis, a man accused of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989, as it played out to its fatal end. Numerous delays to his execution stretched out over 22 years since his sentencing, during which the evidence resembled a piece of Jarlsberg, so full of holes it was. But things being as they are – black man shoots white cop in Savannah, Georgia – Davis was executed late on the evening of Sept. 21, after one last seven-hour delay while the Supreme Court deliberated his petition for clemency.

The overwhelming support from around the world was amazing. As Davis’s sister said, people who spoke languages that her brother could not, were on his side. President Obama’s silence – which was made much of in the media - was also a cause for wonder. But I don’t know what he could have done either. He was criticized for not acting, but would have been doubly criticized in some parts of these United States for reaching out to a black man on Death Row while the victim’s family sought their justice.

Joan MacPhail-Harris, the widow of Mark MacPhail, told The Associated Press that “it's a time for healing” now that Davis' execution has occurred, that she saw “nothing to rejoice over” in Davis’ death and that she was praying for his family.

“I will grieve for the Davis family because now they're going to understand our pain and our hurt,” she told the AP in a telephone interview from Jackson.

I’m sure that in their respective circles of family and friends, both the Davis and MacPhail families are trying to heal. Public consciousness of the case healed pretty quickly, as the next morning, the story had all but disappeared from the news, except for wrap-up stories on the execution and a few editorials.

After the winners of the pie contest were announced, all of the contestants were invited to serve their pies - which numbered approximately 200 - to the hundreds of spectators who had over the last couple of hours, converged upon LACMA in droves. While my fellow bakers and I worked like mad to appease the hungry mob with as many slivers of our creations as we could carve out with inffectual plastic spatulas, I can’t say I really saw who was out there. I might have noticed a jaunty hat or an unusual apron on someone, as museum visitors were encouraged to wear that day for an informal “fashion show” and free admission to LACMA.

Everyone's a winner - especially the hundreds of LACMA visitors who got a side of pie with the main course of art!

Mostly I was aware of a teeming wave of paper plate-waving humanity, all literally wanting their piece – or in this case, pieces – of the pie. If only justice were as colorblind.


  1. Powerful stuff, Joanie. NIcely done.

  2. Joanie. This is one of the best entries you've ever written. You've captured the dichotomy so artful. Thank you