Quick! Without thinking, answer the following question: Are you a pie person or a cake person? No prevaricating allowed. No “I like both” (most of us do). No “well it depends on if it’s my mother’s red velvet cake or my aunt’s blueberry pie.” Just go with your sweet-loving gut.
There. That didn’t take long, did it?
I ask because the question has been nagging at me since it was raised at my dad’s birthday dinner recently. As I was pushing candles into Dad’s birthday cheesecake, my sister suddenly asked where Dad’s favorite coconut layer cake was. “I made cheesecake instead,” I explained, since my mom, the coconut cake baker, had made the dinner. A birthday isn’t a birthday without an iced layer cake, someone ventured. “Sure it is,” I said. “Mom makes me a chocolate meringue birthday pie every year because I’d much rather eat pie than cake.”
And thus the discussion began (and ended) the way “discussions” always do at our table, with all of us yelling out our opinions.
“Cake,” opined my sister, “because of the frosting.”
“Cake is more celebratory,” said my husband, “and it has the greater ability to impress.”
“Cake or pie?” I demanded of my father as he worked on his cheesecake. “I’ve always loved cake,” he said between mouthfuls.
“Well, I like pie,” said my mother, waving her spatula to make a point as she listed pie’s many assets: the variety of possible fillings, the ability to be sweet or savory, the pleasure of a flaky crust. “There are just not as many options with cakes,” she pointed out.
Up until this point, my brother-in-law, who doesn’t care much for sweets, stayed silent. But when pressed, he asked, “How can you improve on a banana cream pie?” Before I could say “leave out the bananas,” he added, “My uncle said he loved five kinds of pie: hot pie, cold pie, open face pie, closed pie and criss-cross.” I’m with that uncle.
Although I know my mother loves pie (I make a lemon meringue pie for her birthday every year), I was surprised at the passionate feelings the pie vs. cake question raised at our table, and how no one hesitated at all in answering: it was as if the answer was obvious to each and every one of us. I also thought it odd that in each of the three couples at the table, one partner was a pie and the other was cake. And I was taken aback that my husband, with whom I share many food passions, prefers cake. After years enjoying pecan pies and apple tarts together, I just never would have guessed.
For several weeks thereafter, I accosted folks with the pie/cake question. Without shame (or tact), I hit up friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners at church, folks on an Internet music discussion board I frequent— even a few strangers. And save for a few who “like everything” or “would rather have a beer,” most people, like my family, gave their answer in a matter of seconds.
More than one cake aficionado agreed with my sister that frosting gives cake a huge edge over pie, but there were just as many pie lovers who cited bad frosting as a deal breaker. Pie, too, has its own challenges, of course. “With pie,” said one woman, a cake lover, “so much depends on the crust.”
Some people cited family associations in making their choice— a mother’s coconut cream pie and a grandmother’s devil’s food cake with seven-minute frosting yielded a pie and cake vote, respectively. Raina, a critical care nurse at Johns Hopkins, recalls the time her grandmother carried a homemade cherry pie in a backpack all the way from San Francisco to Guatemala, where she was living at the time. Jeanne, a native Baltimorean now living in New Jersey, remembers the carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and “lots of walnuts” her family presents her with each year for her birthday. (“No fluorescent frosting carrots on top, please,” she adds.)
What some folks praised about pie or cake, other people disparaged. Raina loves fruit pies because she feels no guilt about eating them for breakfast. My friend Julie, however, wants her dessert to be decadent. “I prefer my desserts to have very little in the way of healthfulness, and pies are just too full of fruit and such,” she says. Julie’s husband, Jeff, who makes killer fruit pies, loves pie’s texture (“the crunch of crust and the warm squishy feel of the fruit,” he puts it), while a gentleman from church dismisses pie for being messy. “It runs all over the plate,” he said with a grimace.
Several people’s pie/cake preference seemed connected to their professions. It wasn’t much of a surprise when a graphic designer friend ’fessed up to liking cake because “it’s just so pretty,” but I was surprised to hear Joe, an engineer, wax poetic about the cosmic symbolism of pie. “It is a perfect circle,” he said. “You know, pi.”
Some of my favorite responses sounded like sage aphorisms to live by. “Pie is what you eat when there’s no cake,” said Pat, her nose wrinkling at the prospect. “It takes a spectacular cake to compete with a run-of-the-mill pie,” wrote Michael from Kansas City. My dear friend Louise took the occasion to challenge Milton’s tale of creation when she wrote: “Pie. First made by God’s most blessed angels. Cake was invented by the less-blessed when they couldn’t turn butter and flour and a little water into felicity. Eventually these ‘cake’ angels formed the league of the Fallen and caught up with Eve in the Garden.” I like that in this story both pie and cake are acknowledged as blessing and temptation. Because, of course, they are.
All in all I polled approximately 55 people, and pie lovers edged out cake lovers, but not by much. Like my family, of the 10 other couples I spoke to, nine included a pie and a cake (the 10th was made up of two cake lovers), prompting me to wonder if online daters should mention a dessert preference in their ads, as well as a sense of humor and a fondness for long walks on the beach.
Aside from that, however, I can’t discern any other distinct patterns or trends, possibly because both pies and cakes are such an intrinsic part of our greater dessert culture (along with the success of Duff Goldman’s Charm City Cakes and Rodney Henry’s Dangerously Delicious Pies, our local dessert landscape). Pie and cake make their presence felt in holidays, sayings, songs. We can’t imagine Thanksgiving without pumpkin (or apple) pie. We praise our friends for “taking the cake” and thrill to hear Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush sing that she’s as corny as Kansas in August and as normal as blueberry pie. Cake and pie are as yin and yang as vanilla and chocolate, peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly— and perhaps men and women.
Try your own survey and let me know what happens. I’ll be the one at the table eating chocolate meringue pie.