What’s your favorite pie? And how did my choice threaten my marriage?

As Thanksgiving approaches, a retrospective on bad pie choices.
Coconut custard pie, not to be confused with coconut cream pie. Or else.
Coconut custard pie, not to be confused with coconut cream pie. Or else. [ Shutterstock ]
Published Nov. 17, 2022

You know it is autumn in Florida, not because of changes in the weather or the color of falling leaves, but because everywhere you shop pumpkins are on display, and pumpkin-flavored products are for sale. Want pumpkin-flavored coffee or beer? This season is for you.

“Do you like pumpkin pie?” asked my wife, Karen.

There are cake people and there are pie people. I have been a pie person all my life. You can have your carrot cake, and your chocolate layer, your red velvet. I will always prefer a piece of pie, and I just noticed that you can’t type the word “piece” without typing “pie.”

I am about to list my favorites and ask you about yours, but not before I share a story, one that I have been too ashamed to write about until now. In the course of a long marriage, there are moments you regret. So deep is the regret, it may not allow you to forget.

This tale goes back to a notorious birthday, some time in midlife. I asked Karen if instead of another gooey birthday cake, she would get me a birthday pie. I requested my favorite, not easily available: coconut custard.

My eccentric choice goes back to my earliest years in New York City. If we were out and about town, Mom would take me to a cafeteria called an Automat, a popular eating experience that would be edged out and then devoured by fast-food joints. In an Automat, each sandwich or salad or dessert was on display in an individualized glass case. You would just place a nickel or two in a slot, open the little door and slide out the treat. In my case, a piece of coconut custard pie.

The Automat was created by a food service company named Horn & Hardart. In 1952, the Clarks moved from Lower Manhattan to Long Island. On special days, we might shop at Roosevelt Field, a famous old airfield that was converted into an outdoor shopping center. Right across from Macy’s was a shop that specialized in Horn & Hardart food products. We never went home without a coconut custard pie.

Egg on my face — and more

My birthday arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and I was hustled out of the dining room by my daughters. Oh boy, oh boy, I could almost taste it. The smell of lit birthday candles wafted my way, then the sound of the family singing Happy Birthday.

I entered the room with eyes wide and a grin as wide as a pie plate. I look down at the pie in eager anticipation. I yelled: “That’s not coconut custard! That’s coconut CREAM!! I wanted coconut CUSTARD!!!”

As I stalked out of the room, I heard stunned silence, followed by a sour and sarcastic reprise of the birthday song. Karen did not talk to me for the rest of the day, and most of the next day. How was I going to get out of this one?

My favorite pies

But first I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favorite pies. This begins with the disclaimer that pizza — my favorite food — is only a pie by analogy. It may be round and cut into slices, but it is savory, not sweet. In my book, in spite of the geometric formula pi r squared, pies are round — and sweet. Here they are:

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  1. Coconut custard: smooth and silky, not to be confused with you know what.
  2. Apple: the most American dessert of all, best served warm with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.
  3. Pumpkin: I assume this is tasty year-round, but I enjoy it best two hours after Thanksgiving dinner.
  4. Strawberry rhubarb: Not easy to find, but so interesting in its rebellion against total sweetness.
  5. Cherry: My dad’s absolute favorite.
  6. Peach: The best peach pie I ever had was in Georgia, of course. I like a round peach pie, finding the cobbler too crumbly.

Please don’t be offended if I have left your favorite off my list. Please enjoy your pecan, lemon meringue, blueberry, sweet potato and key lime pies to your heart’s content.

Crawling out of the doghouse

It did not take me long to realize what a jerk I had been with the birthday pie incident. What made it worse is that Karen had gone to a lot of trouble to get that pie. She found one at a shop on St. Pete Beach, only to get stuck in a traffic jam on the old drawbridge to Pass-a-Grille. She made a loving effort, and I had profaned it.

“OK,” I said the next evening in the kitchen. “If you want, you can take what’s left of the pie and smash it in my face.” Maybe I said “smoosh” rather than “smash.”

Without speaking a word, Karen set up a stool and, in front of the girls, wrapped a towel around my neck, pulling it a little tighter than necessary.

She removed the pie from its carton. I closed my eyes. Coconut cream is a very gooey dessert. I expected the mess on my kisser and up my nose. What I did not expect was the double twist of her wrist. First to the left. Then to the right. Then came the howls of laughter and delight.

I swallowed a morsel. It wasn’t half bad.

What’s your favorite pie?