Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Beach Eats: PIE À LA MODE

<<Third in a continuing series exploring the tastes, histories and crafts of favorite food items mentioned in THE BLOND LEADING THE BLOND…>>

          “Be it apple or humble, pie should always be served à la mode,” the woman tempted me.
          I hesitated, thinking about my half-diet and wondering if I’d rather limit myself to one full piece of pie without ice cream or one half of a piece with creamy vanilla melting over it. 
          ~Excerpted from The Blond Leading the Blond 

           Which “foodies” amongst us hasn’t heard the story about the invention of the Sandwich? Well, not so much the “invention” of as the naming of it.  I’ll save you a Google search:  While the idea of tucking meat between slices or on top of slices of bread (in lieu of plates) had been around for a while, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the term sandwich was coined.   The 4th Earl of Sandwich was fond of asking his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, enabling him to continue to play cards while eating the meat.  As you probably realize, eating meat without cutlery left your hands messy, so this was a perfect solution.  Others at the table would say “Bring me what Sandwich has,” and the rest, as they say, is food-naming history.
          But very few people know the story behind the naming of Pie à la Mode.
          Many people mistakenly think that à la mode is French for “with ice cream.”  Nothing is further from the truth.  It means “to the modern” or more loosely, “how fashionable.”
          So how did pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top become to be named à la mode? 

          This time naming credit goes to Professor Charles Watson Townsend.  (Between you and me, I’m glad it’s not called Pie Townsend, aren’t you?”  But I digress.)  Said professor dined at the Cambridge Hotel in New York in the 1890s.  He ordered a slice of apple pie with ice cream on top.  Mrs. Berry Hall, seated at the next table, thought it looked yummy and asked Townsend what the dish was called.  He said it didn’t have a name and she proclaimed it pie à la mode. Aha, we now have “fashionable pie.” 
          I know I often make up names for stuff I cook, but nothing I have said has ever made it into the lexicon of polite society, so how exactly did this “fashionable pie” become known world wide?  Well, as Paul Harvey used to say, it’s time for the rest of the story.
          Our professor ate at the Cambridge Hotel every night for the rest of his visit, and every time ordered Apple Pie à la Mode for dessert. Upon his return to New York City he visited the very trendy Delmonico’s Restaurant and ordered his new favorite dessert.  The waiter responded that he’d never heard of such a thing, to which Townsend replied (and I can just see him getting all nose-in-the air and such…)

          “Do you meant to tell me that so famous an eating place as Delmonico’s has never heard of Pie à la Mode, when the Hotel Cambridge, up in the village of Cambridge, NY serves it every day?  Call the manager at once.  I demand as good serve (sic) here as I get in Cambridge.”

          Not to be outdone, Delmonico’s added Pie a la Mode to its menu.  And as also happens a reporter had been sitting nearby and overheard the conversation and wrote a piece on it.  Soon pie a la mode was being served in restaurants across the country.
          The Cambridge Hotel, up until it closed recently, hailed itself as “Home of Pie à la Mode.”
          Townsend’s obituary in 1936 credited him with the invention of pie with ice cream on top.
          But people have debunked this as a myth, since pie with ice cream on it was “invented” at a restaurant in Duluth in the 1880s, a decade before Townsend visited the Cambridge Hotel.  The newspaper there claims it was served at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and a reporter from France wrote a review and said “How Modern.”  (Translation, remember, is à la mode.)
          Both stories could very well be true.  Maybe Mrs. Berry Hall had read the article in the French Newspaper and was merely repeating what they had called it.  Like most historical references, I don’t think we’ll never know for sure.
          But I have to say, I think Pie à la mode is ever so much more catchy than the literal French translation of “pie with ice cream.”  Can you imagine bellying up to a small town café and ordering Tarte à la crème glacée?  They’d probably laugh you out of town. 
          No, let’s make it one order of apple pie à la mode over here, please! 

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