Beth Howard had a rough weekend. Disappointing business trip. Tough crowd at a public event. But it's nothing a day of making pies can't fix. Back home in Eldon, a southeastern Iowa town of about 900, she dives into her favorite ritual: peeling and slicing Granny Smith apples until she's filled two plates, tucked them under blankets of handmade dough and slid it all into the oven.
"Therapy pie," Beth calls it. "The healing part is the making of it and giving away something of yourself." Then she lifts out a slice and pays the comfort forward by sliding it across the wooden table in my direction.
Without looking down, I realize I'm sharing something bigger than just pie. But when I do glance at the pitchfork in the crust, I remember that we're eating America's pie in one of America's best-known houses.
Beth lives and makes apple pies ("I like apple because it's a classic," she says) in the American Gothic house, that unmistakable white-frame home with the arched window in Grant Wood's 1930 painting of dour country folk. Perhaps no image but the Mona Lisa is more famous, and to Beth, the house it shows plays a critical role in a story of rediscovered roots, pies and the road back from a broken heart.
Beth left Iowa after high school to make a life in Portland, Los Angeles, New York and Germany. On a college bike tour, she got caught snatching apples from the Washington orchard of an old pastry chef, who then took her in as a pupil in the art of making pie. Later, she landed a job in a Malibu, California, bakery making pies for the likes of Spielberg (coconut cream) and Streisand (lemon meringue). "The shop asked what my qualifications were for making pie," she says. "I told them, 'I'm from Iowa,' and they hired me."
A few years later, she found herself a widow at 48, mourning the sudden death of her husband, Marcus. Casting about for emotional moorings, she returned to Iowa in August 2010 to judge a pie contest and stumbled across the American Gothic house in Eldon. It stood 15 miles from where she grew up--and was available for rent from the State Historical Society of Iowa. "It was adorable and instantly recognizable," she says. "The next thing I knew, I was moving in."
(The house actually has two Gothic windows; Beth's lease requires her to keep light lace curtains in the famous front one.)
Beth shares the small house (roughly 700 square feet) with her terriers, Jack and Daisy. It makes the perfect home base for hosting pie-making parties, working on her memoir Making Piece (due out in 2012) and joining the Thursday senior citizens' lunch when she pays the extra dollar charged for younger people. "I've become friends with people I never would have met in Portland. I'm discovering roots I didn't even know I had, and I'm surprised how deep they run," Beth says.
Among her new friends are the crowds who pose for photos with pitchfork in hand in front of the house and then buy a snack from Beth's Pitchfork Pie Stand on the front porch. Beth barely breaks even on the pies, but she's reluctant to raise the price. She'd rather people discover the joy of baking their own anyway.
Beth says, "If reading my story inspires other people to face their fears and make homemade pie and then share that pie to make someone else feel better, then I'm fulfilling some kind of useful purpose in this life."
For information on Beth Howard's pies and parties and to read her blog, visit theworldneedsmorepie.com. For information on the American Gothic house and its visitors center, call 641/652-3352 or visit wapellocounty.org/
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2011.)
Beth Howard's blog