Saturday, August 24, 2013

Good pie is hard to find


     It wasn't a fixation. While we headed East, none of us were thinking, "Here we come, Tastykakes!" We weren't thinking of them at all. Rather, they came as a pleasant surprise. Like bumping into an old friend. When we pulled in for a pit stop at that service station in Pennsylvania and saw all those familiar beige oblong boxes.
     And only the familiar oblong boxes — the rest of the Tastykake line of products, the cupcakes and donuts and Krinkles and such, well, they could be fine. Or they could be lousy. I don't know. I've never tried them. Because, frankly, the oblong pies were so satisfying the first time we tasted them that the idea of skirting one for, oh, a chocolate cupcake, would be like avoiding your own child to take the hand of a stranger's, just to see what it was like. 
     Tastykake pies are delicious. I hope this doesn't indict my opinion for all my chef friends whose fine, high quality pies I have praised in the past -- Sarah Stegner at Prairie Grass, Gale Gand at Tru, Laura Sayler in her kitchen. If they are cringing in utter moral revulsion, well, I'm sorry. I never pretended to be the pure palate of pie justice. It's just that the Tastykake has a really good crust. Not the greasy, flaky mess you find in most mass-produced pies. Or did. The collapse of Hostess seems to have deflated the packaged pie market. 
     But Tastykake is still here; well, still there, on the East Coast. There's something about it, almost a little undercooked. It has a pie dough taste. The filling is almost secondary -- I go with the lemon, a lemon meringue that's not too sweet. But the blueberry is good too. And of course the custard. And cherry isn't bad.
     Don't underestimate the rarity factor.  In this age when you can get anything anywhere, you can't get Tastykakes in Chicago (with the exception of a couple Philly cheesecake places that order a few Tastykake products on Amazon, and then, inexplicably, the one I called to confirm this ignores the pies. Go figure).
    My guess is the secret to Tastykakes is they don't load them up with preservatives. On our way back to Chicago, on Aug. 15th, we went to a service station in Pennsylvania where the Tastykake truck had just pulled up and was loading a shelf full of new pies. Their pull date was the 19th, four days away, which seemed extraordinary. My assumption is that a Hostess fruit pie would be good for months —I have to assume, because I tried to confirm this, but of course they're gone. I looked for something similar, but the five places I tried in Chicago didn't have any prepackaged fruit pies at all. Note to savvy businessmen: an opportunity! The closest product I could find, a Kellogg's cinnamon apple Nutri-Bar, is good until March, 2014—well, not good, but "good," in theory. "Good" as in "not stale," which is not the highest of compliments.
    How do they do it? The Tastykake people say they keep homemade in mind.
    "We try to use the basic ingredients, like your wife making a pie at home, but on a much larger scale," said Brent Bradshaw, a vice president of marketing at Flowers Foods, in Georgia, which owns Tastykake. "The pies are a unique item, in that little tin."
     Don't underestimate the role of the tin either — it's nostalgic, of course, and adds to the aesthetic experience, the way the foil around a Hershey bar did before they got rid of the foil. The tin helps, because the pie can be more delicate in a tin; it doesn't have to hold its own shape together as a lozenge pie does, or did, when someone still made them. 
     Bradshaw said one secret is that the pies are not sent to warehouses to sit around ossifying. "We're not going to put a lot of days on it," he said. "We want it brought in fresh on our delivery trucks. Other brands may ship to third party distributor, then to somebody else, they may take a few days to put it on the shelf We want our drivers in there every day."
     So do I. The short shelf life is the good news. The bad news is that, because of the short life of the pies, Chicago is just too far away from the old Philadelphia Naval Yard, where their bakery is located, to permit them being sold here. Distributing here just wouldn't be worthwhile—the extra day on the road would cut into the pies' already brief lifespan. And, frankly, they don't need us.
    "They sell very well, especially in the Pennsylvania market," said Bradshaw.
    So pie, among its many wonderful qualities, also helps maintain the uniqueness of the nation's disparate regions. I hope Tastykakes, perhaps lured in by the collapse of Hostess, never gets greedy, shoots its pies full of preservatives and starts shipping them to warehouses around Chicago.  It wouldn't be the same. There should be some things that are only available in certain parts of the country. Otherwise why travel at all? Why take the trouble and time to go somewhere if all you are going to find is exactly what you left behind? If the people at the Tasty Baking Company—is that a great name or what?— are reading this, remember the lesson of Krispy Kreme, which exploded from hard-to-find exotic Southern treat to over-exposed dull failure, and quickly too. Once upon a time my wife and I walked nearly an hour through early morning Manhattan to get to the Krispy Kreme on 6th Avenue, the first one north of the Mason-Dixon line. Now I wouldn't extend my arm to pluck one off a plate right in front of me. A word to the wise, Tastykake. Good pie is by definition hard to find. You have to earn it.


  1. "Now I wouldn't extend my arm to pluck one off a plate right in front of me."

    Classic. For me, it calls to mind the similar tale of Coors beer...

    I think you wrote in your book that potato chips are expensive to ship, because of all the air in the package, Neil. Another item that you can still find being made locally in many unlikely places, which I have long enjoyed sampling in my travels.

  2. The tins are a new feature to the pies.

    ... and overall the pies are terrible now.

    They used to be much, much better.

  3. Folks in Cleveland made a big hoo-ha when Krispy Kreme closed up their outlets, years back. They made so much noise that the company opened new ones in different locations, most of which have long since gone out of business. I never understood the attraction...their product was like eating a plate of raw sugar, topped with white goo that made me gag and choke. Yetchissimo!

  4. I had an apple pie at McDonald's the other day. Don't know if it's a new item or not, since I rarely patronize McD's, but I thought the pie surprisingly good, a suitably crunchy crust preserved by the stiff little box it came in, not over sweet, a good deal tasteir than the last-forever pies that are stored and sold like candy bars. The girl tried to sell me 2 (89 cents for 1, a dollar 19 for 2) and I congratulated myself for resisting (after all, I wanted just 1, just because the 2nd 1 would be cheaper wasn't a good reason to buy it), but after tasting the first one, wished that I'd bought another.



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