Living the Pie Life
By Carolyn Shea
— Beth Howard's first entry in her pie blog, The World Needs More Pie, December 6, 2007
A self-made “pie evangelist,” Beth Howard '83 is on a mission: to spread the glad tidings of pie. Pie heals, she says; it comforts, builds community and makes people happy.
Her main pulpit is her blog, The World Needs More Pie, which has been plugged by The New York Times, Better Homes and Gardens, NPR, numerous newspapers and scores of blogs. Some of her followers have even taken to identifying her as “America's Pie Lady.”
Howard uses other platforms, as well. She holds pie parties and teaches the art of pie baking to groups of all ages, from elementary school kids to at-risk youth to older adults. On National Pie Day (January 23, for those who don't know), she has handed out hundreds of free pie slices to grateful passersby on the streets of Los Angeles and Chicago. And she's been a pie judge at the National Pie Championships and at the Iowa State Fair.
In February, she signed a deal to have her first book published, about how pie changed her life and helped her cope with the sudden death of her husband, Marcus Iken. Making Piece: Love, Loss and the Healing Power of Pie, is due out next year.
Howard's pie epiphany occurred during a breather in her globe-trotting career, spent working mostly in the media business, in public relations and as a magazine writer, editor and Web producer. In 2001, she left a high-paying position with a sports website, where she worked long days, missing the active lifestyle and outdoor adventures she wrote about and loved.
Beth Howard lives in the historic American Gothic house, where she runs her Pitchfork Pie Stand, selling her homemade pies to tourists.
“After sitting in front of a computer 15 hours a day, working in a virtual environment, I really wanted a tactile experience,” she says. One day, she visited a gourmet deli in Malibu that was popular for its pie, specifically to order a slice. They were out, she was told, because they were “too busy to make any.” When she offered to make it for them, she was asked what her qualifications were. “I'm from Iowa,” she replied. She was hired on the spot and spent the next year “baking pies for the stars next to the sea,” she says. “I wanted to soothe my soul after having this high pressure job and I ended up really enjoying it.”
So did the Hollywood crowd made happy by her pies. This was not lost on Howard, who says the job was meant to be “an interlude, a sabbatical in a sense, but it's become a theme ever since.”
In 2009, after six years of marriage, Howard found herself a widow when her 43-year-old husband died unexpectedly from a ruptured aorta. To ease her grief, she drove the RV he left her to L.A., where her parents live, and encountered a TV-producer friend who knew about her blog and wanted to do a pie documentary. They took to the road, filming a “pie-lot” for a reality series about people from all walks of life who make the world a happier place with pie, and in the process helping Howard recover from her heartache.
Last year, Howard returned to Iowa to judge a pie contest and along the way, discovered the American Gothic House, immortalized by the artist Grant Wood as the backdrop for his iconic painting of rural Midwesterners. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cottage is located in Eldon (population 927), 15 miles from Ottumwa, the town in southeast Iowa where Howard grew up. She never expected to return to the state, having spent the years after she left college living and traveling around the world, from California, New York, Hawaii and Oregon to Germany, Kenya and beyond. But when she learned that the house was for rent ($250 a month) from the State Historical Society of Iowa, she instantly thought, “writer's retreat.”
“It seemed like a grounding place to be,” says the pie maven. In September, she moved in with her terriers, Jack and Daisy, and a few months later, set up the Pitchfork Pie Stand. On weekends, she sells her pies to the busloads of tourists who stream in to see the tiny, steep-gabled cottage with the beautiful arched window and pose in front, pitchfork in hand. “I carve a little pitchfork on the top for the vent holes,” she says. “It's the seal of authenticity that the pie was baked right in the American Gothic House.”
Living in a tourist attraction has its drawbacks, but Howard says she knows how to set boundaries. “I know where to hide,” she jokes. Oftentimes though, she embraces the people who visit from around the world. She has made fast friends in the local community and rediscovered her roots. “I pinch myself thinking about how lucky I am,” she says.
Howard has no plans to leave, no matter where she ventures. It is her base for baking, blogging, working on her memoir and making peace with her loss, which has come in no small part by sharing the joy and generous spirit of pie. Or as she would say, “by pie-ing it forward.”
Howard says her “favorite pie is apple crumble. And blueberry. And blackberry. And peach. And…you get the idea.”