View From Lodi, CA Pittsburgh, PA: Joe To Tackle A Pennsylvania Dutch Classic—Shoo Fly Pie
October 23, 2009, 05:00 AM
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Among the many things that I miss about Lodi, two of them are the San Joaquin County and California State Fairs.

During the last several years, I entered their baking competitions. As June approached, I fired up my Lodi test kitchen to practice the items I had chosen.

Last July when I moved to Pittsburgh, I checked the local fair schedule, hoping that I would not be too late to get my entries in.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that I wasn't too late, but instead was too early.

Pennsylvania holds its state fair in January! That came as quite a shock to a California native who associates fairs with warm summer days, concerts and the Ferris wheel.

The explanation for the mid-winter event, called the Pennsylvania Farm Show, is that the farmers are too busy during the summer to spare any time for something as frivolous as a fair.

As an inducement to attend in the dead of winter, fair organizers point out that, while visitors can expect snow, the actual accumulation will not be any higher than during other January weeks.

If you'll pardon the expression, that's cold comfort.

Harrisburg, the state capitol and show's location, has a January average temperature of 38 degrees with a low of 23 and receives approximately 12 inches of snow.

I'll never confuse January in Pennsylvania with August in Sacramento, that's for sure.

Since getting from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg involves driving for four hours each way in what will certainly be rotten weather, I'm holding off submitting my baking entries.

Still, I'm intrigued. Farming is Pennsylvania's leading industry. And the show is billed as the largest indoor agricultural event in the country. Among the competitions that separate Pennsylvania from California are the butter sculpture and Christmas tree contests

More than anything else, the farm show would give me an excellent opportunity to try my baking skills on a dessert that I've never even eaten, the Amish favorite shoo fly pie.

Word around these parts near Pennsylvania Dutch country is that baking talent is measured solely by one's ability to produce a top notch shoo fly pie.

As with so many popular American desserts, shoo fly pie is surrounded by controversy.

Like a key lime pie, the biggest debate is whether to use a flaky or a graham cracker crust. The pie's bottom can be thick or barely visible and is referred to as either a "wet bottom" or a "dry bottom".

Some cooks put chocolate icing on top of their shoo fly pies and use spices. Others argue that the pie tastes more like coffee cake.

Everyone agrees, however, that shoofly pie is best when slightly warmed and with whipped cream on top.

The origin of the name has been debated for years without concrete resolution.

The most common explanation is that, during America's colonial period, North American settlers brought with them nonperishable staples like flour, brown sugar, molasses, lard, salt, and spices—the key ingredients in a shoo fly pie.

All their early baking was done in big outdoor ovens.

While the pie was cooling pools of sweet, sticky molasses sometimes formed on its surface, invariably attracting flies.

That's how shoo fly pie got its name.

Now it's time for me to study shoo fly pie recipes and articles. By the time you next hear from me about shoo fly pie, I will have done countless hours of research and baked several pies.

Even though I'm just getting started, I can already report an oddity. The shoo fly pie is a dessert so limited in its popularity that my three major home library baking books don't mention it: Baking With Julia, Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible and Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. I take the shoo fly pie's omission from all three as a troubling sign. Does that mean that Child, Stewart and Beranbaum found the pie too distasteful to recommend it? Or is it too much trouble to bake?

I'll know the answers by this weekend. If you never hear me mention shoo fly pie again, you'll know what happened.

Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.