Beth Howard has always believed that pie can make the world a better place—and she set out to prove that theory on a bucket-list trip that became the basis for her new book, World Piece: A Pie Baker’s Global Quest for Peace, Love, and Understanding.
After her husband’s death at the age of 43, Howard healed her grief by making pie. From 2010 to 2014, she lived in the iconic American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, where from she ran a pie shop called the Pitchfork Pie Stand. Thanks to her blog called “The World Needs More Pie, her books and a Ted Talk on the healing power of pie, Howard has become known as the “Pie Lady” or “Miss American Pie.”
For years, Howard dreamed of traveling the world—not to tick off a list of tourist sites, but to immerse herself in the culture of each country by making pie with local residents.
“When my husband died, he left behind 420,000 frequent flyer miles. I had been saving them to fulfill a childhood dream of traveling around the world in one consecutive go,” says Howard. “I didn’t want to be a tourist, though; I wanted to have a purpose and immerse myself in other cultures. The trip felt too daunting, but the miles were expiring so I faced my fears, packed my rolling pin and launched myself into the unknown.”
That bucket-list dream turned into an epic three-month journey that took Howard and her rolling pin to New Zealand, Thailand, India, Greece and beyond. In each place, she used America’s beloved comfort food as a way to connect with locals. As she shared pie lessons, she learned about the origins of many traditional dishes around the globe—including pie, of course. She documented the journey in World Piece.
Here, we find out about Howard’s inspirational adventure, learn how she overcame her fears and discover how pie might be the answer to world peace. And a bonus: Howard also shares her favorite pie recipe.
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What Got Me Into Pie: “Pie is in my DNA. My mom made my dad a banana cream pie when they were dating and that pie prompted him to propose to her; I was born because of pie! But it was when I quit a dot-com job at the height of the boom that my pie journey began in earnest. The more my bosses pushed to create virtual outdoor experiences, the more I craved a tactile experience that engaged my senses in the real world. I quit, proclaiming in my exit interview, ‘I want to do something with my hands, like make pie.’ Be careful what you say because that’s what I ended up doing, making pie in Malibu—for minimum wage.”
Healing Through Pie: “After that, I started a blog of my pie stories calling it The World Needs More Pie, and when my husband died, I found healing in making pie and sharing it with others less fortunate. There is always someone less fortunate. Pie led me back to my native Iowa, where I lived in the American Gothic House—yes the one from the famous painting—and opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand. Making a hundred pies every weekend burned me out, so I moved and that’s when pie took me all the way around the world. I had always wanted to be a National Geographic reporter, but being an author and pie maker is probably a better fit, especially because pie makes people so happy.”
Pie—The Ultimate Peacemaker? “Pie represents so many things—comfort, kindness, family, nostalgia, love. It reminds people of simpler times—before smart phones and streaming shows usurped all our attention. When you offer a homemade pie to someone—and this is true for any place in the world—people get excited. They appreciate that you took the time to make something, better yet that you are sharing it with them. It’s an act of generosity and gesture of peace that at face value seems small but it’s so powerful.”
The Connection Between Pie And Travel: “Pie itself is an international traveler. It originated in 6000 BC in Egypt and made its way to Greece, France, Spain, England, and eventually to the New World, with the pilgrims and pioneers. Virtually every country has some form of it, whether a Cornish pasty, pizza, pirog or strudel.”
Busting Travel Myths: “The world is not as dangerous as the media (and the State Department) makes it out to be. I signed up for the U.S. State Department’s travel alerts for each country I was traveling to and I kept getting emails warning Americans not to travel there. Lebanon was still a hotbed of unrest, Greece was in the midst of a financial crisis where tourists were purportedly getting mugged at ATMs, and Hungary was closing its borders to refugees in the biggest migrant crisis since WWII. I ignored the warnings, and not only did the places feel safe, I met some of the nicest, most helpful people of my trip in those countries.”
Traveling Solo: “I have always loved traveling solo; it makes me more observant and receptive to everything and everyone around me, partly out of caution for my safely, but mostly because I’m fascinated with other people’s lives. Being alone makes me more open to meeting new people, which can result in anything from sharing an Uber ride to making a lifelong friend. Bottom line: You may be traveling solo, but you are never alone.”
What I Learn About Myself On This Journey: “Because my husband had died so young and so unexpectedly, I constantly worried about losing my loved ones in a similarly tragic way. I was traveling with the excess baggage of this anxiety, worsened when the insurance approval for my dad’s melanoma surgery was delayed. I was in Thailand and couldn’t do anything to solve the problem. My sister said of my parents, “They are on their own journey. They trust you to live your life; you have to trust them to live theirs.” It lifted a huge weight as I gave up any sense of being able to control things, something I didn’t even realize I was trying to do. My sister’s advice helped me let go and focus on my own journey. And my dad’s surgery went forward without my help.”
What I Learned About Other Places: “I researched the history of war and peace in each place and it’s complicated, with countries moving up and down in their Global Peace Index rankings every year. But what stands out is my time in Lebanon, how even when surrounded by armed soldiers and road blocks and bombed-out buildings—and a garbage strike on top of that—life goes on. No matter what country and how dire the circumstances, people still shop for groceries, go out to restaurants, send their kids to summer camp, play music, and celebrate birthdays.”
Biggest Surprise: “I kept meeting people and finding we had other people in common, even when I was on the other side of the world. I was at a birthday party in Beirut making small talk with the guy next to me who was from Switzerland. I told him I was heading there soon so he asked what town. The next thing I knew all heads turned toward me as I squealed, ‘I can’t believe you know Uschi!’ His wife was my friend’s coworker. In Athens, I was invited to dinner at the home of a Greek-American cookbook author, who was the friend of a friend of a friend, only to discover her husband, a Greek Orthodox priest, had gone to seminary school with my brother’s father-in-law in California. These coincidences were such happy surprises. However, British statistician David Spiegelhalter writes that there’s no such thing as a coincidence, that if you’re the kind of person who talks to strangers, you’ll find connections.”
The Best Pie On My Trip: “My definition of pie is pretty loose; I consider it anything contained by a crust, whether baked, unbaked, flat, or fried. I tried many different (one could even say exotic) pies around the world, but my favorite pie was in India. I was in a taxi, on my way to the Goa airport for a flight back to Mumbai. It was raining hard—it was monsoon season—and the driver stopped at a roadside kiosk. I saw a glass case with samosas in it, kept warm by bare lightbulbs, and I bought four—two for me and two for the driver. The samosas were wrapped in newspaper printed with stories and pictures of Indian politicians and Bollywood actors. It may have been the combination of circumstances—the rain on the roof, the charm of the newsprint, and sharing the food with the driver—but as I sat in the back of the taxi devouring my snack, I don’t remember anything else on my trip tasting so good.”
Career Advice: “Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford University commencement speech, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.’ Everything I’ve done is connected. I’ve always trusted the dots, even when—no, especially when—they’ve taken me off my intended course. I follow my passions, stay open to trying new things, and seize unexpected opportunities. I take chances, pivot when need be, and quit jobs that don’t align with my values. My advice is avoid debt so you have the freedom to follow the dots that are calling you.”
Life Advice: “Trust your own decisions, it’s okay to change your mind, ignore the naysayers, live with a small footprint, and be of service to others—this is my recipe for a happy, fulfilling life.”
Invest in the Peace Economy: “Everyone has something to give of themselves, whether it’s pie making, bread baking, knitting, painting, writing poetry or something else. By making and sharing our gifts, being generous and considerate (instead of worshipping money and living in fear), we can build community and bridge divides. Even the smallest acts of generosity can open doors to the world and take you places you might never otherwise go.”
Favorite Thanksgiving Pie Recipe: “Apple is my go-to pie recipe. This is the pie I made at each stop of my World Piece journey and what I teach in my pie classes. You can find apples year-round in pretty much every country. I like it for its simplicity, and it’s the one pie I never get tired of eating or making.”