Grieving Widow Turns To Making Pie As Therapy

One day, Beth Howard got a phone call everyone dreads — she learned her husband passed away. Overwhelmed by grief and regret, she decided she needed something sweet in her life, so she began traveling the country, sampling and making pies. Howard speaks with guest host Viviana Hurtado about her book, Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

Next, we're going to take a road trip. Along the way, we'll cover elements of the classic American trip. There is heartbreak, there is adventure and - oh, yes - there is food. In fact, if you were to mix equal parts RV, major life change and apple pie, you will have the beginning of Beth Howard's story.

In August of 2009, Beth received the phone call that everyone dreads. Her husband had died. She was in Texas. He was in Portland. They had experienced some tough times. In fact, the divorce papers had been drawn up, but this didn't make that phone call any easier. Beth Howard was devastated.

When death of a loved one ravages your heart, how do you move on? Can you? She had to figure it out and she did it by turning to one of the most basic joys she had known growing up - baking pie. Beth Howard has written about her relationship with love, grief and pie in the book, "Making Peace: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie," and she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

BETH HOWARD: Thank you.

HURTADO: You begin the book with the death of your husband. Forgive me for asking, but what do you remember about that day?

HOWARD: I remember pain. That's - so I remember laying on my cement floor and sobbing so hard, I wanted to throw up. It was torturous and unfathomable and I'd never known any pain like that, ever.

HURTADO: And you experienced your heart hurting.

HOWARD: Well, what happened is I was out hiking and I remember looking at my watch because I felt so weak and my heart was racing and I didn't know what was wrong with me and that's not like me because I'm quite athletic. And I looked at my watch and it said 8:36 and I turned around and went back home and I got a phone call. I thought it was from Marcus and it wasn't, but I had let the phone call go to voice mail and I checked it later and that was the call from the medical examiner who had said my husband was deceased. But what was remarkable about that time is that Marcus was declared dead at 6:36 and he was in Portland, Oregon. I was in Texas at that time, two hours apart, so it was - at the exact minute I had looked at my watch was the time that he was declared dead, as if I knew or something, if I was connected to his heart struggling as my own heart struggled.

HURTADO: You come from a long line of pie people. You say it how your mom snagged your dad, hence why you were born and you baked your way into Marcus' heart. How did it help you move on from his death?

HOWARD: It didn't at first. It didn't really occur to me to bake pie. All I really knew how to do after he died in those coming months was cry, basically, but I had been baking pies before I met Marcus at a gourmet takeout place in Malibu, California. I had quit dot-com job and was sort of doing a pie baking sabbatical, if you will, leaving a six figure job to make minimum wage. So pie was in my consciousness, but after he died, I didn't consciously turn to it. It was just this thing that sort of happened along the way behind...

HURTADO: It's been your therapy.

HOWARD: Well, yeah. I do enjoy the process of getting my hands in the dough and I make pie with my two bare hands. I always say those are your two best tools, so there's something really cathartic about working with your hands, the sensation of the soft flour and butter and shortening melting together and then you add the ice water. You know, you get all these physical sensations from it and you're not doing anything, but you're just present in that moment and that's a good way to take your mind off of other things.

HURTADO: And is that connection to having to be present - is that what helped you move on from his death?

HOWARD: Well, I wish it was that simple, but what happened is Marcus had bought an RV and I never wanted to have an RV, but you know, he was European and he loved the idea of traveling around America in a camper and then he died and I got left with the RV and I had never driven it before and I was terrified to drive it, but I was too cheap to hire a moving van, so I had some things in storage in L.A. and I was now living in Portland after he died. And so I drove the beast down to Los Angeles and ran into a TV producer friend who said, oh, I know you have this blog about pie and I'd love to do an RV trip. Let's go make a pie documentary.

And then there was - this shoot coincided with National Pie Day, which was January 23 and we decided we would make 50 apple pies by hand and then we handed them out for free by the slice on the streets of Los Angeles and that was really the turning point for me. It's just the giving away, the sharing, the making other people happy.

HURTADO: The power of a slice of pie or a piece of pie. You know, your memoir - making peace is about making peace with yourself. What do you think was the turning point in your grieving process? Was it this moment in L.A.?

HOWARD: Well, it was that whole TV documentary or whatever we would call it. I mean, we haven't sold it as a show and we haven't done anything more with it, but it was having that as a project because it got me thinking about things outside of myself, outside of my own grief.

And then, because I was on this sort of new trajectory of pie and telling other people's pie stories, writing about it on my blog, but also, you know, thinking further ahead like, well, what if this wasn't just a pie documentary? What if we tried to make a TV series? And I would want to look for even more pie stories and that got me thinking farther beyond the West Coast and got me thinking about going to the Iowa State Fair.

And then, after the fair, I took a road trip down to my birthplace, a little town of Ottumwa, Iowa and then I saw a road sign for the American Gothic House and I took the detour and now that's where I live. So there you go. That's a plot twist that one could never predict.

HURTADO: And, Beth, just a little refresher, a little FYI on what the American Gothic House is.

HOWARD: Well, it's a little white farmhouse and you would know it because it's featured in Grant Wood's very famous painting, "American Gothic." It's the couple standing there with the pitchfork and the painting's been parodied many, many times, but - yes. There's this little white farmhouse in the background and it's a real house and I never even knew it existed, let alone it was 15 miles from my birthplace and...

HURTADO: And now you live there?

HOWARD: And now I live there. I came there as a tourist. You know, I took this fork in the road and drove six miles off the highway to go check out this little house in Eldon, Iowa and I recognized it from the painting immediately when I saw it. I mean, you almost start laughing out loud because it's like, yeah. That's it. And it's so cute.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Beth Howard, who is the author of "Making Peace: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie."

You know, Beth, a lot of people might scoff at the idea of - or they're secretly wishing they could get off the modern day treadmill, as you did, and move to a remote Midwestern town like Eldon, Iowa without having a steady job, without having much of a plan. And, of course, all of this just having experienced this terrible loss. How did you make it work?

HOWARD: I've always lived quite simply. I've never owned a home. I have no desire to. I don't want to get myself sort of bogged down with that kind of overhead, so I never really kind of got on the treadmill in the first place, maybe because I couldn't or just because of my personality. I prefer to - I prefer the sort of freelance existence, and not everybody has the stomach for that, you know, because...

HURTADO: And I was going to follow that up. I was going to say it's a romantic notion, but it's hard, isn't it?

HOWARD: Right. Well, it's easier when you can get your expenses down to the bare minimum. My rent in the American Gothic House is $250 a month.

HURTADO: Throughout the book, you say - and it's really your mantra - that pie makes the world a better place. How has it made your world a better place?

HOWARD: Right. Well, pie is synonymous with Iowa, like I said before, and I live in this little town and there was no pie there, so I opened a pie stand in my house and so now pie is this thing where people can come to the American Gothic House and they go to the little museum visitor center next door and it's all free. Free costumes you can dress up in, but bonus. You can also get a slice of pie, so it's fun to see people's faces light up when they go, whoa. You're selling pie? That's great.

And that's just one small example. I mean, I just - you take a pie to a dinner party. You bring this really hearty, yummy-looking thing to a dinner party and you'll see for yourself how the world can be a better place. People light up when you bring them a homemade pie. It's a great unifying force.

HURTADO: Indeed, the world needs more pie. Beth Howard is the author of "Making Peace: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie," and that's her blog, TheWorldNeedsMorePie.com, and she was kind enough to join us from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Thank you, Beth.

HOWARD: Thanks, Viviana.

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HURTADO: Up next, can women have it all? A controversial new article in the Atlantic Monthly says no and that some women have given up trying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Many of those women are thinking to themselves, to be CEO means I either can't have a family or I can't spend any time with my family, and that's not a choice I'm willing to make.

HURTADO: The Beauty Shop women weigh in on this and more. That's in a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado.

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HURTADO: Funny man Gabriel Iglesias is one of the most watched comedians on YouTube, but when we asked him to join us, he was a bit surprised.

GABRIEL IGLESIAS: When they said they wanted me to do an interview with NPR, I'm like, I hope they know I didn't - you know, I barely graduated high school.

HURTADO: Gabriel Iglesias joins us in the next installment of our summer series, Make Me Laugh, next time on TELL ME MORE.

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