The production of our time's staple.
Editor’s note: Every Sunday Fortune publishes a favorite story from its magazine archives. With Thanksgiving just a few days away, pie season is in full swing. To celebrate, this week we turn to a March 1930 story about what was then the newly automated production of the apple pie—a treat that was the “staple” of the time and represented a $25 million industry.
ON a buttress of white tile stands a battery of nickeled cylinders with neat glass gauges where the coffee bobs. Above, a steel rack spiders down the wall. On the rack are rows of circles like a frieze of coins. Each coin is approximately ten inches across, two inches through, beveled on the under edge, brown as an antiqued painting. Each weighs a rough three pounds. A knife will cut it. Three divisions will reduce it to six approximate triangles. Each triangle will emit a faint warm smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. Subdivided with a four-pronged fork, and tasted, the mouth remembers apples. Cheese consorts with it. Coffee leaves it sweet.
On Lexington Avenue the rack is tended by a grim young man with a small, black, bright old eye and a starchy garment like a hussar’s blouse. In Laredo the blouse is an apron, the eye is Yankee, and a fan with tissue paper foliage blows the flies away. In Northampton the apron is a clean white dress and the words are bitterly intelligible. In Cody the middle-aged man in the middle-aging shirt sleeves swallows and does not respond. On La Salle Street the asides are Neapolitan. In St. Louis not.
The happy statistician
But the full moon faces on the polished rods remain. They do not alter. They are still ten inches, more or less, across, still taste of apple, still cut thrice in six. The same words, hours, associations, even the same price, produce them still. Brakemen accustomed to consume them in Minneapolis order them in Piggott, Arkansas. And taste no change. Sad automobilists buy them from town to town the way a man buys postage. Or Ford cars. Sure of the product in advance. Millions are eaten. More than seventy-seven millions in a year. Nearly a thousand acres of brown pie. Some ten thousand miles of pie on racks. Tons on tons. There is no need for testimonials: “The Duchess of X– eats apple pie.” Chicago endorses pies with $35,000,000 each year; of this, three fourths is spent by housewives, eaten in the home. One Chicago bakery turns out 90,000 pies nightly. The Census Bureau picks a figure—$59,8I1,168—this means pies produced annually by bakers alone. Of all desserts eaten, perhaps two thirds are pies. Of all pies, two-fifths are apple. The statistician smiles with pleasure; he deals with exact units. No need for weighted charts, adjusted curves. This Laredo pie is the statistical brother of that Philadelphia pie. They can be added into bigger and better statistics, divided into pro ratas. Why should they alter? From the polished shelf Atlantic City looks like Galesburg. And pie’s pie.
And pie is our time’s staple. Let him who questions it recall to mind the apple-pie-hung billboards of the country roads, the apple pies that glaze the street cars, the loud printed yelps of pie. There are none. No man sells them. Anonymously as the rains from heaven they fall and are devoured. Bread has become a thousand things but bread- “Dainty-maid,” “Tasty.” Hams are “Premium,” “Smokehouse,” “Acorn,” “Star.” Flour has its more usual synonyms. But pie stays pie. And the five hundred million perpendicular or horizontal or oblique forks that slice its corners are content to take it so. As pie. Sometimes as apple pie. And add the cheese.
The obliging machine
It would be agreeable to believe that the whole thing were miraculous, that pies scaled down out of heaven in some remote South Bend at six precisely, a tastier manna for a no-less chosen race. Unhappily it is not so. Anonymous and secret though it be, there is an Industry of Pie. Between the precarious forkfuls on the well aimed forks and the just ripe Winesaps on the Virginian trees, there stand invested dollars. Men do work. Machines with jerkily revolving metal platforms sprout up pale mushrooms of rich dough, two inches to the jerk, behead them, bunt them off, each lump a pie crust, accurate to the ounce. A boy like a machine, the movement of his head against the movement of his hands in one-four time, his left leg solid, takes the dough lump, knuckles it in flour, flips it to a tin. Eight times in twenty seconds. A small intelligent mechanism like a cleverer ape peels apples. Ladles of syrupy fruit sauce spill above the open dish. The air warms with cinnamon. The doughy veil draws over. Mechanical hands trim, shove, load, twist. An endless chain runs to a revolving table. The revolving table spins to a moving floor. The floor marches through a fifty foot long oven. The gas flames sizzle. The pies tum golden, bubble up, take shape. Far down the blistering corridor a narrow slot of daylight grows and grows. A man leans forward, peering at the dark, shoots a long paddle sidewise, catches three disks together on the clever blade, swings to the pie tray, dips them, slides them off. The trays go down the inclines to the street. The yellow trucks receive them, grind away. A warm new smell of pastry rises with the coffee fumes. The cafeterias refill.
Twenty-five million dollars’ worth of apple pies per year is Industry. Two and a half million bushels of apples, eight thousand tons of shortening, sixteen thousand tons of flour, twenty thousand tons of sugar, seventy-eight tons of cinnamon and nutmeg: all these are Industry. Add the incalculable pyramids of homemade pies (much more than the baker’s total) and the gastric imagination gives under it like an over-loaded floor. Spread the business out with its eastern gateway on the Grand Banks, its northern limit along the limits of civilization, its southern edge following the curve of beaten biscuit, its western at Los Angeles, and you have a Stone of Empire. And then remark that the entire Industry is anonymous and that no man, till you scale the summits of the dollar pie and eat the fluffy offerings of the Seven Baker Brothers, knows or cares who makes the wedge he chews on, and you have before you a Phenomenon of a hitherto undiscovered order. You have a major industry completely overshadowed by its product. In this age.
The truth is that the pie is mightier than its stove. And not because its history rises to the remote and succulent antecedents of four and twenty blackbirds. Not at all because New England made it and Ford has eaten it. Not remotely because the addition of ice cream to the crust, like the addition of speech to the moving pictures, saved its face. Pie is what it is in our cafeteriated time—first, because it is good; and, second, because it, chiefly of the traditional dishes, has accepted the machine. As its shape suggests. Bread doughs must rise vegetably in a tepid room. Fruits and cooked fish take to cans (a mere dodge and imitation of machine-made goods, for in the shiny can is nature still: the lump-side pear, the various sardine). Pie alone is what it is. Build an enormous central bakery in Kansas City, ship its output to the coasts, and all pie eating humanity will consume the same sound pie, which, if less tempting than the best of human cookery, will be always severely better than the worst.
The wise archaeologist
Archeologists have a way of guessing at civilizations by the look of their kitchen middens—their horse bones, clam shells, mollusks, fish, baboons. Potatoes were a corner in history. Ice was a full stop. When New York goes down, the rusty crusts of tin, the tin stains on the rocks, the one, preserved, half-fossil, quart bean can will bear some speculation. But the etymologist who first retrieves from the root of some harsh outland noun the name of Pie and slowly, out of many usages, depicts it as it was, will more nearly reconstruct our era than any digger of the mouldy mains. “It would appear,” he notes, “that men in those centuries were rationed by the machines with a kind of circular biscuit filled with a jelly (chemical traces of which have been discovered forty feet below the present level of the lake at the ancient site of Ch’kawgo) made from a remote ancestor of our melapple
“This they ate in structures dedicated to the purpose, the ruins of which, as exposed by Dlf and Bzgm, show a rudimentary ingenuity in the machines which constructed them … “