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Sempé Fi: Pie and the Sky

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Pollux writes:

We can’t expect clear skies in late November, but nevertheless we hope to avoid the special kind of rain cloud that hovers over our pumpkin pies. The November 23, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, which is “The Food Issue,” features a little cloud hovering above the normally cheery sight of a newly-baked pumpkin pie.

Wayne Thiebaud’s “Pumpkin Cloud” is heavy with rain. Perhaps cheery optimists will hope that the “Pumpkin Cloud” will sprinkle extra whipped cream on the pie, in a sort of Big Rock Candy Mountain kind of fantasy, but I see nothing cheery about the image. Thiebaud’s painting reminds me that we’re never entirely free from worries.

Can we still dig into a pumpkin pie in a carefree manner as we once did? As Phil Gallo points out, the November 23 issue of The New Yorker is “likely weighted by the recession — stories about gourmet hamburgers, thousand-dollar meals and Ferran Adria wannabes are certainly gauche these days — but have we reached the point where the joy of eating is gone?”

Depression runs rampant during the holidays. Thiebaud’s cloud is of the emotional kind, a kind of meteorological Sword of Damocles that reminds us that family strife often accompanies Thanksgiving dinners; that political strife still racks the country; that Thanksgiving is followed by the blood-spurting good fun of Black Friday, a frenetic rush for flat-screen TVs and other electronics.

This year, many consumers have foregone the traditional Thanksgiving dinner in order to wait in line outside the department stores and get into the store before anyone else the next morning. And so the pumpkin pie goes cold and uneaten, to be replaced by lifeless electronics and maxed out credit cards.

Thiebaud’s pie is present but where are those who will eat it? Does the pie sit on the edge of a table or of a horizon? This is of course not the first Thiebaud has painted food. Thiebaud gained fame creating still-lifes of all-American foods: pies, cakes, candy, ice creams, hamburgers, hotdogs, and club sandwiches.

Thiebaud’s work sells well. At his website Daily Sun Times, the artist and writer William Theodore Van Doren, who describes Thiebaud’s image as a “luminous and shadowed cream-like cloud hovering over a mound of whipped cream in the middle of a pumpkin pie,” gives a conservative estimate for the value of the original of “Pumpkin Cloud”: $75,000.

Thiebaud’s foods represent nostalgia for a simpler time, when no one worried about calories, cholesterol, and Chinese economic dominance. But what do his paintings mean? What do we make of his rows of gumball machines or lollipops?

I should be careful. As this article states:

Thiebaud himself has warned against reading too much into their symbolism. “The symbolic aspect of my work is always confusing to me - it’s never been clear in my mind…. I tend to view the subject matter without trying to be too opaque with respect to its symbolic reference, mostly from the standpoint of problematic attractions - what certain aspects of form offer.”

We should, then, focus on the aspects of form in “Pumpkin Cloud”: the symmetry of cloud and cream, the texture of crust and surface, the horizon and shadow. But that scowl of a cloud isn’t going away.


The cloud is orange-yellow at its base with a blue tint at the top. This indicates to me that Thiebaud’s pie is no ordinary pie. It’s a pumpkin pie flambé. The cloud above it is the brandy vapor set aflame. Regarding the magazine’s current “Food Issue,” I award three stars (my highest ranking) to Mimi Sheraton for her ravishing “Spit Cake.” Her prose is as rich as the cake she describes. “Spit Cake” is even better, if that’s possible, than her delectable “One Fish, Two Fish” in last year’s “Food Issue.” I’m surprised that Zester Daily’s Phil Gallo failed to mention Sheraton’s piece in his review. Could it be that it doesn’t support his morose viewpoint?

Thanks for posting, driedchar! If this is a pumpkin pie flambé: why is there no flame? Why is the crust not blackened by burn marks? Why has the cream not melted? I’m no culinary expert by any means, but I’ve never heard of flambéing a pie.

Good point about Gallo.

Via internet: Pollux, doth try too hard. Dig a hole six feet down and jump in. I’ll do the rest of us a favor and backfill the hole.

Vis-a-vis: Pollux, my man, chill out and have some animal crackers. They’ll cheer you up, trust me.

I think I’ll go have some myself.

Chet WaverlyDecember 01, 2009

I appreciate the suggestion, Chet. I’m having some animal crackers now. The ibex-shaped ones are especially good. You’re right: I do feel better.

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