My friend Jen is a legend in certain circles. What she’s a legend for depends on the circle, I suspect. She saves the day with shocking regularity. For example, when you’re hurt, she can help to to make your life livable until you can get to a chiropractor or physician or whoever helps with your bum-ass neck. (I have a bum-ass neck.) But of all the legendary Jen things, one of the most legendary is this: She revolutionized the dinner party, and specifically the cookout, for me and many of those fortunate to call her a friend. Jen dreamed up the “starter pie,” and I now I pass her very simple, sweet innovation on to you.
(I should also note that Jen is also kind, compassionate, and the kind of person you always want in your corner. Starter pie is perhaps the 56th most wonderful thing about her, but it’s very, very good thing all the same.)
The idea is simple: You make a pie—for Jen, it’s always a slab pie on a baking sheet—and when people show up, it’s how you greet them. Pie first. An important note: This does not mean that you skip pie later. Jen also makes wonderful pies in the more conventional shape, often richer and/or more complex than the starter pie. She is not the first to suggest that dessert come first, but a combination of the lightness and simplicity of her starter pies, the joyful way in which she offers the slices, and the knowledge that any Jen gathering will always begin with a starter pie makes it special, and without fail, one of the best things I eat all year.
Jen first came up with the starter pie idea for her annual Fourth Of July cookout in 2016. These cookouts—she also does them for Memorial Day, and sometimes just because—are wonderful. She’s an excellent cook, as are many of her friends; I, the least skilled among them, made grilled peach bourbon smashes as my contribution last Memorial Day, and they were no joke, yet paled in comparison to the rest of that feast. Since that 2016 Fourth, however, starter pie has become the unquestionable highlight, a tradition that amps up the festive energy of the day that also, conveniently, keeps anyone from getting hangry, or missing dessert.
Here’s what Jen wrote on Facebook after making her first starter pie in 2016:
Yesterday, I invented starter pie. As everyone arrived for the grilling, they were directed to a pre-meal sour cherry pie (cooked slab-style on a baking sheet and glazed so it looks like a giant toaster strudel). I do not know who decided we only get pie after the meal. It’s a holiday. I want additional dessert opportunities. And it pleased me to no end that not a single person reacted, “What? Why? No thanks!” To a one, the reaction was, “Hell yes, starter pie!”
Three years later, that’s still the reaction. “Hell yes, starter pie!”
I love a lot of things about this idea. First, it’s hospitality in a nutshell: Pie twice, the first as a gesture of welcome and love. Second, as mentioned above, it makes the wait for grilled meats more tolerable, as you need not subsist solely on potato salad and beer. Third, it’s a ritual that makes the day more special. How often do we get together in big groups on a (hopefully gorgeous) afternoon? It’s already special, and starter pie, for me, encapsulates that.
Listen, this isn’t groundbreaking. It’s just pie, served first. But I can tell you this: I’ve watched Jen hand out slices of that pie. When she says “starter pie” and places a plate in someone’s hands, that someone beams, every time. You may not have a Jen, but you can have starter pie, and so can those around you. Enjoy the pie and the smiles alike. Have a great long weekend.