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A brief history of pie-throwing
Featuring jilted lovers, political protests, Hollywood stars, and other food-fighters
Hello, Snackers. Here’s a story about pies and the art, science, and politics of throwing them. Let the flinging begin!
It’s winter in Minneapolis and after more than a foot of snow fell in December and January, we’ve had several freeze-thaw cycles lately, which has led to ice everywhere outside. During a recent walk down the block, my younger daughter, who is five years old and an astute observer, named all the different kinds of ice she saw, including bump ice, slip ice, water ice (semi-frozen puddles with a layer of liquid at the bottom), crunch ice, and pop ice.
The last one is my personal favorite in the taxonomy. Pop ice what you find along the edge of sidewalks, the cantilevered bits that give way with a sharp snap when you step on them. There’s something about the rapid sequence of sensations—the mental anticipation, the slight resistance from the ice, the pop when it breaks underfoot—that’s utterly satisfying at some lizard-brain level. If popping bubble wrap switches on your dopamine, stomping on pop ice unleashes a tsunami of the stuff.
Alongside the physical sensation, though, there’s something else that makes pop ice so delightful: the knowledge that you’re making a mess and breaking things and it’s all fine. Life offers far too few opportunities for delightful, harmless, or mostly harmless, destruction and easily remedied chaos.
This is a story about throwing pie.
Chucking a pie in someone’s face is a grand tradition that goes back centuries. It had its heyday in popular culture about a century ago, during the silent film era, so let’s start there before we go back farther in time and then forward to the present.
The great pie arms race is the stuff of lowkey Hollywood legend. It began, most likely, with movie star Mabel Normand, around 1913. As author Laura Riley tells it in her deftly researched Movie Lover’s Cookbook, there are two competing versions of the story. One is that Normand inadvertently hit a cameraman with a pie on the set of a movie she was filming; the other is that it was all very intentional, with Normand smacking costar Fatty Arbuckle square in the face with a cream pie in the silent film A Noise From the Deep.
Either way, Normand’s act was a massive hit, both literally and figuratively, and soon the pies were flying everywhere. Arbuckle became known for his pie-throwing technique, particularly his trick of “tossing two at once in opposite directions,” according to Riley, and Keystone Studios, the slapstick-comedy icons of the day, special-ordered pies from a bakery that developed a recipe specifically for the purpose of flinging, featuring “a double thick pastry and a filling of flour, water, and whipped cream—guaranteed to be sloppy.” Keystone kept the bakery so busy that it soon stopped making other products, focusing on “making thousands of pies exclusively for the studio.”
Pie-smashing was a staple of Hollywood comedies for decades. In 1927, Laurel and Hardy featured an especially epic battle in their film The Battle of the Century, which featured somewhere between three thousand and four thousand pies (depending on your sources), many of them visibly waiting in the background of the scene’s early shots, sitting in a parked truck like a cache of creamy Chekhov guns. The Three Stooges had multiple pie-throwing bits, including in The Sweet Pie and Pie in 1941. “I Love Lucy” featured a pie fight in a diner in 1954. And in 1965, the screwball comedy The Great Race, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood, outdid every predecessor, featuring a pie fight so long, large, and magnificent that it got its own story in LIFE magazine.
Some quick fun facts from the LIFE story:
The fight used up 4,000 pies, all of them made with real cream and fruit filling (strawberry, blueberry, lemon).
It took five days to shoot, so to ensure continuity, the production’s makeup artists took photos of all the actors so that they could cream up their faces again in exactly the right way the next day
Jack Lemon was not a fan of the ordeal. “I actually got knocked out a couple of times,” he said. “Unless it’s thrown just right, a pie hitting out in the fact feels like 10 tons of cement.”
As soon as filming of the scene was done and director Blake Edwards yelled “Cut” for the last time, “the whole messy cast of actors turned on him and smothered him with a couple of hundred pies they had stashed away for their revenge.”
Pie fights in film have been a surprisingly robust topic for scholars over the years. They get an extended mention in The Oxford Companion to Food, as part of the entry for custard; there’s an essay on the subject in at least one academic anthology about the Three Stooges, called Stoogeology; and there are long sections on pie fights in books like Food in the Movies and The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags, both of which situate this particular bit of humor alongside other classic food-focused jokes like slipping on a banana peel. (Pie-throwing is also part of Monty Python’s fake academic lecture on the history of humor.)
The upshot of this scholarship is that pies were a key element in comedies of the silent film era because they were well-suited to the broad physical humor that worked best with the form. If you’re you’re trying to make people laugh strictly through visuals, it’s hard to top a pie to the face, which comes spring-loaded with anticipation—Will the oversized and difficult-to-throw weapon actually hit its intended target—followed by either a miss or, more likely, a direct hit with a massive splat with the instinctive grimace of the victim barely visible behind the sputtering mass of cream. Maximal absurdity, maximal mess, minimal damage, aside from pride.
These custard-filled battles, like other slapstick humor tropes of early films, were also built on the favorite gags of stage shows, according to the aforementioned histories. This is the established narrative: at some point in the 1890s or thereabouts, vaudeville performers established pie-flinging as a joke, which soon became a trope, which then made the jump to film.
Naturally, I had to do some research and see if I could find any earlier references that would push the timeline back.
As it turned out, there were plenty of references to pie-throwing in the various newspaper archives I checked. Most of them involved marital disputes, like the man named Piper whose wife threw a pie in his face in 1915, inspiring the husband’s friends to give him the nickname “Pied Piper,” or this couple in 1920, who clearly had some ongoing issues:
More interesting, for our purposes, was this incredible account of a circus fight in 1846, during which someone got a cherry pie to the face “and was taken up for dread, covered apparently with blood.”
I posted that on Twitter and one person in the replies posted this intriguing story about a different circus riot, which makes me think this should be an HBO show immediately. Another astute reader, after reading that newspaper clip, replied, “The casual way this is reported makes me wonder if the practice was already well-known.”
That seemed right to me—there’s no noticeable confusion in that report, no sense that anyone thought the pie-throwing was usual—and with a bit more keyword-tweaking, my search turned up evidence that pie fights really weren’t anything new as a source of humor. Please enjoy this report from England in 1771:
It’s a bit hard to tell if this was some sort of staged food fight—I think not, but I’m not certain—or an obnoxious-rich-people-taunting-the-masses situation. Either way, it’s clear that the writer, at least, was deeply amused by it all. (The sentence after the pie-in-the-face is especially droll: “A Beef-eater having lost his Cap in the Scuffle, had his Loss repaired by a Venison Patty falling inverted upon his Head.”) You can hear the cheers and the laughter; you can picture his fist-pumping enthusiasm as the food flies; you can imagine the whole thing as a series of tweets or text messages, each line punctuated with 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂.
All of which is to say: maybe pie-throwing wasn’t a planned, recurring joke on the stage or in the circus ring before vaudeville performers started doing it. I don’t know for sure. But, at least in some quarters, it’s been a known thing whose intrinsic humor has been established and understood for centuries. People have been laughing at the pie-in-the-face gag since before the USA was a country—and, unlike most jokes of the 1700s, this one’s still funny and not particularly offensive.
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Of course, not everyone’s a fan of getting a pie in the face. Over the last generation, pie-throwing’s role in the zeitgeist has shifted from cinematic trope to act of protest (plus, in one corner of England, a most curious and messy annual contest).
Prominent bigot Anita Bryant got a pie in the face from a gay-rights activist in 1977 (as seen in the clip above); Rupert Murdoch’s gotten smacked; so have Bill Gates, Ann Coulter, former Canadian President Jean Chrétien, Andy Warhol, Roy Rogers, Calvin Klein, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other famous people.
“It's essentially a form of democratic anarcho-populist politics,” Dr. Rodney Barker, Reader in Government at the London School of Economics, told CNN in 2000. “What it’s doing is saying that those who are taken incredibly seriously both by themselves and the media deserve to be knocked down a peg or two. It's about pointing out to the general public that the emperor doesn't have as many clothes as he thinks he does.”
In 2017, Fast Company writer Ben Paynter did a deep dive on pie-throwing as a political protest, noting that the cream-faced targets sometimes press charges or even fight back—but, all things considered, pies are a relatively harmless medium for making a statement in an absurdist way:
Despite the vicious end result, White, Thompson’s defense attorney, says that the pie might have been a good option in our charged political times. “In an era where people are so on edge about violence in the movement for resistance, hopefully, they’ll look at some whip cream in the face as a reasonable alternative,” she says.
The splat factor also just makes for good content—again, maximal absurdity, maximal mess, minimal damage—which plays well in modern media. Here’s Paynter again:
Hitting someone with a pie in the face, however, worked differently: As in those early comedies, each hit became a surreal must-share moment for news agencies. Pieing became an early political meme. Activists made sure to videotape or take pictures of each delivery, which with the growing reach of the internet were easily passed along to embolden others. Other pie activists overseas followed the action, and also took up baked goods.
It’s the gag that won’t end, one of the most timeless ways of getting a laugh. And for anyone who wants to try it themselves and carry on this sticky but tasty legacy, there are plenty of resources on how to do it right, from guides for clowns to this long manifesto, Pie Any Means Necessary, by the protest group Biotic Baking Brigade.
One takeaway from the latter is this insight from (no kidding) a spokeswoman for the British supermarket chain Tesco: “The company recommends three of its pies for throwing—egg custard, lemon meringue, and fruit.” The egg custard, though, may be the best, because it “gives total face coverage.”