They are pinwheels of crazy colour and have names such as Bluelala, Geometric Violet, Straw Man and White Waves. They take inspiration from nature, stained glass, modernist graphics, 1960s wallpaper, even bathroom tiles. And they’re so gorgeous to look at it’s hard to fathom that they are pies.
Pie art has become a social-media phenomenon with fans flocking to the sites of their favourite pastry artists who spend hours sketching, styling, photographing and finally posting their creations. On Instagram and Pinterest, where these crusty beauties have prominent display, they routinely get more than 15,000 likes – and counting.
But all is not perfection in this corner of the pastry world. Followers who scrutinize the placement of every berry, the precision of each braid and cut of each rosette, have no problem expressing their opinions about a pie artist’s work. And their reactions can vary – wildly.
"You’re my favourite,” reads one post to Toronto’s Helen Nugent’s (@batterednbaked). “Truly an artiste!” gushes another to London’s Julie Jones (@juliejonesUK).
And then there’s this: “You should be put in a van and driven into a river,” wrote one particularly vicious troll on Reddit to Lauren Ko (@lokokitchen), a pie artist and designer in Seattle who, with more than 259,000 followers on Instagram, has been praised by Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart.
Ko, a self-taught baker, was understandably taken aback and hurt. At first, she couldn’t figure out what prompted such vitriol. Then she realized what it was: Some fans felt cheated by seeing only the prebaked pie.
That’s the caveat. Many of these pies have not been baked before they’re posted online for fear they will lose their shape (and surgical precision) after time in the oven.
“There’s a lot of debate – and sometimes anger – over the [artistic merits of] baked or unbaked pies," says Ko, who got into the pie scene for the design aspect and never expected to have a full-time career as a pie “’grammer.” "Obviously, it’s important to me that these pies bake up well and that they taste good. But if I sat in an oven at 350 degrees for an hour, I’d look different, too. I don’t understand why we just can’t appreciate the pie at any stage in its creation.”
The unexpected (some would say absurd) backlash has made pie artists extremely sensitive – and more careful – about how they post. It prompted Ko, for instance, to launch the hashtag #YeahButWhatDoesItLookLikeBaked a year ago, and she now regularly posts some – but not all – of her baked pies to appease the masses. Another recent Instagram account called @piesgoneawry showcases flops by professionals and amateurs alike.
Ko’s hashtag quieted her critics for a while, but then they took up a new cause – demanding to know what her pies looked like sliced. “At times, it verges on the ridiculous,” says the beleaguered baker, who quit her day job at a local college a few months ago to focus exclusively on pie art and design.
The close-knit pie art community hasn’t been able to nail down why the baked or unbaked debate has gripped their little world. Some think it’s because social-media platforms – with their fixation on symmetry and perfection – have raised people’s expectations too high. Others think the relative anonymity of the various platforms have made people too quick to judge, in much the same way that other high-profile accounts get their fair share of hateful comments.
“It basically comes down to people feeling that the pie artist is cheating them somehow, as the baked version will never look as good as the pristine, raw pie,” says Jo Harrington, a London-based baker with more than 90,000 followers (@jojoromancer).
“What they don’t realize is that it’s complicated by the fact that it’s a lot trickier to get a pretty photo of the baked pie. Not only will the crust have done its usual buttery contortions in the oven, but the colour of the filling is often dulled and a well-browned pastry can look very flat,” the pie artist says. “And since Instagram rewards accounts based on likes and comments received, if mediocre ‘after’ photos are posted, you are effectively penalized for doing so.”
In Toronto, Nugent doesn’t get nearly as much online flak, primarily because she usually posts both before and after shots. But she feels for the pie artists who do.
“For me, [the controversy] is one of the biggest mysteries on Instagram,” Nugent says. “There are bakers who only post unbaked pies and I can tell just from looking at some of them that, because they are so detailed, they’re just not going to bake well. But it doesn’t really matter. I can appreciate them for their artistic expression.”
She also points out another great irony in the whole baked versus unbaked kerfuffle – namely, that her raw pies routinely get three to four times the number of likes of the baked equivalent.
“I used to think it was because followers had already seen the pie and so didn’t feel the need to ‘like’ it twice. Now, I think it’s because they just prefer the flawlessness of an unbaked pie,” she says.
The all-consuming focus on social media about how a pie looks seems to have totally eclipsed the primary reason pies are made in the first place – to be eaten. And the importance of taste is something Karin Pfeiff Boschek of Germany wishes pie artists and their followers would pay attention to instead. "A well-designed pie must be delicious and look delicious when presented to family and friends,” says Pfeiff Boschek, whose dough wizardry has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. “If the finished pie is not edible or pleasant to eat it probably would be better to choose another medium.”
Ko agrees a pie’s primary function is to be eaten. But she makes no apologies for placing aesthetics at the top of her list. “I’m just a regular person baking pies at home,” she says. “It’s pie, for goodness sake. Our world would be a little bit better if we prioritized where we channel our anger.”