An excerpt from The Logic of Faith:
I am not contained between my hat and boots.
In the 1960s and ’70s the cosmologist and astronomer Carl Sagan challenged the notion of autonomy with a statement: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
In the good old days everyone had time to make pies from scratch. No one had invented piecrust mixes (yet). Then in the 1930s and ’40s some industrious person started marketing boxes of premixed piecrust ingredients, and in the 1950s cultural icon Betty Crocker made the product even more prevalent. Her packaged ingredients only required the addition of water and oil—sometimes eggs. Thanks to Betty, we now have a choice: we can save the time it takes to measure ingredients and crack eggs, or we can go at it the old-fashioned way and start from scratch.
But even if you do go the old-fashioned route, does that extra bit of work it takes to mix individual ingredients together constitute baking a pie from scratch? In your attempt to make a pie from scratch, where would you begin? You might learn to farm. You then would have to buy some land, set up an irrigation system, acquire some heavy machinery (or at least a draft horse and plow), and collect some seeds. You may feel satisfied that if you were to plant seeds, harvest, thresh, and grind the wheat into the flour with which to make your piecrust, you would have made an apple pie from scratch. But in fact, each individual seed has an origin—each one came from generations of wheat plants. You can never know the story of each individual seed; you can only infer that at some point in time someone discovered a wheat plant and recognized its potential.
According to historians, wheat originated in the Levant region of the Near East, along the Fertile Crescent. They have recently narrowed the location down to Turkey, where wheat dates as far back as 7,500 BCE. As far as we know, the survival of wheat has always relied upon sunshine, water, carbon dioxide, and nutrient-rich soil. Wheat required farmers, landowners, and workers to process it into flour. I’m sure there were all kinds of politics around the economics and distribution of wheat, as there are now.
You could focus your attention on nothing but the origin of wheat for eternity and never exhaust the topic. That’s because in looking at the interconnectedness of anything, you will find endless stories, information, challenges, and adventures, which will again open into other stories, and so on. You will never reach definitive conclusions about this thing you call wheat. Like all things, its nature is boundless and free of the constraints of your designating labels. And we haven’t even gotten to the apples yet.
Carl Sagan’s quote once inspired me to make an apple pie. It was August, my tree was heavy with apples, my dad’s birthday was around the corner, and he loved apple pie. Lucky for me, my dear friend Peggy Markel, who takes people on exotic cooking tours in places like Morocco, Italy, and India, paid me a visit. The evening before her arrival I had planned on harvesting the apples from my tree. But that night a bear ravaged them all with the exception of one little apple, which fearfully clung to the top of the only branch the bear hadn’t torn away from the tree’s trunk. There is a lot contingent upon making an apple pie, and sometimes the universe seems to conspire against you! Instead of reading too much into it though, I just went to town and bought a bag of local apples.
Making a good apple pie requires a lot of experimentation. Peggy and I played with kneading the dough by hand versus putting it all in a food processor. We tried adding more or less water to get the best consistency. We had to adjust the oven temperature for high altitude. And there are numerous styles of apple pies to choose from—rustic, traditional, the kind with a lattice upper crust, apple crumble, and tarte tatin, just to name a few. Each has its own history and place of origin, and we tried many variations, employing most of my kitchen tools, pie pans, and ingredients. Peggy, it turns out, is tireless when it comes to the science of pie making, and we worked through every possibility.
At the end of the day, I felt proud, in particular, of our most traditional creation, which we decorated with leaves shaped of dough. I felt as if we had really accomplished something—but only for a moment. Sagan’s words came back to me to put a halt to my bravado, reminding me that I couldn’t possibly be the sole cause of this pie. This pie was not the product of one person’s pie-making inspiration—one recipe, one list of ingredients, or one baker to execute it. The creation of this pie was not the result of a singular cause. It wasn’t a linear process at all. In fact, it took full-on universal participation. I think this is Sagan’s point: an apple pie is not a closed system but relies upon the cooperation of the entire universe.