Spoilers below for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, based on the novel of the same name, tells the story of writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James), who receives a letter from a pig farmer (Michiel Huisman) on the English island of Guernsey. The farmer tells her about the book club he participated in while his island was under German occupation during World War II — as he tells it, the group offered a little bit of light in a very dark world. Ashton is so moved that she goes to visit him and his club; romance, tragedy, and pie ensue.
Apparently it was bad pie, though. The trailer for this film literally shows Lily James gagging on this pie. The recipe for the titular pie, which is available on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book website, tells the story of a very sad pie containing just a potato, a beet, and a drop of milk (it’s authentic to the World War II occupation, and everything was terrible then). When I found said recipe, I knew immediately that I had to make this pie while watching this film.
As far as this pie’s place on the pop-culture pie scale, I knew going in that I wouldn’t be baking anything to rival Keri Russell’s creations in Waitress, but I did hope it would be somewhat better than the poop pie from The Help and the people pie from Sweeney Todd. What follows is my entirely true account of making a very bad pie while watching a movie that purports to be a rom-com but is actually extremely sad.
0:00:10 Our movie begins on the island of Guernsey in 1941. Four friends are stumbling home full of gin, secret ham, and potato peel pie when they are stopped by the Nazis. To avoid being arrested, they invent their book club, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. One dude, Eben (Tom Courtenay), immediately vomits up all of his potato peel pie. This is alarming because I’m still peeling my potatoes, but everything is totally cool and I’m opening up a bottle of Chardonnay.
0:03:38 Pro tip: Do NOT look up while peeling potatoes, even if it is because you want to see Matthew Goode wearing glasses. He plays Sidney, Juliet’s publisher and best friend. You may wish this movie was actually about him viewing available real-estate properties and buttering toast, but it is not, and it is not worth possibly cutting your finger over.
0:08:48 Here’s the first time I really wanted to quit this endeavor — YEAH, I KNOW. But Lily James and Glen Powell (her rich, American military boyfriend Mark) are dancing and having the postwar time of their lives and I’m over here still peeling potatoes and beets. If you’ve cooked with raw beets, you know how messy this is. Why must my hands be stained red instead of doing the Lindy Hop with Glen Powell?
0:10:48 Juliet gets her first letter from the pig farmer on Guernsey. The pig farmer, Dawsey, is played by Michiel Huisman and already I can tell this movie is going to turn me on to pig farmers. Is my pot of water boiling because of the already building sexual tension between Juliet and Dawsey via the written word or because of the laws of science? Either way, the potatoes and beets are going in.
0:19:59 I guess the important part of this section is Juliet learning how the Society came to be — they wanted to share Amelia’s (Penelope Wilton) secret pig and then all that Nazi stuff happened — but there is a shot of Michiel Huisman eating ham. As I stare at my purple-colored water and the meager amount of peels covering the bottom of my pie dish, I can only wonder how different things would be if they had named themselves The Guernsey Literary and Michiel Huisman Eating Ham Society.
0:20:14 The first official appearance of the potato peel pie!! Mine will not look like this!! (The movie version is all potatoes and no beets, but don’t worry, I’m pretty sure beets will only make it taste worse.)
0:23:12 Holy hell. The pig farmer is writing Juliet letters about how reading saved them from despair and darkness and now I’m considering dating sites for pig farmers. I thought I’d just be baking a weird pie and watching a movie, but will I find true love, too? I stick a knife in my boiling potatoes — still too hard for my weak arms to even think about mashing.
0:26:20 Oh lord. Now Mark is proposing to Juliet before she heads off to Guernsey to meet the book club she’s become obsessed with. On one hand, you know this is not going to work out. On the other, one of my firmest beliefs is that every human should be proposed to on a dock at least once. I’m very torn here.
0:27:17 Juliet is setting out toward Guernsey as I put the peels in the oven to crisp them up a bit (not part of the recipe, but it seems right). We both feel like something special is about to begin.
0:30:11 Juliet has already had her meet-cute with Dawsey featuring near-death by roof shingle (ah, romance!), but the most important meeting happens here: She runs into Eben, inventor of the potato peel pie! Eben is a dear old man who rules the post office and tells Juliet she’s beautiful. Basically, your ideal pie maker.
0:34:03 Juliet meets the rest of the group, including prickly Amelia and strange-but-lovable Isola (Katherine Parkinson).There is a major player missing, though: Elizabeth McKean (Jessica Brown Findlay), the woman who brought them all together. Everyone is pretty cagey as to her whereabouts, so you know something tragic happened. Suddenly, I am thankful I’m preparing a dish that is all carbs.
0:35:28 OH MY GOD THE PIG FARMER PICKS JULIET FLOWERS THAT ARE SIMPLE BUT SO MUCH BETTER THAN THE FANCY ROSES MARK KEEPS SENDING HER. Everyone should be all-in on the pig farmer by now.
0:38:39 FINALLY! The pie is back!! Juliet takes a bite and … she gags on it! Eben refers to it as “The Worst” which feels very ahead of his time! I am so excited to put this pie in my mouth!
0:40:50 My potatoes and beets are out of the boiling water and as I prepare to mash them (I’m using a masher, please see my previous note re: lack of upper body strength), Juliet announces plans to write an article about the Society and the power of reading for the London Times. Amelia is extremely opposed. As she yells that “people wouldn’t understand,” I survey the mess I’ve created in this kitchen and can’t help but share her sentiment.
0:44:46 Matthew Goode reappears in a gorgeous blue robe and has to choke back vomit when he hears Juliet and Mark are engaged. I use the anger he has to stuff down inside of him to help me mash these fucking beets.
0:46:09 Things take a turn. I’m over here complaining about how hard it is to mash beets and potatoes together; meanwhile, the movie goes into this whole horribly sad sequence about the kids of Guernsey being evacuated before the Germans arrive. Eben and his grandson Eli are split apart, and Elizabeth gives Eli a medal her father won in WWI for courage. “Anyone who keeps it close can’t help but be brave, even when they’re scared,” she tells the boy. I didn’t expect to be openly crying into this pink mash I’ve created. Silver lining: This is a great way to get around the salt limitations I’ve put on myself in the name of authenticity.
0:54:06 No. No. No. Before, this movie was all terrible pie and discussing the Brontë sisters, but now Juliet learns that Elizabeth was best friends with Amelia’s pregnant daughter Jane. Jane died in the bombings and now has lost Elizabeth, who was arrested by the Germans. In the flashback to Jane’s death, Amelia does that horrific thing when she is crying so hard that no sound is coming out. When will my damn carb pie be finished? The red slop just went into the oven, so T-minus 20 minutes until I can replace feelings with starch.
1:00:10 Juliet is catching pigs with Dawsey and Elizabeth’s daughter Kit! Is this what you do when you fall in love with a pig farmer? Asking for a friend.
1:01:23 Juliet gets a call from Sidney. He is concerned because Juliet still hasn’t come home and now she’s working on a book about the Society without their permission. I get a text from my mom. She is concerned because she knows I can’t cook and I haven’t checked in since beginning this exercise.
1:04:44 Sidney and my mom were right to be concerned because shit is going down in Guernsey! We learn that Kit is Elizabeth’s love child from an affair with a Nazi soldier and Dawsey is taking care of her until Elizabeth comes back and I have never wanted to munch on some potato-beet mash as much as I do in this moment. She must be dead, right? WHERE ARE MY CARBS?
1:08:38 Agh! Now Juliet and Dawsey meet in a pub and make eyes and tell each other that neither was what the other expected. No one is making out yet — like my dumb pie, this is a travesty.
1:12:07 Just kidding — the real travesty is Penelope Wilton’s character opening up about the guilt she feels over shaming Elizabeth for falling in love with a Nazi. Listen, I signed up for this for the self-deprecating pie work NOT for a gutting performance from Penelope Wilton. There’s too much of me crying and not enough of me eating gross pie.
1:15:12 “I’ve seen things I never thought could happen, happen.” Do you think she’s talking about how bad my pie is?
1:22:00 My pie is out of the oven and cooling off just as things are heating up in Guernsey. And if you don’t think that I celebrated the fact that the timing of my pie worked out perfectly for me to use that line, well, you don’t know me at all. But seriously: Juliet spends the day with Kit. When Dawsey comes home, he and Juliet do that thing where two people are in a big room but are standing really close to each other and you know they want to kiss but they can’t. Also Dawsey uses the phrase “fond of” and my pie starts melting.
1:27:48 I bite into my pie in the middle of the most harrowing moment of this movie. Juliet learns that Elizabeth was arrested after trying to help a teenager who escaped from the German camp on the island. Dawsey couldn’t persuade her to change her mind. You guys, this movie and my potato peel pie are one and the same: They both sound whimsical and fun. They both look like something you could really get into (the beets give my pie a festive red hue). But when you finally do get into them, they are both terribly, terribly sad.
1:31:04 Of course the fiancé shows up just as Juliet and Dawsey are about to kiss. Mark is basically Billy Zane from Titanic at this point. He is not into how close Juliet and the pig farmer are standing, he waltzes in and drops the bomb that the war office figured out Elizabeth was killed in a German camp, and then callously pulls Juliet away from all these people she’s come to love. If anyone deserves to eat bland pie, it’s this guy.
1:39:36 Dawsey can’t even look at Juliet as she leaves Guernsey and all I want is more pie. WHAT A PLOT TWIST.
1:44:00 This pie really comes in handy when Juliet dumps Mark at dinner. There is so much bitchy drama, YOU WILL NEED A SNACK. After Mark storms out, he comes back to give Juliet a kiss on the forehead and also to take the bottle of Champagne from the table. He’s sort of a dick, but also I’m impressed.
1:46:00 Ah yes, the requisite writing montage. I choose this moment to tidy up because I have several beet-stained dishes and I already know what it looks like when a person uses a typewriter as the weather changes outside.
1:47:57 Matthew Goode says the phrase “Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful” while wearing glasses and I am forever changed.
1:49:05 Juliet tells Sidney that she’s going to buy a property on Guernsey, if they’ll have her. Sidney: “Darling girl, anyone would be lucky to have you.” Juliet: “And I am so lucky to have you.” I look at the still very full pie dish and think perhaps I have been ragging on it too much.
1:51:48 OKAY NOW WE ARE GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS. The Society gets Juliet’s manuscript about their story and a letter about belonging to people before even knowing them. Dawsey cannot help but GO TO HER. It works out because she also must GO TO HIM. They cross paths on the dock and she is so terribly in love with the pig farmer that she proposes to him on the spot. He replies, “My god — yes. Yes,” and I choke on my potato peel pie because (1) holy shit that’s a hot response, and (2) this bish gets two dock proposals and all I have is this fucking pie.
1:57:08 I’m extremely into this happy ending — Juliet and Dawsey are married and reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Kit on the front lawn — but it dawns on me that we have not seen nor heard from the potato peel pie in some time. After everything Juliet and Dawsey and me and my pie have been through, this Happy Ending Picnic feels like a wasted opportunity. And suddenly my takeaway from this immense carb-fueled journey is clear: The movie needed more pie, and the pie needed more salt.