NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ The California woman whose lemon meringue pie was named ''THE American pie'' says she became a good cook through patience and study in order to keep her husband's mind off his mother's cooking.

Cecelia Rubio's pie won over confections from 49 other states in Thursday's contest sponsored by Family Circle magazine and Crisco. The 33-year-old homemaker from Perris, who competed against the likes of a Wisconsin police detective and a nun from Montana, won a diamond ring, a dozen red roses and a trip to New York City with country music star Loretta Lynn.

The judges cited the appearance and light and airy texture of Mrs. Rubio's creation, garnished with gumdrops, mint leaves and lemon curls.

''Of all the pies we tasted, this one was just right for the way people are eating today,'' said Karen Theroux, a home economics magazine editor.

Jean Hewitt, food editor of Family Circle, said the declaration doesn't mean lemon meringue pie will become the American eagle of pastries.

''We were looking for one very special pie that America would love - that America would make,'' said Ms. Hewitt, foreman of the 10-judge panel.

Mrs. Rubio, who would like to start her own baking business, said she began cooking in 1972 when she got married. ''I had to please my husband so he wouldn't miss his mom's cooking,'' she said.

She credits cornstarch for her stiff meringue, but said the key to baking is patience and research. ''I study cooking books in the mornings while I have coffee before the kids get up,'' she said. ''It's a hobby, but I work hard at it.''

It was the ultimate bakeoff, with contestants nationwide recreating the pies that won state fair contests this fall and summer.

The entries ranged from the traditional apple chosen in nine states to Alaska's more unusual pink polar cream pie, a rhubarb dessert topped with a mound of white meringue to represent snow-capped Mount McKinley.

From America's heartland, Kansas offered the sunflower beef pot pie. New York's entry, a lattice-topped apple, fittingly represented ''the Big Apple.''

Alaska's contestant joked that her meringue fell flat and that her filling was a little short of sugar.

''Everything went wrong, but it's OK because I had a ball,'' said Elena Farring, who owns a cleaning store in Anchorage. ''I wonder if the altitude might have made much difference in the beating time. So I'll just blame it on the altitude here.''