Larisa texted a couple of us about an event she was going to at her church. “I have to bring two quiches,” she wrote. “I’m using Pam’s pie crust recipe.”
It struck me, seeing that written out. I had shared the recipe with Larisa. It is a recipe I had sought out, long ago, for less than altruistic reasons, and one I use regularly. But I’ve never thought of it as MY recipe.
Way back when, back in my husband’s murky past, there was an accomplished pie-baker. We’ll call her Lulu. Newly married, I was determined that MY pies would surpass hers, surpass them by so much that those pies o’ mine would wipe out any nostalgic memory. There would be no reason for folks at family gatherings to sigh and say, “Remember Lulu? Remember her strawberry rhubarb pies?”
So I mastered pie fillings: that was fun. But the crust part was a little harder to handle.
My mother was unabashedly, unashamedly, no help.
“My crusts are awful,” she said, calmly and with no regret. And it was kind of true. Her pie shells were containers to showcase wonderful fruits and puddings, but the crusts themselves were tough and sometimes sodden. She dealt with it, secure in the knowledge that legions of children, grown and growing, adored and devoured her vast repertoire of cookies.
So I turned to cookbooks for pie crust magic,–turned to them with varying results. “Don’t overhandle the dough!” they all admonished, but how could one get the mixture smooth without pummeling it? I bought a special rolling pin that I would fill with icy water, insuring the crust, in the rolling, flattening phase, did not get too warm. I put the shortening in the freezer. A couple of times, I substituted butter.
Sometimes my pie crusts were good and sometimes they were chewy, and I could not pinpoint any definitively good reason for the difference.
And then one day, Mark and I went to dinner with old friends, Gretchen and Jim. Gretchen served a blueberry pie with a sugar crusted, flaky crust. It was so good. It was good enough that just eating a big piece of the crust would have been an amazing dessert; to have it filled with fresh-picked blueberries, sweetened and coaxed into giving up their syrupy secrets, just put us all beyond the bend.
“I wish I could make a pie crust like this,” I moaned as I slipped into a sugar coma.
Before I faded completely, I heard Gretchen whisper, “Have I got a recipe for you…”
And she did. I know to look for it under G in my cookbook; it is labelled ‘Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe.’ I use it so often, now, that the book flips open to the page of its own accord. It is a recipe that makes enough dough for five crusts. It calls for an egg and a little bit of vinegar, and the result is always, always, fine and flaky. Every month, I make up a batch, and I constantly have three or four lumps of dough in the freezer—ready to use up chunks of ham and the ends of cheddar cheese bars in a quiche-y, last-minute dinner; ready to support a robust filling of apples sliced thin and tossed with sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon and cooked until they ooze up their own thick sauce.
Hallelujah: thanks to Gretchen, pie crust mastered.
Once, years after she shared that recipe, we got together again with Gretchen and Jim and other friends for a picnic. We portioned out the dishes to pass, and dessert fell to Mark and me. My friend Sandee had made a swing through town, and when I came home from teaching, I found, on the side porch, four gleaming baskets of raspberries from the bushes she and her husband Don nurtured for years. I made a Friendship Pie—Sandee’s berries, Gretchen’s crust—and toted it proudly along to share.
When I mentioned to Gretchen I’d used her crust recipe, she laughed. “I got that recipe from Karen,” she said, nodding at one of the other friends at the picnic.
Gretchen lists that recipe as ‘Karen’s Pie Crust’ in her cookbook. In Karen’s files, it’s ‘Grandma’s pie crust recipe.’
And who knows where Karen’s grandma got the recipe. I imagine young women, Depression-era maybe, meeting while the men are at work, sharing recipes and methods. I see a recipe card changing hands. It’s index card-sized, and ‘From the Kitchen of _______________’ is printed in the upper left-hand corner. “Millie” is written in the blank space, written in flowing Palmer-method script, written in spiky fountain-pen ink.
The recipe card has seen hard use, sitting on a counter, soaking up the grease and flour of dough preparation. There is a translucent half-moon on the bottom edge. There is a tiny plunket of hardened dough stuck on to the ingredient list. The woman who borrows the recipe absently picks that little plunket away; she shoots it into space between her work-hardened index finger and thumb. Then she smooths it out carefully and picks up her pen. In flowing script that belies the toughness of her hands, she fills in the title at the top of her pristine recipe card: ‘Millie’s Pie Crust Recipe.’
Someday, maybe, she muses, her granddaughter will copy that recipe into her own cookbook. And then, she, too, will share.
I remember the first office potluck after Terry came to work. She brought a big plateful of delicious cookies, chewy, oatmeal-y, studded with chocolate. There was a crowd around those cookies; people elbowed in and shoved each other away.
And when the lovely sweet treats had been reduced to crumbs…which one forlorn cookie-lover swiped up with a finger and scraped into his mouth…we asked Terry for the recipe. Ah, she said. Those are Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies, and she told us a story about a little boy at the school where she’d once worked. He was a mischievous, freckle-faced boy, if I remember Terry’s story well, loveable in himself, but he would have been forgiven many things even if not. The cookies Kevin Weaver brought to events and parties made the angels and the teachers sing.
And Kevin’s mother, who must have been kind-hearted and full of humor, gladly shared the recipe.
Terry shared it, too, and we knew something then about her expansive spirit. She was the kind of person who loved to bake cookies that people swooned for. She was the kind of person who shared the instructions so YOU could bake them, too.
Not every person is the recipe-sharing type. Once I knew a woman who made a super delicious cheesecake, a double-batchy homemade delectation of a confection with a smooth and luscious sour cream topping. She was the mother of a friend; she held that recipe tight to her chest. I would beg for those instructions, and she would smile, a little smugly, and say something vague.
“When I have time,” she’d murmur, or, “Let me see what I can do.”
She never had time; she never saw what she could do. And oh, I wanted that recipe.
One day, at the supermarket that helped me work my way through college, I lamented the lack of that recipe and Marie, a good-hearted produce manager known to be an amazing cook, took umbrage.
The next day she handed me the exact cheesecake recipe. It was handwritten in red ink on a pretty recipe card adorned with a teapot. “From the Kitchen of Marie!” it read, and it was encased in a plastic, protective sleeve.
“Good cooks SHARE,” she said.
At the end of the recipe, she’d written, “Eat hearty!!!!”
I use that recipe every Easter I use it because I love the cheesecake, and I use it in honor of big-hearted Marie.
There are some people who don’t share because, maybe, that recipe is part of a kingdom they rule with a close and jealous hand, and there are some people who don’t share because they are not the recipe-following type. My Aunt Annie, my mother’s sister, was that kind of cook, the kind who used a recipe the first time through, maybe, but who then took those instructions as simple guidelines. Why not, that kind of cook might think, try chicken broth instead of heavy cream? Why not use half Swiss and half Monterey Jack instead of a full cup of grated cheddar?
My mother would tell stories about Aunt Annie’s mac and cheese—how people would angle for dinner invitations just to taste it, how mac and cheese nights were always call for celebration and extra beaming faces at the table. And my mother would ask for the recipe, always, and Aunt Annie, always, would say, “Well, I start with a white sauce. I usually boil a full box of elbows, but sometimes I use ziti…”
She’d go on, saying you COULD do this, or she might add that, and my mother would, finally, slap down the loose-leaf sheet on which she’d been trying to capture that recipe. She’d click her pen shut and mutter, “Never mind,” and later, she’d bemoan the lack of that wonderful recipe. She would scour magazines for macaroni and cheese methods; she would experiment with different cheeses, half and half, heavy cream. Never did her efforts meet her hopes: in Mom’s eyes, her mac and cheese never came up to the Aunt Annie standard.
So I kind of inherited a mac and cheese quest, but again, someone gave me a recipe. My niece Margaret moved to Charleston, and one Christmas, she sent up a fat cookbook by a couple of skinny Charleston lads called the Lee Brothers. Despite their extreme slenderness, those boys whipped up southern recipes that bloomed with bacon and lard and whole milk. We found our favorite collard greens recipe in their pages, and we adopted their Hoppin’ John technique for our New Year’s Day fare.
And we discovered, to our great joy—and to what I imagine would have been my mother’s great joy, too—Lee Brothers Macaroni and Cheese. We make it for company, and for a side when we roast up a Flintstone-sized slab of barbecued ribs. It is one of Mark’s go-to dishes when he has to bring a dish to pass; he mixes up a batch of Lee Brothers in the crockpot and takes it to work. He puts the crockpot on the break room counter and plugs it in and lets the smell of bubbling cheese sauce marinate his morning.
People ask him for the recipe. He shares.
Because recipes are meant to be shared. When we share them, we weave a kind of connection net, whether we are passing on handwritten delights on aging index cards, or printing off, say, a copy of the Beef-Barley Stoup recipe that Jodi so kindly offered up on her blog. It is not the first recipe of Jodi’s to become part of family food lore; it is, Mark says, the best beef soup—or, umm, stew—err, stoup—he’s ever eaten. And even though Jodi and I have never yet met, she’s woven into our family culinary repertoire, along with Gretchen and her pie crust, and Terry, and Kevin Weaver, and Kevin Weaver’s mom.
Those recipes weave our experience together, weave us tight across time and distance, tromp over barriers, and melt away cold towers of isolation. The sharing reminds us that people are good and open and generous—that people enjoy good things at special times, and that they want others—they want everyone—to do the same.