(My) Life of Pi(e)



Randy sends, in our CSA basket, a fat baggie of plump blueberries.  Hmmm. Muffins?  I ponder.  There are not enough berries for a whole pie.

Then we have dinner with our old friends from Mount Vernon, and wonderful Larry hands me a gift bag as we are leaving.  When we get home, I unpack it and discover a quart of sweet cherries.

Oh, that’s cool, I think: we can make a patriotic pie like the one I just saw on Facebook.  One fourth of the pie has blueberry filling; the other is red fruit.  On top, there are sugared pastry stars and stripes.

The cherries prove too tempting for Mark, though. By the time Friday–and baking leisure–rolls around, only a cup or so is left.  We have blueberries, we have cherries, and we have a couple of apples.

Let’s, suggests Mark, put them ALL in a pie.  So, aided and abetted by Joy of Cooking, which supports all kinds of adventurous fruity filling combinations [and inspired by our friend Wendy, a renowned pie-baker: Wendy visits each summer, scouts the farmers’ market and combines what’s ripe–peaches, maybe? Blueberries, perhaps?–into one glorious and unforgettable pastry-baked treat], we do.  There’s actually enough filling for TWO pies, once all the mixing and seasoning is done,–two smallish pies in pie tins saved from store-bought pie experiences.  The cherry-berry-apple pie is GOOD.

Mark takes one to work to share, and people like him for it.  Debbie, who works in his office, says the pie is fine, but she really likes the crust.  Tell Pam, she says, to try making pinwheels sometime…to pat the crust and butter it and sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar…

See there, I think.  Pie is not just a dessert; it’s a theme and it’s a thread.  It’s past and present all rolled up and hog-tied into one. Mark, too, has fond memories of leftover crust, buttered and cinnamon-sugared, and baked until it’s crisp…sweet crunch of innocence and youth…

We all, I think,  have a story, we all have a LIFE, of pie.


The crust was the thing for my mother; she couldn’t get the knack of a rich, flaky crust.  Hers were sodden and heavy, though the fillings were wonderful.  We each had favorites.  My father [insert groans and gagging noises] cherished minced meat pie, which he generally only got at Christmas–that must have had childhood connotations for him.

My skinny, bespectacled brother Dennis was renowned for his pie-eating ability, but he was especially partial to cherry.  And he was known, too, for finding the one lone pit left in a cherry pie.  He became so well known, in fact, for crunching on the cherry stone that a friend’s mother–the kind of freckled, outdoorsy woman who wore one piece gym suits to energetically clean house, grocery shop, and herd children–decided to make a joke.  She put a cherry pit into a cream pie and marked the piece.  When serving time came, she made sure Dennis got the pitted piece.

To her horror, he broke a tooth. But his cherry pit legend grew and grew.

Some of my brothers liked apple pie, and others liked chocolate pudding pie.  I was partial to lemon meringue.  If my mother didn’t have the knack for crusts, she certainly mastered meringues–hers were high and fluffy, dewed with sweet drops and limned in golden brown.

Often we would eat the filling and leave the crust, as if it were a cozy, inedible, legless chaise lounge on which the filling had sat.

Pondering all this all got me wondering about how long pie has been around, and I went to a site called What’s Cooking (whatscookingamerica.net) to gather some background.  I found there that the concept of a pastry crust as food container has deep historical roots.  I discovered that, for hundreds of years, the pastry was just the thing that held the filling–more of a dish or a carrying case than a tasty part of a pie.  In fact, the author tells me, early pies in England were called ‘coffins’ after the pastry encasement (‘Coffin,’ the author points out, meant box or basket at that time, not a repository for a carcass. Although, now that I think about it, if we’re talking about a meat pie, maybe ‘coffin’ is not so far off.)

A pie without a top crust was known as a trap.

Crusts were thick and pretty unappetizing–made to stand up to hours of baking, and to travel and time.  Crusts were, originally, basically just disposable baking pans. (I don’t know if that knowledge would have comforted my mother.)

What’s Cooking tells me that the making of pies goes back, far back, in human history–back, at least, to Egyptian cuisine in 9500 BC. In early United States days, it was pretty common for pioneer housewives to serve some sort of pie at every meal—think of those hard-working farmers devouring a big slice of apple pie with their bacon and eggs before heading out to hitch up the mule and plow the back forty.

Pie has global roots, but the United States has embraced pie, has made it a national icon; we jealously guard it as a national treat.  Mark Twain–and one doesn’t get much more American, quirks and all, than Twain–was a dab hand for eating US pie, and a scathing critic of European versions. (He once wrote a recipe for English pie; the last step, he said, was to seal it up and let it petrify, then serve it to one’s enemy.)

(Perhaps it was Twain who coined the phrase “as American as apple pie.”  I am pretty sure, though, that exquisitely wonderful pies exist outside these red-white-and-blue borders, Twain’s opinion or no.)

As I grew into cooking age, I found I longed to master the art of flaky pastry.  It would be a score for me in that mother-daughter cooking competition. Our first friendly battlefield was the art of the chocolate chip cookie.  The second could be the pie crust. Later, I was motivated by the fact that my significant other’s ex had a pie-baking reputation.  I vowed, vain young person that I was, to equal or surpass her mark.

I learned about using ice water and about chilling your shortening.  There were decided schools of thought about lard versus butter versus plain old shortening. Advice bounced and conflicted on what sort of mixing tool to use–forks or knives or wooden spoons, or maybe, even fingers. I found a wire pastry cutter in a bin at a second hand emporium; that proved to be the perfect mixing tool for me (and it was so well-made that I still cut the fat into the flour with that very same tool today).

But every pastry recipe would adjure me: handle lightly.  Dough becomes tough with excess handling.  There was something that went against my grain in not kneading a dough into a smooth, firm ball.  I suspect my mother had the same challenge.  I just HAD to work the dough excessively.  And it was always tough.

And then came the day I poured out my plight to a lovely friend, Gretchen.  And Gretchen shared a recipe she’d gotten from her friend Karen. This recipe incorporated a splash of vinegar and  an egg, and one batch made enough crust for FIVE pie crusts.  This crust was flaky and good no matter how long I man-handled it.

This recipe (shared at the end of this post) remains my go to crust recipe today.

So, I had a crust method that worked, and I went through long pie-baking phases.  I saw a photo in Country Living magazine thirty years ago; it showed a pie with the top crust decorated with pastry roses.  For a long time, I topped my pies with sculpted pastry glued to the crust with eggwash, shining with sugar.

I had a lattice crust phase.

I had my crumb topping era.

After a gentleman at a church potluck commented that no one made it from scratch anymore, I went through a militant meringue period.

But I calmed down eventually.


Today, I try to keep a batch of Gretchen’s pie dough on hand, in the freezer.  Just in case, say, there are leftovers enough to make a chicken pot pie, lush with tiny onions and plump peas.  Just in case sweet friends send over a variety of fruits and berries.

 My friend, this summer, I hope crusts are flaky and fillings satisfy. This summer, I wish you all the happiness of pie.


Pie Crust Recipe Shared by Generations of Women (from Gretchen, who got it from Karen, who learned it from her grandmother…)

Mix with a fork:

1-3/4 cups shortening, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour.

In a separate bowl, use the fork to stir together  1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup of water.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all ingredients are moistened. Mold dough into a ball. Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into five portions. Each will make a top or bottom crust for a standard pie. It can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen. It’s always tender, even with excess handling…




A Day All Pies Would Fly

This week, WordPress’s daily challenge (http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/pie/) was to write about pie…That and the upcoming holiday remind me of a story my youngest son used to demand over and over again. It is a true story, but I told it to young James so many times that memory and embroidery morphed and blended.  I got so I wasn’t sure what was real, and what I’d added–but Jim, aged two, knew every  told detail and would brook no changes. Others who were there might argue things happened differently…and they might just be right.  But…here is my pie story.


I put the Tom and Pippo book on top of the stack.

“That’s it,” I tell my almost three-year-old. “Seven books. Time to sleep.” I am aching for that half hour, the time when the boy is asleep and there is absolutely no pressing work to be done, when a book or a TV show is a beacon at the end of the day, a luxurious choice.


He looks up at me with big brown pleading eyes—beneath eyelids that are not in the least bit heavy. “Tell me a story, Mama,” he pleads.

I sigh–a martyr in the making–and say, “What story would you like? Pete Pete with the Stinky Feet?”

“Tell me,” he says, “about when the pies fly.”

Again. Ah, me.

I squelch another mama-martryr sigh and begin.

“It was Thanksgiving day, and your grandma–the grandma who’s in heaven now–had been cooking all day. There were stacks of cutout cookies shaped like turkeys and autumn leaves on one counter.”

“With sugar topping,” murmurs my boy.

“That’s right,” I say. “The cookies were frosted and sprinkled with colored sugar–orange and red and yellow: autumn colors. And next to them were two big beautiful pumpkin pies. They were a rich orange-y brown; there were little beads of moisture clinging to their shiny surfaces. The crusts were just that right kind of gold-y-brown, ready to explode into buttery flakes.”

“You didn’t like it.”

“That’s true–not all of us liked pumpkin pie, but the ones that did,–well they couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to come when they could eat one, two, three–maybe even four!–pieces. The house smelled wonderfully of turkey roasting and other good things, and we pottered around in the living room, watching the parades on TV, playing games, reading, until finally Grandma called me to set the table.”

“There was a tablecloth,” he prompts.

“Yes, there was,” I agree. “There was a lace tablecloth the color of pale, weak tea. We used the special plates, the ones with fluted edges and old-fashioned scenes on them–Cousin Shaynie has those plates now, and she still uses them every Thanksgiving.

“We put water glasses by each plate. We used the fancy salt and pepper shakers, the special platter with a turkey painted on it, and the big people–Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Dennis–had wine glasses by their places.

“For the Duck,” he says, knowingly.

“Yes! Cold Duck was what Grandma thought, back then, was a really special drink, and she bought it every holiday. So there’d be TWO birds on the table,–a turkey and a duck.”

He nods. “What else?”

“There was a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, white and piled up like soft mountains. There was a pat of butter melting on the top. There was another big bowl of stuffing, straight from the bird; it smelled like celery and onion and sage, turkey and bread, all jumbled up.There was a sizzly casserole of orange sweet potatoes. There was a bowl of steaming peas—”

“CORN,” he corrects, impatiently.

“Ah, you’re right,” I agree. “It was corn. That had butter melting on it, too. And there were two baskets of crescent rolls; that was the only time we ever got those, and we thought that was a really big treat.

“Grandpa came in from his half day at work at the power plant; he washed up and changed, and came right down and carved the turkey. Your uncles started drifting in from the living room or their bedrooms or wherever they were, and Grandma made people pour water and wine, get the cranberry sauce from the fridge, and put serving spoons in all the good food. It was time to eat.”

I look at my boy. He is quiet now, but bright-eyed, waiting for the good part.

“We said our grace and Grandpa passed the turkey, and we loaded our plates with potatoes–making a little hole in the middle so we could pour in a lake of turkey gravy. We dug in to corn and stuffing.”

“But you didn’t eat the sweet potatoes.”

“I didn’t. Back then I was a kind of picky eater, and I didn’t eat sweet potatoes. OR the cranberry sauce.

“We cleaned our plates and we filled them again, and we all said how good, good, good everything tasted. And when we were done, we helped clear the table. The tablecloth was splotted with gravy, and I bundled it up and tossed it down the cellar stairs. Grandma would wash it the next day and iron it and put it in the cabinet drawer until the next feast at Christmas. And we helped with dishes.”

“Uncle Dennis washed,” he says.

“Yes, he did,” I agree. “And Uncle Mike dried. Your Uncle Sean and I put away, and Uncle John helped Grandpa take the trash out. Grandma, for once, got to sit and read.

“Pretty soon, all the mess was cleaned up, and everyone drifted…some went for walks and some watched football. I drew pictures at the kitchen table. Grandma read her book.”

“An hour passed, or maybe two,” he whispers, the cadence of the tale memorized.

“Yes. Time passed. Grandma put her book down and came out to the kitchen. She plugged her little handmixer in, and she took two little cartons–they looked like little houses–of cream from the fridge. She poured those into a big metal bowl–a bowl that had a little ring to hook your thumb through, so it wouldn’t fly away when you used the electric mixer. She added a capful of vanilla and a couple of heaping spoonsful of powdered sugar, and she beat up frothy peaks of whipped cream. It was beautiful.”

“It was time for pie,” he says, a grin beginning.

“Yes!” I say, “and everyone was ready. Your grandpa came out and put the two pies right in the middle of the table. Grandma handed him the bowl of whipped cream, and he joked that maybe he’d just take a spoon and eat the whole bowlful. ‘No!’ everyone yelled. Grandma got out the knife and the pie server, and the little dessert plates, and she cut pieces of pie for everyone but me and Uncle Sean.”

“He didn’t like pie either,” says my boy, and I hear in his voice, at last, the edges of sleep tugging.

“He did not,” I agree. “So Grandma cut pieces for everyone else, and plopped little clouds of whipped cream on top, and put a fork on each plate, and when everyone had a piece, they each picked up their forks, sliced down to cut off a big bite and they raised the forks to their mouths, closed their eyes, and tasted…”

“And it was awful!” he crows.

“It was! There was no sugar in that pie! Grandma had been in a hurry and she mistook her big bag of salt for her big bag of sugar and those pumpkin pies were salty, salty, salty.

“There was a huge and deafening silence. My brothers and my father were frozen. They did not want to hurt Grandma’s feelings–but they sure did not want to eat that pie.”

“And then GRANDMA said–” he nudges, hurrying toward the good part.

“GRANDMA said,” I continue, “‘Dennis, I know how you love pumpkin pie. Here. Have mine.’ And she scooped up the piece of pie–the piece with one bite missing–and she threw it at your Uncle Dennis!

“Uncle Dennis froze in shock, and the pie hit him on the side of his head, right above his ear!

“There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Uncle Dennis recovered and said to my mother, ‘I could never leave you pie-less. Please. Take mine.’ His pie flew through the air at my mother, but she was quick and ready, and she ducked. The pie hit the wall, quivered for a moment, and slid.

“And then it was flying pie day. Your uncles and your grandpa threw their own slices of pie, and then they grabbed the pies left on the table, and the battle was on. I ran out to the living room–I didn’t like to eat it, and I didn’t want to wear it–and I hid behind the ottoman while the laughing and the splotting went on.”

“Finally it got quiet.”

“Yes, it did,” I say. “In the kitchen they couldn’t stop laughing, all those crazy pumpkin-covered people. But when they finally did, they took turns in the bathroom, washing the pumpkin off themselves, and we all helped clean up the kitchen. And then Grandma made a pot of coffee and we all sat down and ate those wonderful sugary cookies.”

“It was the day of flying pies,” he says, satisfied.

“It was the day of flying pies,” I agree. “And now it is the night of sleeping boys.”

He yawns at me and grins, too tired to argue. The eyes flutter closed, and I escape into the living room, where I pick up my waiting book,–and fall instantly, soundly asleep.