"I made a pie today."
That is a simple, five word sentence. Only one of the words is multisyllabic, yet with that simple sentence I elicited the wheezing laughter of a proud, chain-smoking mother on the telephone last night.
My childhood was spent among the pie makers. My mother would drag my sister and me out for long walks where we would pick wild strawberries from the ditches that lined the country highway where we lived. In my memory, it was always a quiet but scorchingly hot day when we picked them, and my sister was constantly complaining about being thirsty and bored.
Together, the three of us would slowly work our way down the road, and cars that passed would honk and wave at us--my mother using it as an excuse to stand up and give her back a break from bending over for so long.
My grandmother, my mother's mother, lived a block down from a cherry orchard. The old man who owned the farmland that included the cherry orchard always allowed my grandmother to come and pick as many cherries as she would want. My grandfather, a carpenter, would return the gesture by fixing odds and ends and building small furniture for the old farmer.
Again, my sister, mother, and I were sent out to pick the dark red berries off the trees. My memory, here too, is filled with heat. We would walk to the orchard across the unplanted field overgrown with milkweed that I loved to pick; ripping it open like corn husks, I'd throw the sticky white stalks at my sister who would scream, running for cover behind the solitary tree that stood in the middle of the field.
Getting back to Grandma's house, she would set to work. With a dip of her sifter in that sea-foam green plastic tub, she would sprinkle a snow shower of flour down onto the kitchen table. Smacking the start of dough on the table, her hands would kneed and slide around the floured table. The wooden rolling pin would push the dough out, and if it were too sticky, she'd dust the table with a smattering of more flour. It was as if it were choreographed to music, but instead of music, we would hear--"Hello, Americans, I'm Paul Harvey..."--as her wedding ring would fill with flour and pie dough and she'd spend an hour cleaning it out with a toothbrush as the pie cooked in the oven.
With that paper thin crust complete, she'd gently place it in the glass pie plate and cut around the edges. In the meantime, my mother would have been pitting the cherries. I never remember seeing those cherries get mixed together or heated on the stovetop to thicken--I just remember them being placed in the pie plate as Grandma worked out another pie crust for the top.
Though it was the filling that tasted so good, the crust was magic.
I have never been able to master the pie crust. My grandmother did it, my mother can do it, my cousin Joey who looks like he could be my twin brother can do it, but I can not. Strike that. I could not, until last night.
In my apartment, I have no kitchen table and I have about one square foot of counter space. I have attempted the pie crust before. I have rolled out the dough just to get it stuck to my rolling pin like glue, crusting over and drying out before I could even attempt to fix it. I have made crusts too thin, too thick, too wet, too dry...
My attempt last night had me taking everything off the coffee table that I use as a kitchen table in the living room area. I figured if flour gets on the floor, well, that's why God invented vacuums. I turned off the television, and with a surgeon's attention to detail I rolled out a perfect pie crust--twice.
Much to my dismay, however, after I put the crust in the bottom of the pie plate that has NEVER made its way into the oven, I realized that I hadn't bought anything to put in the pie. You see, I have failed so many times that I had forgotten there was a step after the actual crust.
"I don't have a recipe, I just mix it together..."--my grandmother told me on the phone. That was no help. My mother didn't answer her phone until I finished the whole ordeal.
So, I did what any modern shopper does: I went to the grocery store to read labels of canned fruit to find a recipe for pie filling. I was not disappointed; the can of cherries had a lovely little recipe with almond extract and cinammon. Perfect.
I raced home, afraid of what the temperature could be doing to my pie crust. I was paranoid. I had never gotten this close before--it's like running a marathon and right when you see the finish line on the horizon, you just collapse to the ground.
But, the Fates smiled down upon me. I whipped together that filling recipe, placed my filling into the crust, put the top crust on, popped that pie in the oven and waited for 40 minutes--pacing the floor like a father waiting for his baby to be born. I resisted opening the oven door, because Mother always said that would mess too much with the temperature of things and could potentially cause burning.
When that buzzer went off, I opened the door. There it was. No bubbling over, no splitting off of the crust--it was a golden brown and smelled like buttery goodness.
Waiting hours for it to cool, I had that first piece before calling my mother. Do you know how it is when you bite into certain foods and your entire mouth starts salivating to the point where you almost drool on yourself? Yeah, that's what this pie tasted like.
"I made a pie today," I told my mother before launching into the entire story. Like I was a little kid picking berries, I again understood the importance of being part of the process; nothing tasted better than the success brought to fruition by hard work.I shared with my mother how good my pie tasted and how it was too bad that she's over a thousand miles away or I'd share a piece with her.
"I bet it's good; better than that store bought crap. That stuff'll kill you," she scoffed in disgust, but hidden among that disgust, I could also hear a small morsel of pride.
Better, indeed. I only hope I can do it again. . . .