My mother is an excellent cook and a fine human being. She’s interesting and smart, generous and kind. Both she and my father are very good company, and Kevin and I share many a meal with them when they’re here on Cape Cod in the summer.
So, when Shauna Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef asked the food bloggers of her acquaintance to write about an early cooking experience, I would have liked to report that I learned everything I know at my mother’s knee, that she guided my little hands as I learned to chop, mix, and stir, that she kept a watchful eye out as I began to sauté, braise, and broil.
The truth, though, is that I didn’t learn anything whatsoever about cooking from my mother. It was at home that I learned to read, to think, and to argue. I learned about politics, literature, and ethics. I learned what it was to be a member of the weird family in the neighborhood. I learned to swim. But I didn’t learn anything about food.
So, instead of telling you a heart-warming story about kitchen wisdom being passed from mother to daughter, I’m forced to tell you about Mrs. Gearhart who, if memory serves, was pretty uptight. She was prim and conventional, hidebound and disapproving. She was my seventh-grade Home Economics teacher.
I didn’t get along with Mrs. Gearhart. I remember one unfortunate incident involving a dress pattern, and I’m sure it wasn’t the only run-in I had with her. I had run-ins, plural, with all my teachers and, in my senior year in high school, although I was passed over for ‘Most Popular’ and ‘Most Likely to Succeed,’ I bagged the coveted ‘Teacher’s Pest’ award. I never thought much of this until some twenty years later when my mother told me that I had earned 80% of the vote – when you could vote for anybody.
How my mother came by this statistic, I still don’t know.
Mrs. Gearhart is probably dead by now. When I took her class in 1975 she seemed like she was about ninety, although so does every adult over forty, to every kid under twenty. If she’s still out there, though, I’d like to thank her. She taught me something useful. She taught me to make pie crust.
I remember her demonstration vividly. We had finished the module on Snickerdoodles and moved on to pies. She stood in the front of the class and showed us how to cut shortening into flour with two knives. She added water until the dough formed a ball. She rolled it out, and showed us that it was big enough when it extended an inch beyond the diameter of the pie plate.
Then she used a trick that I use to this day. She folded the crust in half, and pulled it onto the pie plate so the fold was at the half-way point. Then she just unfolded it and pressed it in.
Her class of seventh graders was very impressed with this. “That’s cool,” somebody said.
“Well,” she said, a note of triumph creeping into her voice. “I’m just a cool cat.”
I came home and told my mother I wanted to make a pecan pie, crust and all. My mother, who, for all her fine qualities, couldn’t make a pie crust if it were the only thing standing between her and starvation, didn’t believe I could, either. But, to her credit, she didn’t let on. If I wanted to try my hand at pie crust, she was perfectly ready to let me.
We bought the ingredients, and I rolled up my sleeves. I cut in the shortening and formed the dough. I rolled it out and folded it over. I eased it into the pie plate and even fluted the edges. It came out perfectly.
My mother was dumbfounded.
The reason my first pie crust worked, I think, was that it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t. I had no sense that pie crust was difficult, and I forged ahead with perfect confidence. The reason my subsequent pie crusts worked – and they all have – is that the first one did.
The ability to make pie crust is a silly, small skill. It doesn’t have a meaningful impact on my quality of life, and if I could trade it for something more substantive – athleticism, musicality, tact – I certainly would but, so far, no one’s made me an offer. So I have to be content with pie crust.
A pie with a perfectly browned, evenly fluted pie crust is a beautiful thing, and I’ll admit to an absurd little swell of pride every time I pull one out of the oven. And I don’t believe I’ve ever made a pie without thinking of Mrs. Gearhart. She taught me, before I had a chance to consider otherwise, to take for granted that I could cook.
There are two sides to every story, and it’s only fair that I tell my mother’s. From 1993 to 2004, she and I wrote a newsletter called Dreaded Broccoli, and we published the eponymous book, with Scribner, in 1999. Both contained her version of the pie crust incident:
CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED PASTRY COOK
I rather enjoy performing most of the procedures (dreaded veggie prep being a major exception) that change raw food into dinner, but I never did take to baking. It’s too much like chemistry. I want to be able to alter recipes and poke at things as they cook. Even when I’ve followed instructions conscientiously, anything I’ve ever tried to bake has seemed to understand that I was not performing a labor of love and, in retaliation, has turned out badly. I did not persist. A few lopsided cakes and heavy loaves of bread were enough for me.
Back in the days before our house became a pastry-free zone, the only desserts my oven produced regularly were brownies and cheesecake–things that didn’t have to rise. For years, however, I did keep trying to make pie crust. I really love good traditional pie: apple, berry, lemon meringue, pumpkin, pecan, whatever. So does my husband. And there was no bakery in Poughkeepsie that could provide one we liked. But alas, as you might expect from a world-class klutz and generally unsuccessful baker, my pies were even worse than the ones we could pick up down at the shopping center. I could manage the fillings all right, but the crusts! After coating the kitchen in flour, I would try to deal with a mess of dough that adhered stubbornly to the pastry board, the rolling pin, the floor, and the dog. The portion that I finally managed to coax into the pie plate would bake into a sort of hard tasteless pie-liner obviously unfit for human consumption. I tried every pie-crust making trick known to womankind. Nothing helped. So I made graham-cracker crusts or bought frozen pie shells in the supermarket.
Then one day Tamar came home from junior high school and said she wanted to make a pie. She had learned how in home economics class. “Of course, dear.” I said. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than mine. A friend had given me a terrific recipe for pecan pie that, for obvious reasons, I had never tried. The contrast in taste and texture between filling and crust is even more essential to pecan pie than it is to apple or pumpkin. Without a successful crust, you’re just eating a rather cloying pecan pudding. But Tamar wanted to make the pecan pie, so we went out and purchased the ingredients.
I hadn’t intended to watch, but I couldn’t help myself. I was fascinated. My little daughter mixed her pie dough, chilled it briefly, rolled it out, popped it into the pan, and (I could hardly believe my eyes!) fluted the edges. Where was the flour mess? Where were the sticky crumbs of dough? (The second question was the dog’s. He had developed quite a taste for pie dough. Now he sat under the table looking deprived.) Then she made the filling. I could handle that. I even helped a little.
The pie was perfect. Every pie Tamar has ever made has been perfect. These days, though, she makes her pecan pie only for special occasions like Thanksgiving. Pecan pie, is impressively high in calories and saturated fat. It’s not something you want sitting around the house. But even a tiny piece is very satisfying. Just find a young, healthy, thin person to take home the leftovers: a designated eater. Your pecan pie will be a beautiful, festive thing–if you have the pie-crust gene.