Of pie

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.

Me and mom, c. 1998, print complete with food stains. Photo by Ruth Silverman

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:


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.

14 people are having a conversation about “Of pie

  1. What a great post, by mother and daughter duo. I love the picture. You both look beautiful.

    You dredged up a baking memory from my own Home Ec. class with the snickerdoodles reference. It must have been a manadatory part of the 70s baking curriculum.

    Now I’m craving pie….

  2. Many thanks, Tamar, for all the fine compliments, but I do have some regrets about not having shared cooking experiences with my kids. I guess I always thought of cooking as a one-person activity. (You need something chopped? That’s what you’ve got a Cuisinart for!) If I had followed recipes, it might have been different, but I was always muddling through, using the ingredients I had. For me it’s always been more about the thinking than the mechanics, which is what (along with my klutziness) makes me such a terrible baker. It’s interesting that your cooking style resembles mine as much as it does. You do a lot of things just the way I do without ever having learned them from me. As we’ve often observed, genetics is a really scarey thing. But I don’t know where you acquired the pie-crust gene.

  3. Mom, you and I have a lot in common. My mother and sister can do baking and in particular pastry and pie crusts of every type in the haute cuisine book. Sponges as light as a feather and fruit cakes fit for the Queen. Me? Not a hope. Pastry like cardboard and cake like a pancake. Bread is okay – but that has a machine for the job! And I’m the precision scientist/engineer where as they are arty, earth mother types, so it isn’t the recipe precision thing! Annoying, isn’t it?

    PS in the states, do you have the saying in the States “cold hands, warm heart”? Just adds to the annoyance, since apparently you need cold hands for pastry and mine are always freezing due to poor circulation…….. so what are they implying ????

  4. I think I have the same knack with pie crust for the same reason – overconfidence on the initial attempt. Also, I use the same folding trick to move the crust, except I fold it twice, into quarters, before the move. Once upon a time, I even made pie crust without any recipe to refer to. I was in a jam at a friend’s house without a cookbook anywhere to be found, in the days before the internet. It wasn’t the best pie crust ever, but it worked.

    I also once assembled a pie, from scratch, at a party. (I was staying with a friend, again.) A couple of the attendees were watching me roll out the pie crust with this weird intensity. They asked me what I was making. I said, “pie.” They were flabbergasted (this was northern California, toney neighborhood). I might as well have said that I was performing an implant after in vitro fertilization on a gila monster, right there on the kitchen counter. I still haven’t gotten used to incredulous reactions to some made-from-scratch foods. It definitely doesn’t leave me feeling accomplished or proud. Sometimes freakish, sometimes sad for our culture, sometimes just disgusted. But I am happy, for my own sake, that pie crust does not intimidate me.

  5. I used to love baking and I loathe cooking. My mum taught me how to bake … it’s just as well though she didn’t try to teach me how to cook – I found out what a pleasure food could be only once I’d left home!

    Now I’m eating gluten-free I have to cook virtually everything from scratch and I’m getting better (but I still don’t enjoy it) and baking is almost a thing of the past – my attempts so far have not been wildly successful despite the help of Shauna and others’ websites.

  6. Ha! I’ve always been a good pie maker and love pie- it’s probably my favorite dessert, and then I married a man who doesn’t like cooked fruit. I’m not much of one for any other kind of baking because my sweet tooth has waned considerably as I’ve gotten older, and I find the whole process to be more work than it’s worth to me.

    But I do miss pie an awful lot….when I finally have fruit growing in my yard I’m going to try the individual pies one of my readers told me about where you make the pie in a half-pint canning jar and freeze it, and then bake it later. Obviously you couldn’t put a frozen jar in a hot oven, but I’m intrigued enough to want to experiment with the whole idea. Especially pumpkin pie. I miss leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast….

  7. Jen — Yeah, what is it with the Snickerdoodles? I never even heard of Snickerdoodles until I took Home Ec, and I don’t think I’ve encountered them since.

    Mom — It was probably better that I learned to cook on my own. I don’t think I would have been a very good student. As for the pie crust gene, it must come from Dad’s side of the family, but I guess we’d never see it in action since Dad’s probably never made a pie in his life. I hear he used to make a mean milkshake back in college, though.

    Madcat — I haven’t heard “cold hands, warm heart,” although I can see why cold hands might help in the pastry department. I’m sorry they haven’t helped you, but I’m sure you have many redeeming qualities.

    Kate — I, too, have had people be amazed at pie crust. And now I know who to call when my gila monster needs an implant after in vitro fertilization!

    Fiona — I’m convinced that, if you stick with Shauna, you’ll be able to bake absolutely anything. She’s a marvel with the gluten-free flours. If baking gives you pleasure, stick with it.

    Paula — Pumpkin is one of my all-time favorites. And it has the merit of being easy to make, and not even terrible for you. That canning-jar technique sounds weird — it’s hard to imagine the pie surviving the ordeal, but stranger things have happened. Now, if only MY sweet tooth would wane as I get older …

  8. “Cold hands, warm heart” was a favorite expression of my grandmother. I’m a little surprised I never repeated it to you, Tamar, but I guess cold hands were never a problem in our family. Anyway, I haven’t heard anyone use if since I was a child. Is it really current in the UK, Madcat?

  9. Current might be overstating it, but it hasn’t gone from the language. Its one of those things you get told …. and sometime will get to pass on to the child with freezing hands as a bit of comfort.

    If you pulled a face or sat with your mouth open, did your grand mother say “Don’t pull a face like that. The wind might change and you will be stuck looking like that”?

  10. Hi, Madcat. No, my grandmother didn’t say that, but I certainly remember hearing it from adults, although without wind-change suggested as a cause. Just a random misfortune, I guess, that might strike at any time.

  11. What a great post today, and loved all the comments! I also had a bit of a problem in home-ec, mine was on the sewing side. Apparently I began sewing with a machine around age 5. When they asked us (TOLD US) to make another totebag I rebelled and made my first quilt instead. Needless to say, I didn’t get an “A” in class, but I have gone on to have a side career teaching quilting and designing patterns, so it was worth it. My first pie crust was horrible, but my HUSBAND (yes, you read that right), let me roll it as much as I wanted, then we started over and I haven’t looked back- even won a best of show ribbon for one of my pies, and I have experienced the same look of wonder from friends and family-lol!

  12. I cannot make pie crust, your mom’s account of that activity is quite familiar to me. And yes I have tried all the sure fire tricks and methods. However, I learned to make dinner rolls that required yeast, and yes, had to rise before baking. My Mom never mastered any baking involving those things and apparently believing this was genetic, had great doubt that I could either. For several Thanksgivings in a row she would show up at my house with several packages of brown and serve rolls “just in case”.

  13. Tracy — Well, you got the last laugh! I don’t think middle-school home ec teachers are temperamentally well-disposed to handle outliers, so students with their own ideas about what to sew can throw them completely off track. And congratulations on the blue ribbon! All I have to go on are the praises of family and friends — who, let’s face it, just like pie and want to encourage me to make more.

    Gayle — We all have some of those little skills and lack others, I think. I hope your mother has stopped bringing the rolls to Thanksgiving! That’s not a vote of confidence.

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