Sunday, December 6, 2009

FIELD NOTES: A Story of Pie

First Sunday of December

The kitchen is quiet except for the clearing of her throat and the squeak of the table as she works. The old sash windows draw the pale November sun through its panes, filmy with the environment, and strain it onto the blue, cracked-ice Formica tabletop with the chrome trim. The Spry shortening is measured out using a cup filled with water, then drained and plopped into a big bowl as the kettle on the gas stove is working up a boil. An eyeballed tablespoon of milk is splashed onto the shortening directly from the bottle. The stainless steel sifter is filled with the correct proportions of King Arthur Flour and Morton Salt. The kettle’s whistle is answered and a quarter cup of its contents is poured into the mixing bowl. She tilts the bowl, raises her fork and with the precision of a fan blade begins whipping the concoction until it rises up into peaks. It is doubtful if even a fire could call her away from the next step of quickly cranking the sifter and covering the mixture in a blizzard of powdery white. In a miracle of kitchen chemistry, within minutes a soft ball of pie dough is rounded up and delivered into her bare hands. Sprinkles of water are flicked from her fingertips onto the Formica. A crisp sheet of waxed paper is snapped, serrated and suctioned to the moistened tabletop. The warm, pliable dough ball is coaxed down onto the paper and another sheet is used to cover it. A heavy wooden rolling pin squeals pleasurably as she rocks it back and forth over the sandwiched dough. Every now and then the rolling pin is silenced; her fingers, creased now with age and the labors of the hand, feel around the waxy, unctuous layers testing for consistency in thickness, estimating if the current circumference will sufficiently drape a nine inch pie plate. Now the moment of truth:

As if a button on a remote has been pushed to change the channel, the blue tabletop is gone and I am in my own kitchen. My hands are the hands making the pie dough in a November light. The heavy wooden rolling pin is here, as is a stainless steel sifter, King Arthur flour and the Morton Salt Umbrella Girl, but there is a CD playing and a microwave beeping. It is still the moment of truth: the wax paper is repositioned and the top sheet is discarded. In a confusion of bravery, faith and dexterity, the circle reaches its target, the paper is peeled away and the dough settles gratefully into the plate to officially become Crust. Knuckles, fingertips and the round handle-end of a fork flute the edges unconsciously. This handcrafting is impossible to translate into any recipe. It must be observed, it must be practiced and it must be failed before it is perfected.

I am the third pie maker and I get to choose the fillings now. My brother gets his homemade mince of light & dark raisins, candied lemon & orange peel, apples and spices, complete with a good dose of rum and a pie bird vent stuck in the middle to prevent the copious juices from spitting out into the oven. There is pumpkin simply for the reason that there must be pumpkin (whether one likes it or not) with a maple leaf shape cut from the dough trimmings. This year I got adventurous and made Bosc pear with ginger and lemon. Then there is the apple: French Apple from Cortlands with a single crust and a crumb topping (straight from Betty Crocker’s All-Time Favorites, copyright 1971). When I measured the sugar, my hand got a little heavier because I realized I didn’t have to hold back for the diabetes any more. My dad was the Pie man; even on his birthday, he wanted pie. I thought of leaving a slice at his resting place, but he would have thought it a waste of a good pie! My story of pie is sweet and warm and full of strong hands and colors and kitchen music. It is a wonderful story of pie.

Spry Water Whip Pie Crust Recipe

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