At Home With Joyce Maynard
My Mother’s Pie: A Meditation
There is a thing I do when life feels too hard and too stressful. I like to pour myself a glass of wine or (and sometimes I do this also) I may go for the chocolate. But the best way I know to take away an anxious feeling, or an angry one, or a distracting preoccupation, is to tie an apron around my waist, reach for the flour, salt and shortening along with my two biggest Fiesta-ware bowls, my wood-handled pastry blender, my mother’s Pyrex pie dish and her rolling pin — and make a pie. (Six tart firm apples will come later. So will my box of Minute Tapioca and a length of wax paper. The sugar, cinnamon, and milk. But first things first. Pie starts with crust.)
It’s the crust that serves as the container, not only for the pie, but for the pie-making experience, and it’s the crust that contains me when my emotions spill over the edges of my day. Some people I know — those who bemoan the mysteries of making crust — head for the store-bought kind in the freezer case as a means of avoiding stress, but for me the act of rolling out the dough is a way of bringing calm and order to a troubled mind. However tense or upset I may be, when I set out to make a pie it’s a safe bet that by the time I’m brushing milk over the top crust and pinching the edges, opening the oven door and sliding in my pie pan, life will be looking up. More often than not, it is this knowledge that leads me to make a pie in the first place.
I’ve probably made a few thousand pies over my lifetime of baking. (Good crust is what I focus on. The part of pie that is, for most, the challenge.) But it has only recently occurred to me that as much as I bake, to serve my guests, and offer up the gift of great dessert made by my hands, there is another reason equally compelling as to why I bake. For me, the ritual of making pie serves as a meditation.
I made a few pies in my younger years, but the moment when I got serious about pie came the year I turned 35, when my mother — famous for her great pie — was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at age 66.
That summer I spent taking care of her, I baked a lot of pies. This was partly for her, because she was a lover of good food, and food was one of the last pleasures she could still enjoy. And, partly, I baked for the many friends who came to see her in those final months. Every day, more friends. Every day, another pie.
Many times, over that heartbreaker of a summer, one of my mother’s friends would take me aside, as she was making her way toward the door, and tell me how they’d miss my mother. And her pie.
It was a scene that must have been repeated at least a dozen times: “Could you write down the recipe?” this friend would ask. And I would have to explain, again, that when it comes to good pie crust, the recipe is never the secret. It’s how you handle the dough, and the only way to do that well may be to watch a good pie baker at work. That’s when I started teaching pie. That was twenty-five years ago. Since then, I’ve probably taught a thousand people how to bake a pie. One at a time, sometimes. And sometimes there were twenty people in my kitchen all at once, all rolling out their crust, and calling out for help.
Oddly, perhaps, this never feels stressful to me. There’s something invariably calming — reassuring even — in the series of actions I go through when I make a pie — the peeling of the apples, the cutting in of shortening, the rolling out, the patching (Heel of the hand, I always say. The perfect, built in, baking tool.)
I often bake pie surrounded by other people making pies, but what I love best is when I’m all alone in my kitchen. I may be tired, or worried about one of my children, or thinking over a problem with my work. I may have just learned that my house needs a new roof, my car needs a transmission, a friend’s marriage has ended, or I may have had a disagreement with someone I love.
This is when I feel for my pie tools. I take out my knife, and begin the quiet, solitary act of removing the peel from the apple, the way I must have seen my mother do a thousand times when I was growing up.
Then I’m back there with her. And I am with her that summer she was dying, too, and with the friends who came to her house, after, so I could teach them how to make the pie. I’m 36 years old, and my husband has just left. I’m 40, and my teenage daughter and I are at odds. I’m 44, and I’ve just learned that all my savings were wiped out. I’m 48, and my youngest child has just left home for Africa.
Lay it all end to end — the dough I’ve rolled, the pies, the friends to whom I’ve served pie, with whom I’ve baked pie, the tarts and turnovers and tiny, child-sized pies for the children of friends who’ve come to bake — and there would be a mile of pie, a sky-high pie. Pie, squared, and squared again, and pi–r-squared of pie.
Every pie I make connects me with every other time I made a pie and every other friend with whom I baked one. Most of all though, when I make pie I am back in my mother’s kitchen and she is there with me — a woman younger than I am now, rolling out the dough; shaking the Minute Tapioca in the bottom crust; patching the top with that amazing thing: the heel of her own hand; bending low over the oven to lift out her perfect flaky pie.