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I bake pies, which puts me in a class with people who play the harpsichord or spin wool or read Latin. Pie baking is a lost art, according to my mother and pie mentor. It’s a dying enterprise, according to a food-company executive I once interviewed for a newspaper article. "Every time a hearse goes down the street, there goes one of our customers," he said, explaining why the passing of little old ladies was bad for his firm’s pie filling business. His remark was tasteless, but I put it in my story because I figured that little old ladies have the right to know the type of operation their pie-filling dollars support.
Not that I’m an advocate for pie filling. I make my own pie crust, and I refuse to ruin the anachronism by opening a can. Besides, the filling is usually simple to concoct, especially for a fruit pie. Peaches and apples can be peeled, sliced and mixed with sugar in only a few minutes. Blueberries can be practically dumped right in. But cherries, those hard-hearted fruits, are a different story. It takes forever to pit enough cherries to make a pie. And fresh cherries must be soaked in ice water to keep them firm while they await their evisceration, which means that that even on the hottest July day, your fingers will ache with cold by the time your "pitless" bowl is full.
I have pitted cherries for only two pies, the first of which I gave to a man I had been dating for just two months. Because he was so wonderful, I hardly noticed how my fingers bled with cherry juice and my back throbbed from the repetitive motion of my paring knife. This man was surprised and pleased with the steaming pie. Cherry! His favorite! He ate greedily, and as the molecules of fruit, sugar, flour and shortening passed from his gut to his blood and pumped through his heart, they did something that no amount of hoochie-coo had heretofore accomplished. My eventual husband, dizzy on pie a la mode, told me that he loved me.
The next summer I once again sat in our (formerly his) backyard with a bowl of water, cherries and ice cubes. But I complained the whole pitting time to the neighbor girl who had stopped by to play with the dog. The honeymoon was over.
I still make cherry pies, however, and my husband still swoons. But now I use frozen, pre-pitted cherries that my father brings from his home in Traverse City, Michigan, the Cherry Capital of the World. Although vastly more convenient, the frozen cherries nevertheless must be cooked. I consider that an advantage because when a guest asks if I made my cherry pie from scratch, I can still say, “Why, yes.” Did I make the crust, too? “Well, it’s really not that hard,” I say, smug. The women in the room comment approvingly and express their amazement and inferiority, even as they think, “Thank God I’ve got better things to do than make pie crust!” I understand. I feel the same mix of admiration and bemusement toward women who knit sweaters or make their own Christmas decorations. And yet, I can’t stop with the pies. When invited to a potluck, I very often take a pie, not just because I like to eat pies or because I’ve gotten fairly good at making them, but because I figure mine will be the only pie – or at least the only from-scratch pie – at the dessert table. There it will glow like the Statue of Liberty at dawn, overshadowing the masses of brownies and M&M cookies, beckoning the hungry. The pie, once the proud symbol of democracy, has become my personal attention-getting device.
Motherhood and apple pie. As American as apple pie. Bye, bye Miss American Pie. The pie is fast becoming history, and its decline is not simply a consequence of the shrinking population of housewives, little old ones or otherwise. Plenty of working people still bake, and they bake things more complicated than pies. Cookies, for example, must be put on and taken off a baking sheet several times before a batch is finished. Cakes, just when they are cool enough to eat, are supposed to be frosted. But pies are done as soon as they come out of the oven; they generally require few ingredients and, with a little practice, can be quickly made. And yet the pie dies, killed, I maintain, by mass-produced crusts so hideous that they have removed pie from the American gastronomic imagination. Commercial bakeries roll out their pie crusts like asphalt, entombing fruit filling in a quarter-inch of flour and fat, forcing the pie-eater to disinter the sweet insides and leave the rest, unsatisfied. With this as its prototype, the pie is doomed.
And yet it doesn’t have to be. My crusts are as thin as skin, rising and falling as the pies bake and cool, breathing puffs of fruity steam. As my mother taught me, I use only half the recipe to make both the top and bottom crusts -- only one cup of flour, one-third cup of shortening. Crusts this delicate are tricky to handle, and my pies are not always pretty. But my mother's crusts were almost always beautiful, so lovely that I pestered her for years to enter an apple pie, her specialty, in Michigan's State Fair. She demurred. I persisted. "Think what you could do for the cause of thin crusts,” I said, appealing to her reformist spirit. "You really owe it to the people." I finally quit my campaign, but it was more successful than I realized. My father told me recently that my mother, who couldn't even talk about lard-laden crusts without making a face, had contacted Fair officials and gotten all the necessary paperwork. If they hadn't moved from Detroit, where the Fair is held, she probably would have entered the contest, my father said.
I once made a blue-ribbon pie -- two pies, actually, both peach perfection. Each piece of fruit used for those pies was at its prime, juicy but not soft, as sweet as sunshine. Sacrificing these exquisite peaches to the oven when I craved them raw wasn't easy, but I was invited to a picnic and I decided to show off. As it happened, the kitchen goddess was on my side that day: My crust required no patching, no peach juice bubbled down the side of the pan, and I pulled my pies from the oven just as the tops blushed gold. I left one pie on the counter to cool and carried the other in the car, on a towel on my lap. Picnic guests raved, but my husband and I ate no pie. "We have another whole one at home," we bragged. But, of course, this story does not end happily. We returned home to find an empty pie plate, licked spotlessly clean, somehow still on the counter, and a contented dog, who didn’t even have the decency to get sick from so much fruit and sugar.
"Pride goeth before a fall," my mother would mock preach, or, sometimes, "Don’t get the big head." I told her my dog-eats-pie story again during one of my extended visits to Traverse City when we made a peach pie for dinner guests. She told me her tips for making pie crust, which I'd heard many times. Use ice water in the dough. Chill the dough before you roll it out. Put your rolling pin and pastry cloth in the refrigerator so they're cold, too. Sprinkle lemon juice on the apples if they aren’t tart enough. She felt relatively strong that day and so rolled out the crust for her last pie. My mother, who had never smoked, who watched her health, who was only 62, died like they said she would six months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. She would not or could not acknowledge that she was dying, even at the end, and we did not push her to spill words. But she seemed eager to respond when I asked her advice on making pie crusts or raising children or even doing the laundry. It was my meager attempt to sum up all I'd learned from her, my acknowledgement of my coming loss.
On the first anniversary of my mother's death, I baked an apple pie. I had found at the market some Northern Spy apples, which my mother recommended because they hold their texture while baking and are not too juicy. Still, the filling of this pie oozed free and smoked in the oven, and the crust burned black-brown around the edges. I fretted that I had managed to bake my usual pie even on this significant occasion. But I also pictured my mother waving her hand dismissively, saying, “It just takes practice.” A congenital teacher, she didn’t expect learning to come quickly and had planned herself to have many more years to master the subjects that interested her. But pies she had conquered. Perhaps that’s one reason why when there were so many other ways I could have memorialized her that day -- read T.S. Eliot or the letters of Abigail Adams; written a check to the Democrats or volunteered at a school; planted some daisies or had a neighbor over for tea – all I wanted to do was bake a pie.
My mother sent me her apple pie recipe, typed in a letter, when I was a high school exchange student in Sweden. I used that version for years, and it is dappled with Crisco and apple juice. But when my mother got sick, I copied down her formula and instructions and put away the original recipe for a keepsake. On the back of that scrap of paper I found the last paragraph of my mother's letter, which I had not read since it came to me across the ocean some 20 years ago. There she had written how much she missed me and how glad she was to have a daughter.
Janet Lively is a journalist and English composition instructor at Northwestern Michigan College. Her essay first appeared in Traverse Magazine.
Memorial Day by Janet Lively is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.