I have to get dirty when baking. If I haven’t left floury handprints on the cabinets and refrigerator, I haven’t done it right. I like to be impulsive while making pie, but it’s not really meant for that. With pie you have to be precise, you have to wait. Ensure the butter is cold and the dough has had time to chill. I make up for the precision by using my hands. Combine the sugared flour and butter with my fingertips, extrude it through my fists. Aerate the pebbly mixture; lift it up in handfuls so it falls back through my fingers like sand. I like the ache in my arms from pressing the dough together after adding buttermilk or vinegar or water and stirring. I like the marbling of cold butter through dough after it’s rolled, the curved edges I make with my forefinger and thumbs.
I can’t write about pie without sharing this anecdote, the one my mom loves to roll out whenever the topic is raised. It goes like this:
I was just old enough to speak a little, just old enough to totter around the house following my dad. He must have told me he was going to make a pie, and for the rest of the day (or week, depending on the retelling) I watched him attentively. He opened the fridge and took out bread for a sandwich, “Is it for the pie?” I asked at his heels. He plucked some tomatoes from their cages in the yard, “Is it for the pie?” I asked from his side. He boiled some water for tea, “Is it for the pie?” I asked, sitting on the kitchen floor.
I watched as he floured the counter and worked the dough, felt the heat rush from the oven as he opened it and slid the pie inside. He left the light on so I could see it bake, sitting on the wooden footstool I think my parents still own.
When the pie was baked and cooled and cut and served to me on a plate I took one bite of the long anticipated thing and said, “Don’t like pie.”
Here’s another one:
The first time I tried to make pie myself I was maybe 13 and it was summertime and nobody was home. The blinds were drawn in the kitchen to keep out the heat and while looking through our cabinets I found a can of pumpkin pie filling and I thought it would be easy. I figured pie dough was mainly just flour and water so I made some up and lined my mom’s blue and white stoneware dish with the stuff. I’d seen her blind bake a quiche shell once, so I knew where the garbanzo beans to hold it down were kept. Into the oven the dough went, pierced many times over and covered in beans.
When it started to change into a golden approximation of crust, I lifted out the parchment and the garbanzo beans and poured the filling in, spreading it thinly over the large shell. The kitchen smelled delicious, and I was proud of myself and my baking intuition. Of course, when I pulled it out of the oven and tried to cut a slice I was met with great resistance. I tried every knife in the block but my dough had turned to cement. I gave up and spooned the warm filling into my mouth. Turns out the can of pumpkin pie filling hadn’t been the ready-made kind where you don’t have to add evaporated milk, eggs, or spices, but merely pumpkin puree. Oops, but at least I’d tried.
That summer I earned a little money helping out our elderly neighbor Marie, who lived a few houses down. She was in her eighties and couldn’t easily carry her vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs. On the weekends I vacuumed her house, cut birds of paradise from the bush in her yard and arranged them in a vase on her dining room table, dusted her bookshelves, tried to scrape off the thick sap that leaked from the birds of paradise and had collected and hardened on her dining room table, cleaned her fish tank, and things like that. I told Marie about the pie I’d made that afternoon, expecting some praise for my sense of adventure but she laughed and said “Oh, you must be a horrible baker. Who doesn’t know how to make pie crust?” I was stunned and affronted in my maybe 13 year old way. I finished my tasks in heavy teenaged silence, then went home and threw the pie in the garbage.
The final one:
It wasn’t until I lived by myself in a little apartment in Ukraine that I really started making pies. I bought a pumpkin from a babushka at the market, roasted it, scooped out the flesh and mixed it with condensed milk, eggs, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and allspice. The crust was unembellished and the filling was flecked with little bits of burnt pumpkin and it had nothing on the spectacularly huge double crust apple pie a friend had made for the ex-pat Thanksgiving held in a tiny town up north. I spent that winter learning what cold really means and keeping myself warm in the kitchen, experimenting with all butter crusts and getting my hands dirty. In the summer I used a paperclip to pull the pits out of mountains of cherries and I practiced my latticework, my fingertips stained a deep purple.
I dash around my kitchen with flour covered hands and make last minute buttermilk from an imprecise mix of whole milk and lemon juice. I find a way to use every bowl in my possession. There’s always something that could be better: the bottom is too soggy or too hard, the fruit gave off too much liquid in the oven or the flake isn’t pronounced enough. But every time it’s different, better. I like pie.
Jenny Alton dirties dishes and rides bikes. RPCV Ukraine ’11-’13, she’s currently an MFA candidate at SFSU and Assistant Fiction Editor at Fourteen Hills: The San Francisco State University Review.