Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lessons of the Pie Crust


Everyone loves a fresh baked pie, especially the buttery crunch of the crust. In our family, we would fight over an orphan piece of crust, the six of us, and our Dad, who taught us this appreciation.

Once, when I was about ten and sweetly unaware of the life pressures that prevented Mom from finishing a pie, she let me, well, my sister, Theresa, and me, eat a whole crust! We had smelled the golden treat baking two days before in the kitchen of our Baltimore row house. Small and simple, the kitchen had a table with only three chairs, but a large window with a swag curtain that gave Mom easy access to holler us home from the alley, or yell, “Donna, tie your brother’s shoe.” Of course, once we knew she was watching, we’d holler back, “Hey Mom, look at me.”

I had watched my mother flip and gently press the tender dough on the Formica counter. She sprinkled white flour like fairy dust and rolled her pin this way and that, ball bearings jiggling with each new run. Once it was thin and round, she flopped it into the glass pie dish and tucked in the unruly edges. Then she fluted it into a perfect zigzag, a skill she’d eventually teach to all of us, and to our kids. After a quick rinse of her hands and a swipe on her apron, she tapped fork holes, just so, all along the bottom. “So it can breathe,” she said as she popped it into the oven for the pastry gods to bless.

The rich aroma filled the house, but Mom never finished it. No strawberries, no apples. No can of pumpkin in sight.
“When will it be ready?” we whined after the golden brown pie shell sat on the white corner cabinet for two days. It begged to be eaten, and we begged back.
Mom stopped sorting laundry, pushed a loose hairpin back into her dark French twist and pleaded, “Please, girls,”

What was it, I wonder now, that prevented her from finishing? I asked her once - was it the endless financial pressures? Was it the time my older sister one almost eloped? Or when another wrecked the company car? Or, perhaps it was when the youngest, a dog lover, was attacked in a neighbor’s yard because he didn’t (or maybe couldn’t?) read “Beware of Dog”?

She didn’t remember. And it was not likely to have been one of those memorable events, it is more apt to have been the everyday heaviness of life … running the household on a shoestring; raising six children, polite and nice but self-centered and full of their own angst; or attending to a neighbor’s need.

I guess life can simply get in the way of itself. She couldn’t fit in finishing a pie, and couldn’t see when she might.

So, two days after she baked that crust, while Theresa and I did our homework at the kitchen table Mom peered over at us from her sink full of dishes. Before I could assure her, “I am so doing my homework,” she asked, “Would you two like to eat that crust?”
Our eyes lit up. “Yeah!” we said in unison.
“Oh, go on and eat it,” she said. I can almost see her smile as she returned to her work -- barely a break in the rhythm.

Oh, we were thrilled! We began to gobble it up quickly. After all, things in our family were never given without methodical division. And we knew someone could walk in any minute wanting to share a piece. The first bites tasted scrumptious and melted in our mouths. But as it disappeared we became uncharacteristically generous.
“You finish it,” Theresa said.
“No, you can have the rest.” I said, and wandered away from the table.

It’s taken me fifty-some years to realize just how many lessons I learned from that simple experience. For one, the crust tasted good because of the contrast it offered the filling -- without the filling the pie lost its balance - all yin and no yang. And “special” presumes limited opportunity. While eating the whole thing felt special, and memorable, the crust itself ceased to be. I ate most of it, of course, but deep down I began to see just how small of a jump it is from not quite enough, to far too much. But most of all, and I might say, best of all, I began to recognize that it was my mother’s attention that was the real gift.

So now - especially now - I find myself deeply grateful that we had so many days with fewer burdens. Days, when, after a meal with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, she could present us with a fragrant, fully baked pie to fight over.

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