Mother liked to say that Dad married her for her pies. And they were some pies. I know because I grew up on them. The undulating edges of Mother’s crusts were never hard. They flaked on the fork and melted on the tongue. She used margarine and Crisco and a secret pinch of baking powder, an ingredient she never divulged when asked to share her recipe. Mother, indeed, never passed on any of her recipes without quietly altering them in some way. “I always change something,” she’d say, with a childish sense of scandal in her voice, “and then people wonder why their pies don’t taste as good as mine.” In the eyes of my father and in those of family and friends, Mother was the Queen of Pies and of the kitchen in general, a modest source of power that she was invested in maintaining.
Mother easily turned out superior versions of pastry classics such as apple and lemon meringue, but just as often her pies came from an older, more rural, world—the 1920s farmlands of North Dakota where she grew up. There was sweet and sour rhubarb with a sugary crust; pale green, and rather mouth twisting gooseberry; and raisin, almost deadly in its dark, dense sweetness even when lightened with custard or sour cream. I liked the milder taste of deep purple boysenberry, but Dad’s favorite was cherry, a lava flow of a pie, thick with fruit and cherried gel.
On holidays, when we sat at the same table, Dad ate those pies with lip-smacking relish. “Your mother’s pies . . .” he would begin, wiggling his eyebrows at me, but the pie was calling him, and he’d return to his generously laden fork. Dessert was my favorite part of the meal as well, a moment when the undiluted pleasures of pastry and fruity sweetness drew our family together. But despite the ritual comforts of those wondrous pies, I would come to the joys of baking as much despite my mother as because of her.
Mother scorned recipes and baked “by ear,” a hard legacy to pass down, even if she’d been eager to do so. She’d stand at the counter, a sturdy woman, her brown hair swept back into Forties-style rolls, and she’d be mixing fruit with aromatic spices and I’d asked, “What’s in that?”
“Oh, just apples, cinnamon, and sugar,” she’d say. “I don’t use a recipe.” This with a proud lift in her voice. The few times she did agree to show me what to do, the vagueness of her instructions left me feeling frustrated and inept.
“Cut the apples this thick,” she said pointing to the bowl with her paring knife. How thick is that? I wondered. “Then add sugar.” Here, she scooped the sugar from the white canister with a measuring cup but didn’t measure.
“How much sugar is that?”
“This much,” she said. “Then you sprinkle on some cinnamon.” She dashed some cinnamon in the bowl.
“How much cinnamon?”
“About this much. I don’t measure.” Then, in rapid order, she mixed the fruit, eased it into her pie shell, dotted it with butter, laid a crust on top, and crimped and slashed the pastry to perfection. Baking was a gift, she seemed to feel, that should come as easily to me as it had come to her.
Although she owned three cookbooks, I never saw her use them, and the recipe cards she occasionally did take out and place upon our yellow kitchen counter contained the most minimal of directions. One cookie recipe read “mix together, drop on cookie sheet, and bake.” What happened to “cream the sugar and butter,” I wonder as I examine it now. What about the temperature of the oven, and, hello, how long should they stay in?
In the end I too would learn to bake, but not until my twenties, when I lived far away from home, and not without the detailed directions of Julia Child. Even then I dared embark upon this path only because I felt convinced that French desserts were as foreign to my mother as was France. Both would have seemed foreign to her, that is, if she had ever thought about either one (which I feel pretty certain she never did). My continuing struggles with my distant mother would render me too anxious to make anything in the kitchen that reminded me of her. (I was unable to roast a turkey until late in life.) But with Mastering the Art of French Cooking I was free to explore a new frontier. Child’s Tarte Normande Aux Pommes (apple tart with creamy custard and apple brandy) and her Tarte aux Cerises (black cherry tart with Bordeaux and almond custard) were worlds away from my mother’s homey apple, raisin, cherry. Just to be sure I flambéed the cherry tart.