I'm not saying I come from a food-oriented family or anything. But when I was in my mid-30s, Dad took me aside. His tone was serious as he asked me to promise him I'd learn to make pie. I can't say I was too surprised.
Dad's thing with pie may have started because his own mother, my grandmother, didn't bake. He loved to tell how, as newlyweds, he and Mom lived for a brief time with his parents. Grandma came home from work the first afternoon and was aghast when she saw what her new daughter-in-law had done.
"It's just an apple pie," my mother said, bewildered.
"I've had that stove for 15 years, my grandmother huffed, "and that's the first time the oven has been turned on!"
Years later, a visiting toddler gave us all a lesson in how to express culinary appreciation. He finished a piece of Mom's pie then, ceremoniously, kissed his empty plate. "That's the way I feel," my dad said. "I only wish I'd thought of it myself!"
Dad radiated contentment with a piece of Mom's pie before him. I think to him it was tangible evidence of her love, something like getting a heart-shaped box of chocolates on any day but Valentine's Day.
When he asked for my promise, was he presenting what he considered to be the true secret to marital bliss?
What did I say to his request? I thought about it a long moment, then hedged my bets: "I'll try," I said. No one could say I haven't.
I tried every "easy" and "foolproof" recipe I found. No success. I gave it up. But then it was summer. Peach season. They were particularly good that year. Juicy. Sweet. Downright inspiring. So I got out a trusted cookbook and set to. We did have peach pie for dessert that night. Of course, it took me a full eight hours (and two long-distance calls to Mom) to make. The crust was patched together, thick and doughy in some spots, thin, black, and crispy in others. But it was better than my first 27 tries, the ones in the garbage can.
"Well?" I said to my husband.
He forked in his last mouthful. He meditated. Finally he said, "Those peaches were great."
About that time, we bought a food processor. Even I could make a food- processor crust, I figured. And I could. The dough went together in a snap. But I couldn't roll the thing out to save my life.
I became a fan of the pie crusts you can buy at the store, folded and ready to plop in a pan. They're easy. They look impressive. But they don't taste like something you'd kiss the plate for.
We went home to visit. Now, you've got to picture this. My mom is almost ready to dish up dinner and she'll say, "Hmmm, I think I'll throw together a pie for dessert." About two minutes later, she's slinging the pie pan in the oven. All through dinner my nose anticipates the warm, tender pie I'll be diving into soon.
My husband and I persuaded Mom to give us lessons. It was a little more complicated than it sounds, because:
1. Mom had to slow down her sleight of hand for our benefit, similar to an illusionist teaching a toddler his best trick.
2. The recipe was in Mom's head and not in what you could call standard measurements: "You fill my old blue mixing bowl - the one my sister found at Goodwill - about a quarter full of flour, and add a sprinkle of salt. Take the cup you made me in the sixth grade and pour milk, oh, about to the monkey's foot. No, to the monkey's knee, I guess. Add oil to the 'O' in 'MOM'...." Which meant we had to write things down after we figured out a translation.
WHEN I remember that day, I picture the three of us in Mom's kitchen, with her wall clock's hands zooming around the dial. I honestly don't know how many hours we toiled at it. Mom's forehead pleated like a skirt as she watched me pummel the dough. "But," she'd say, "there's nothing to it. Really. It's easy..."
Simple as pie, right? Right.
The truth is, I can't mix the dough. I can't roll out the dough. And I sure can't fit the dough into the pan, or over the filling.
They say a mother should never give up on her child. But I'm a reasonable person. And I know when Mom snatched the dough from me that last time and said, "This is absolutely fruitless," that she wasn't punning. And I'm fairly sure she still loves me, even though she gave me that "They must have switched babies on me in the hospital" look.
I think she was making a philosophical statement, woman to woman. I believe she was telling me, in her own way, to cut my losses and get on with my life. Because, one thing is plain: I will never be able to make pie crust like Mom does. I've come to terms with other things I won't be able to accomplish in this lifetime. Like parallel parking. And sewing one of those "Make It Tonight" patterns in less than three weeks of sweaty drudgery. Or being able to sing so well that my husband will stop offering me money not to. So I can learn to live with this.
My mate, on the other hand, got an A+ in crust lessons. So, as he reaches for the flour, I meekly ask, "Shall I fix the fruit?"
You know, maybe Dad had something there. Because when my husband makes the crust and I mix the filling, and we sit down together to devour the results, a luscious warmth fills our kitchen. And our hearts. Any plate-kisser worth his crust could tell you what that feeling is.
I'm almost sure he'd call it marital bliss.