Making that first pie crust showed me the relationship between flour and fat, how to judge the amount of each by sight, and how the two, in ideal proportions, can produce a flaky, melt-in-the-mouth pastry. The salt and water play relatively minor roles, salt for flavor, water simply to hold everything together so it can be rolled out.
At my mom's side, I learned how the dough should look and how it should feel. Even more important, I learned confidence in the only way it can really be learned – by doing, rather than by observing.
I didn't realize then, but later I came to know that what I was learning that afternoon went far beyond how to make pastry for pie. My mom was teaching me how to cook in the broadest sense. She was inviting me to simply go ahead and do it, and by trying and failing along the way, to learn to trust myself.
That first pie crust was OK – not great, but promising. With practice, each one was better than the one before, and, eventually, I didn't even have to think about what I was doing as I made pastry dough for both savory and sweet pies and tarts.
I remembered that long-ago afternoon with Mom recently when I was visiting my sister, Peg, in Wisconsin. We decided to make an apple pie for dessert the day before I was to drive back to New York after Missy, my Welsh Springer Spaniel, and I had spent a week with my mom in St. Paul, Minn.
It was happy culinary collaboration, that pie. We'd bought some McIntosh and Granny Smith apples, three of each as I remember. While Peg peeled and sliced the apples very thinly, I made the pie-crust pastry.