As the first few days of the new year pass in the cold and ice and fog , here I sit. Just thinking. Wondering. What did I do this past year? And maybe I should make a resolution or two?
I’m a bit fearful of making promises for myself this year for some reason. With a few big life changes behind me and a few more ahead, I’m sure, I just want to resolve to get through. So for me, New Year’s is like a rear view mirror, tempting me to gaze into it and to look back on what I did, rather than stress about what should change in my days ahead. I really do think that looking back helps me see that this path I’ve walked is so darn purposeful- even though I am such a last minute, lack of detail, go with the flow person who probably appears to others as somewhat of a hot mess.
And as I look back over the year one of the things that keeps standing out is pie.
Pie? (I hear you say I my head)
It is one of the most absolutely, totally scary, new things I did this past year. I made pie.
Ha. It sounds like such a desperate housewife comment as I read it over. But I’m big into small things with big purpose and meaning – and pie has set off fireworks for me.
I’m pretty good cook. I was raised by a fantastic married couple (aka my awesome parents) who on the occasion of their 25th anniversary started traveling the world and bringing back to our kitchen table the most fabulous food and the desire to learn to cook it all. They spent hours recreating delicious flavors that stirred the memories of their adventures hand-in-hand. So, I love food (if you’ve read any of my posts before this isn’t news). And I love the idea of fantastic food coming from my kitchen, and making people smile eating my fantastic food thus creating savory food-laden memories. Mmmmmm
But I’ve never been much of a baker. I have a tradition of decorating cakes for the kids’ birthdays that is indicative of who they are that year. But in full disclosure; the cake itself comes from a box. My mother would be appalled. On the occasion of her passing my 3 sisters and I shared stories about my mom and my sister told the best story about my mom and her baking. I will get the details wrong (proof of my hot mess status) but Sarah was making a cake (I believe) and asked her help regarding using a cake mix, to which my sweet mother said with a sly smile and a twinkle in her eye “well I wouldn’t know dear, I’ve never used a box mix.”
I also remember my mom making pie when I was a young girl. My favorite part was the leftover crust dough that she would slather with butter and cinnamon sugar and bake until perfectly golden. As they came out of the oven it was as if you’d dropped a warm piece of flaky, buttery, sugary heaven in your mouth.
Then when I met my husband, he introduced me to his grandmother, a soft spoken, spunky, beautiful woman who took pie to a whole new level. Grandma Dot was a cook. She didn’t know how to cook for less than 50 people. You’d ask her to make potato salad and she would peel two bags of potatoes minimum. She owned her own restaurant at one time – Dot’s Cafe. It was in a small town in the rolling hills of Northern Illinois. A town with no stoplight, one school and several churches. The counter at Dot’s cafe was where farmers and locals came for coffee and kept the news of the world straight for all to know. Where, if you were lucky, you got to go for a breakfast of hot fresh donuts and where the best strawberry milkshake of your life could top off a homemade meal. And although I never had the good fortune to sit in that establishment, I know the legendary stories of the food that was served there – food that brought people together and inspired memories.
But Grandma Dot was most well known for her pie. In her lifetime she made hundreds of thousands of pies. She had a pie carrier that could carry 8 pies at a time. I watched her do it once. It was almost a religious experience watching her create this beautiful delight of happiness out of a bag of flour and cup of lard. As she aged, her hands curled with the pain of arthritis. And the pie making decreased in quantity but never quality. It was a craft, a calling, a labor of love.
This summer when we visited Grandma, between discussing the insane possibility of seeing her beloved Cubs win a World Series in her lifetime, I had the gumption to ask her if she would tell me how she made her crust. (It really doesn’t matter what’s in it- it’s all about the crust). She immediately rattled off the ingredients and vague directions with no measurements, no specific detail. I feverishly took down her words and decided right then and there I was going to try to make her pie.
At Thanksgiving, we host between 40 and 50 family and surrogate family-friends. It is one of Chris and my favorite days. I typically don’t make any dessert. We do the main dishes and let everyone bring the sides and sweets. But this year pie was on my list. I tracked down lard (did you know you can buy lard?). And gathered the fixings needed to fill the empty shell with my husband’s favorite, coconut cream.
The night before I laid out all the ingredients, pulled up my notes and nearly cried. I was so scared. I had no idea where to start. I didn’t want to dishonor my mom or Grandma Dot by failing. I was paralyzed. So I called Grandma Dot. This was probabaly only the third time I had ever called her on the phone. I asked her to walk me through it. She chuckled a little. “So do I add the water to the egg?” I asked. “Well you can….. ‘course I don’t do it that way but I guess you can.” She said as if to say “kids ask the darndest things.”
She was encouraging and I could hear the smile in her voice. She talked about it as if it were as simple as tying her shoe.
Easy as pie.
How could something be so simple to one person and nauseatingly horrifying to another?
Perspective – that rear view mirror is a beautiful thing.
For Grandma making pie was like breathing – part of the fabric of who she is. It’s a horribly complex process – if you must know. You have to have the perfect consistency and timing. And every pie maker will tell you it’s all in “how it feels.” (Which is absolutely no help when you don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like.)
I wished her a blessed Thanksiving, told her how much we love her, hung up the phone, took a deep breath and made pie. She filled me with love and courage. Just as she had done with so many who had sat at her counter or table.
Just two weeks later, Grandma Dot passed away from a sudden bout of pneumonia. We were (and are) all in shock. Our rock of comfort was suddenly gone. At her funeral, the room was full of stories from her restaurant and the many lives she touched.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that I wrote down her words, called her and tried to honor her by passing on her craft. I didn’t let fear or doubt or just pure laziness get the best of me.
I’m 43 and as I start this new year I look back and see there have been many times I have paused, doubted, worried, even run away when facing a new challenge – wondering if it’s too late for me to start walking a totally new path or even just try something new.
As I read Grandma Dot’s obituary, I realized she started her restaurant when she was just about the age I am now. What if she had decided it was going to be too risky, too much work, or doubted herself just a moment too long? Think of all the memories that would have slipped away. What a tragedy that would have been.
As we laid her to rest I could almost feel her beside me, whispering in my ear – “go do it – go make more pie.”
So I resolve to be risky, doubt myself more, enjoy the fear, carry on traditions, feed people, do what I’m good at, look forward to next year’s rear view mirror – and make more pie.
It won’t always be easy … but that’s ok. Nothing worth doing is.
It will be “easy as pie”.
God bless you and thank you Grandma.