Personal essays on women, food, and family. . . .

A heavily edited version of the following essay, published as "Piecrust with Soul," is included in Storied Dishes: What our Family Recipes Tell Us about Who We Are and Where We’ve Been, ed. Linda Murray Berzok The original essay, without unauthorized editorial intervention, appears here in full.

"Soul Food"

Sometimes I blame piecrust for my failed marriage.  I know I shouldn’t, of course—bad pastry wasn’t the reason everything went so wrong.  And yet, even now, I like to think it was involved somehow.

Everything had started so well.  Shortly after I was married, my mother-in-law handed over Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to me.  I was thrilled.  But somehow neither the holidays nor my marriage went quite as well as I thought they should.  I found that making piecrust wasn’t quite as simple as it looked either.  My first effort wound up producing dry, crumbly dough.  I had to press the chunks into the pie plate with my fingers, smoothing the lumps and sealing up the cracks the best I could.  The pumpkin filling still seeped underneath the crust and burned onto the bottom of the pan.  The next time I made piecrust, the dough I produced was so gooey it stuck to the rolling pin.  By the time I had scraped off enough for a lattice top, it looked as if I had laid worms across the top of the mincemeat.

Over the years, my marriage and my piecrust went from bad to worse, and I began dreading the arrival of the holidays.  I started worrying in October, then in August, then on my birthday in July.  No one said to forget about the pie and make a German chocolate cake instead—or fudgy, pecan-filled brownies or a golden-topped crème brûlée.  And for whatever reason, I didn’t forget about pie either.  I look back now and wonder who that woman was, that woman who thought perfect pastry would solve everything.

My failures made me desperate.  I tried every recipe I could find.  There was piecrust made with hot water and shortening and piecrust made from cold milk and oil.  I made piecrust with vinegar and piecrust from a flour-and-water paste.  I tried making piecrust with butter, then piecrust with lard.  I followed recipes for piecrust with egg and piecrust with cream cheese and piecrust with sour cream and piecrust with buttermilk.  I weighed the flour instead of measuring it, I pulsed the dough in the food processor, I chilled the dough overnight.

I could have written a book.  I should have written a book—but who would buy a cookbook about how not to make piecrust?  A book filled with recipes for failure?

In desperation, I finally asked my mother for help.  For once she made no comment about my request, just said that she felt like making a lemon meringue pie and that I could watch her if I wanted.  Only when I was seated at her kitchen table, ready to take detailed notes, did I realize that my mother didn’t measure the ingredients—she threw things together until her dough felt right.  A few deft strokes with a rolling pin and her translucent pastry shell slid obligingly into the waiting pie plate.

In the end I resorted to subterfuge:  I bought frozen pie shells at Albertson’s.  I snuck them home, hid them in the back of the refrigerator to defrost, waited until I was alone to pry them out of their aluminum tins and lay them carefully into my own Pyrex pans, then re-crimped the edges.  I hid the disposable pans in the garbage cans behind the garage.  The piecrust was horrible.  No one noticed.

After I left my marriage, I thought I had solved my piecrust problem:  I would never make pie again.  As it turned out, I did leave my piecrust problem behind, but not the way I thought—one summer day, just a few months after I was divorced, I picked a bucket of blueberries and felt like making pie.  My piecrust came together beautifully, rolled out perfectly, and that was that.  It didn’t take any special ingredient or technique, just the basic recipe in my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking.

Today I can’t explain the Great Piecrust Struggle, and I try not to think about it too often.  On occasion I remember my mother muttering something about piecrust and “the state of your soul” during that long-ago piecrust tutorial.  I had been too busy trying to take notes to pay much attention to what she was saying. 

But now I am paying attention.  And so when I sat down at my laptop to write this piece, I asked my mother for help.  She made no comment about my request, just sent along her recipe for lemon meringue pie.

Mom’s Lemon Meringue Pie

I don’t know where my mother first got this recipe, but she has always loved lemon meringue pie, and this has been her favorite version for as long as I can remember.  This is the pie she made when I asked for a piecrust tutorial.  The recipe calls for a baked, cooled piecrust.  Any piecrust will do—and if you’ve having problems, you can even make the filling and forget about the crust!

3 egg yolks

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1/3 cup lemon juice (2 to 3 lemons)

1 cup sugar

4 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups boiling water

2 tablespoons butter

1 baked, cooled pie shell

Stir together the egg yolks, lemon peel, and lemon juice, then set it aside.  In a saucepan, mix together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt.  Gradually stir in the boiling water.  Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.  Once the mixture has come to a boil, continue to boil and stir until the mixture is clear and smoothly thickened, about 3 minutes.  Add some of the hot mixture to the egg-and-lemon mixture in order to temper the egg (so it won’t cook); once the egg-and-lemon mixture has been warmed, slowly add the remainder of the hot mixture, stirring well.  Return the filling mixture to the saucepan and bring it to a boil again, letting it cook for about 2 minutes more.  Remove the lemon filling from the heat and stir the butter into the hot mixture.  Let the filling cool 5 minutes, pour it into the pie shell, and top with meringue.

Mom’s “Magic” Meringue

This recipe for meringue is a relatively new addition to my mom’s favorite pie.  I don’t know why she thinks this meringue is “magic,” but it makes an impressive topping for her lemon pie.

3 egg whites

3 tablespoons ice water

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoons sugar

Beat the egg whites to light peaks, then add the ice water and baking power, beating the egg whites until they are very stiff—a fork will stand alone in the meringue when it is stiff enough.  Then add the sugar slowly, one tablespoon at a time, beating constantly. 

When the sugar has been incorporated into the meringue, spread it over the pie, being sure to seal all the edges around the pie shell with meringue.

Bake the pie at 400° for 6 to 8 minutes, just until the meringue is golden.  Keep your eye on the pie, because you don’t want the meringue to burn.

 . . . . . .

 From “‘Family Liked 1956’: My Mother’s Recipes”

“For most, a recipe is a straightforward exercise in giving directions: a list of ingredients, step-by-step instructions, perhaps a few serving suggestions.  But for my mother, a recipe presents an opportunity to experiment with composing as well as cooking.  Her recipes are exercises in narration, description, analysis, even argument. . . .”

In Through the Kitchen Window: Women Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking, ed. Arlene Voski Avakian

 

 

 

From the publisher:  “These days any woman knows that the sensual pleasures of food and cooking are all too often obscured by the increasing demands of careers, families, battles over body image, and the desire for a life outside the “traditional” domain of the kitchen. Through the Kitchen Window offers a fresh look at food and cooking, arguing that food is a cultural declaration, an expression of hidden hungers, a symbol of our intimate connections to one another.  Including memories of Latina, Geechee, Chinese and Indian kitchens, this book reveals everything from the painful struggles to overcome an eating disorder to the tantalizing delights of cornbread and barbecue eaten from a lover's hands, and challenges assumptions about women, food, and the true satisfaction of cooking.

 

“A fascinating anthology of ground-roots cuisine from unknown kitchen heroines!”—John Whiting, News Editor of Fine Food Digest

 

“A yummy anthology of female culinary writing, which has the good taste to order up a whole range of experiences.”—Entertainment Weekly

 

“a feast of musings”—The Orlando Sentinel 

 Available in hardbound or paperback. To purchase, click here.