A slice of family life: learning to make apple pie


I HAD A MEMORABLE kitchen table experience recently. I spent an afternoon with my mom sitting at our kitchen table steeping myself in the fine points of pie making and in the small stories of our family history.

We peeled apples and made pie dough while listening to a homemade tape recording that told what life was like around 1904 in my grandmother's hometown of Cahirciveen, in Ireland's county Kerry.

At times the scene struck me as so homey and nostalgic it seemed like it should be in a Spencer Tracy movie. But it was real life in Baltimore. And by the end of the afternoon an apple pie had emerged from the oven, and I had learned more about a few of the folks who preceded me on this planet.

When my mother came into town from the Kansas City suburbs, I took a few days off work. I wanted to show her around Baltimore and I wanted to be sure to spend some time with her learning how to make pie dough.

I was motivated by hunger and guilt. At any given moment, a hankering for homemade pie can strike me. At hours of the day when I probably should be worrying about the global financial crisis, I instead find myself worrying about whether that last piece of pie will still be on the kitchen counter when I get home from work. Usually the answer is no. Especially if the kids get home before I do.

To keep the homemade pies and the good times coming, I have, over the years, become a cheerleader urging the prime pie makers in my life -- my wife and my mother -- to keep up their good work.

But lately I began to feel guilty about my limited, albeit enthusiastic, role as a pie eater, not a pie baker. One reason for my guilt was that I had recently been out on the stump urging the masses to bake more homemade pies. I was doing this in my new role as an author, which I have begun to realize is a role that could also be described as "shameless huckster." While peddling the book ("Raising Kids & Tomatoes," The Baltimore Sun, 1998, $11.95), I found myself repeatedly voicing my belief that America would be a better place to live in if we baked more homemade pies. Eventually I realized that if I was going to preach about the benefits of homemade pies, I should learn how to make them, not just eat them.

So under my mother's tutelage I made an apple pie. First we peeled the tart, Granny Smith apples, sliced them and covered them with sugar and cinnamon. As we worked on the apples, Irish voices trilled from a tape recorder. The tape, reminiscences of life in the old country, had been made by a cousin now living in California. The cousin had sent the tape to my mother, who had carried it with her to Baltimore. Family stories, like recipes, get passed along.

There was nothing startling on the tape. The closest thing to drama was an account of the time a cow got stuck in the ocean surf and had to be rescued by the local ferry operator. Still, I enjoyed listening to the lilting voices of my distant kin.

When it came time to make the dough, the tape was almost over. During the dough making, I was glad to have my mother at my side. The recipe instructions were straightforward -- work shortening into the salted flour until the mixture has the consistency of coarse meal, then add cold water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough was moist but not wet. Successful pie dough making, I learned, depends on experience.

Without my mother there to stop me, I would have added too much water to the flour and shortening mixture. I thought I wanted a dough as wet as bread dough. She taught me that dry, almost crumbly dough was what I was shooting for.

We rolled the dough in a ball then let it sit in the refrigerator for half an hour before rolling it out. Once again I was grateful to have a veteran pie maker at my side. When I pushed the rolling pin over the dough, small pieces stuck to the rolling pin. I was ready to panic, but my mother told me not to worry. When the rolled-out dough was placed in the pie pan, she showed me how to coat the smaller rogue pieces with a little water and make them part of a seamless crust.

The bottom of the pie shell looked uneven to me, but once the apples went in and the top crust went on, my pie looked passable. It baked at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then continued baking for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

When it came out of the oven, my apple pie was gorgeous. There were no gaping holes in the top crust. No patch marks. The apples were crisp, the crust was flaky.

When it was announced that we were having apple pie for dessert, the kids cheered. But when it was announced that their father, not their mother or their grandmother, had made the pie, the kids lapsed into their native tongue -- Baltimorese -- to express their disbelief.

"Nuh-uh," they said.

The news temporarily slowed the kids' assault on the pie. But only for a minute or two. Soon their forks were back at work. The kids seemed to treat the fact that their dad had made a good-tasting pie as just another incident in family life, something to be filed away, like the story of the cow that got caught in the ocean surf. One day in the distant future, the pie-making tale might be told around another kitchen table.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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