This is a story about pie. It is the story about a pie recipe, and the journey that culminated in that recipe. And it is a story about a particular pie, made from that particular recipe, and the journey that the pie and I recently made. It is also a story about the people who ate slices of that pie in the lobby of the storied Hotel Galvez in Galveston, Texas. This is a long one, friends. I have made plenty of pies in my life, but this one is by far the most interesting.
I have been hesitant to go into this because it is a story that cannot be made succinct. It is a story that is longer, in fact, than this part that I will tell. The larger story is not mine to tell and I have felt somewhat like a thief even making the pie, even though the recipe and the method were a gift generously and openly given, free of charge. And, now I have used the knowledge I gained from playing and tinkering with this pie in so many other creations that I can’t adequately talk about them the way I want to without writing this chapter first. It would be all out of order if I did. And I decided that you would tire of me saying, “Someday I’ll tell you where this crust idea came from….”
Did you know that you can fish for squid with a fly rod? Even though my husband has been in the fly rod business for over a decade, I did not know that. Did you know that if you live around Seattle, you can go on a Walrus and Carpenter Picnic, walking out on a sandy beach in the freezing cold in rubber boots and a headlamp, drinking wine and tasting oysters straight out of the briny water? These are little bits of information that I have gleaned from that little jewel of social media called Twitter. As of late, it has allowed me to follow my favorite food people like a happy puppy.
One day, I summoned the nerve to “follow” Robb Walsh, a pre-eminent voice in Texas food culture. Robb, in what can only be termed a spasm of personal generosity, “followed” me back. I was rather pleased at this. Out of the blue, a few days later, I received a note from a gentleman in Seattle which said, in essence, I saw your name on Walsh’s list, what is the meaning of pie? This was Jon Rowley (@oysterwine), whom I now call my friend. I told him, as succinctly as that medium requires (140 characters per “tweet” max), that it wasn’t really about “pie” literally, though pies occur around me occasionally, but that it was about the feelings that pies evoke, the pictures they conjure in one’s head of grandmas and windowsills and warmth and love and family. This is in contrast to cakes, which I also like, but that conjure up visions of bakeries and teetering wedding confections. Pies beat cakes hands down for pure emotional impact, regardless of your personal pie history.
Good enough. He and I were now each other’s “followers” thanks to Robb Walsh and a blog name I conjured up out of the ether. It didn’t take long for me to divine that Jon, too, was a notable, quotable in the food world. Specifically, he is a consultant in the seafood industry in the west and has written about fish for the likes of Gourmet. He is particularly enamored with oysters. I like Twitter because it lets you be a fly on the wall and watch all of these different worlds go by. It is like a dial on an old car radio where you turn back and forth across several stations at a time…a girl’s voice, a man’s voice, a song, a commercial, little snippets of life.
One day when I said something on Twitter about pie crusts and leaf lard, and how I wanted to make one, he sent me a note and told me a brief story about a pie. He offered to call me to tell me more about it. Yes, please!
Jon Rowley’s Search for the Quintessential American Apple Pie:
And there we sat, many states apart, me shooing away children and taking copious notes as he described with fascinating detail his search for the Quintessential American Apple Pie, and precisely how he makes it.
His search began with a tarte tatin, and a chef from France named Susan Herrmann Loomis who needed some apples to make such a tart for a Norman dinner she was planning during a visit to the states. She gave Jon a list of the apples that she liked to use when in France. There were a few precise matches in the states but the question became, what characteristics do the apples she typically uses possess that make them work? The mission was to find an apple that was firm and held together after cooking, because that was the most important characteristics for the tarte tatin. Jon proceeded to gather a few dozen heirloom prospects at orchards and farmers markets and took them home to test them and see how they behaved after being baked. He baked them in a pan and noted their characteristics, leading to the conclusion that the Newtown Pippen was the best for this purpose because it was firm and held up so well. And, that was the genesis of Jon’s fascination with heirloom apples. A local tree fruit source brought a giant table full of heirloom apples to the dinner. And, this certainly cemented his interest. Texas is not exactly the apple capital of the universe. I did not appreciate what an heirloom apple is. It is an “old variety” of apple, some dating back several hundred years. The names are wonderful, and you have likely never heard of them. I had not.
[The heirloom apples: Stayman Winesap (top left); Prairie Spy, Melrose, Newtown Pippen (top middle); Stayman Winesap (top right); Belle de Boskoop, Spitzenberg (lower left); Waltana, Spartan, Goldrush (lower middle); Arkansas Black (lower right); not pictured Macoun, White Winter Permain, Hidden Rose, and Golden Russet.
At any rate, Jon started buying apples and testing them. How do they cook? Do they cook into a soft texture? Do they stay firm? What color are they? Are they sweet or tart or both? Regarding the sweetness, he applied a bit of science. In a massive hunt for the best West Coast peach a few years prior for a supermarket client, a grower had introduced him to a refractometer. The refractomenter measures the sugar content of any fruit or vegetable. It expresses the sugar content in “brix” units. So, an apple with a “brix” score of 16 is sweet, for instance. And an apple with a “brix” of 10 is not. Russets can have a sugar content or “brix” of over 18% and are therefore quite sweet. He learned more and more about them over a period of years and kept coming back to the idea that the very best expression for the apples, the best showcase for their character, was in a pie. The effort to gauge the sweetness of the apples being used is also the reason behind there being so little sugar in the recipe that follows. When you use sweet apples, they speak for themselves, and you do not have to cover them in mounds of sugar.
He read several books about people searching for the “perfect” apple pie, and by that I mean searching for a perfect pie made by someone else. Rowley had a picture in his head of what the perfect apple pie would look and be like, and he invited his then wife Kate McDermott to join him on a quest, not to find it, but to create it. They started by making many of the apple pies that had gotten a lot of attention in the culinary press, but they were not turning out quite the way that he had imagined it.
So they spent the next two years trying to improve on the work. They changed flours. They tested the kinds and proportions of the fats. Jon drew on his knowledge of heirloom apples and worked through of the varieties. With every pie, they got closer to what this imagined pie should be. Kate baked the pies, and Jon suggested the next modifications and did the work with the fruit.
As you have witnessed, I rarely do anything twice. I cook it and if it works, I talk about it. If it doesn’t work I move on to something different. There are very few dishes for which I have taken the time to review, re-do, learn, enhance, and perfect. Jon rather painstakingly reviewed every apple’s traits and every factor that goes into making this pie. For the apples, he went back to the method he used for choosing an apple for the tarte tatin, and he put many different apples together in a pan and baked them. Then he noted the unique textures, flavors, and aromas…all of the apples had their own character and profile. He came to the conclusion that there is no one perfect pie apple. Because he was looking at them all, baked, right next to one another, in a light bulb moment he realized what he would be missing if he chose just one or even two of all of these distinctive and interesting apples. He decided to use as many as he could. Additionally, he decided that no particular group of apples is the right group, but it is the very fact of the variety that makes each pie so interesting and unique.
He did tell me that one apple comes close, by the way. The Gravenstein apple has the single best aroma and flavor, but alone falls short on texture. It is one of the “old” apple varieties and it is considered by many to be the very best cider apple and the very best applesauce apple. The problem, says Rowley, is that baked in a pie by itself, it turns into the texture of apple sauce and you lose the structure and variety in texture that makes this pie so interesting.
He also considers the peels of the apples to be a very important textural component for the pie. The peels also interject beautiful colors into the filling, and the tannins in the peels add an important flavor component. For generations, most of us have been putting this ingredient into the trash, and losing something unique and delightful in the process. This is all best done with organic apples and even if you obtain organic apples at the grocery store, you should wash the apples thoroughly. When I asked Jon the best of the varieties to use that were readily available to those of us not fortunate enough to live in Washington State, he said, and I concur, that “There is only one way to find out…make pies.”
“Why don’t we see more heirlooms in supermarkets when they are so good in a pie and are the same apples our grandmothers and great grandmothers used? One thing that makes this the quintessential American apple pie is the apples we use, many of which go back to the birth of America…the apples of Monticello. I like this. The new apples are bred mostly for storability in an controlled atmosphere. In a pie, many are lacking the character of the old varieties. But, there is a resurgence of interest by small farmers and market growers in the old varieties. We need to encourage this. Pie could very well save this important part of American history, don’t you think?” —Jon
The fats were an important consideration, also. The lard came into play as he pondered the attributes of the quintessential crust. What leaf lard does, he says, is give you a crust that has a light flake, but also “backbone.” It is a strong crust, but “when you put a fork into it, it is very light and flaky.” When they started baking with lard, Rowley said that he could smell his childhood in the kitchen. They worked with every variation and type of lard and settled on leaf lard. And, he says that he even ran across something that purported to be leaf lard but seemed to be 50% Crisco and 50% lard. So, as with so many things, it pays to learn about what you are purchasing and to purchase it from a reputable source. They worked with several different butters and came to the conclusion that a particular brand, Kerrygold, produced a noticeably better crust. Leaf lard and butter, used in combination, gave the crust a certain character and a certain flavor that the crusts made from either, alone, did not have.
They baked and tweaked and baked and tweaked for two years, until one day, upon entering the kitchen, Jon smelled the pie aroma emanating from the oven and was confident that they had succeeded. When they removed the pie from the oven and he saw the crust, he knew he was right. When they tasted it, he proclaimed, “That’s it! We did it. We are never going to improve upon this pie.”
Jon and Kate have since parted. I am thankful that the pie and pie making is still a source of joy for them both. Kate, in fact, teaches pie making classes to folks in the Seattle area and elsewhere.
After talking about the pie, generally, I asked him if he would send me his rendition of the “Quintessential American Apple Pie” recipe. He offered to just tell me how to do it right then over the phone. And then he went into it, in loving detail. Yet, at every turn the tone was “a little of this and a little of that.” This is not so much a set of rules but a methodology with some strong recommendations.
The Recipe and Technique as described to me by Jon Rowley: (see printable version at the end)
2½ cups cold all purpose flour (King Arthur…red bag)
8 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted (KerryGold)
8 tablespoons leaf lard
½ to 1 teaspoon of salt
8 tablespoons ice cold water and as much more as needed
one egg white (for an egg wash right before the pie goes in the oven)
Keep the flour, lard, butter, the pastry cloth and even the mixing bowl in the freezer until you are ready to use them. When you are ready to begin, place the fats, the flour and the salt in the bowl and begin to work the fats into the flour by cutting it in with forks, knives, or a traditional pastry cutter. Once the fats have been incorporated a bit, you can manipulate the fats into the flour further with your fingers. The idea is to keep working the fats into the flour until the fat is in smaller size bits, roughly larger pea size to hazelnut size…some bigger, some smaller. Use your hands as little as possible though, because the crust benefits from the fats remaining as cold as possible and your hands will warm it up significantly. The coldness of the fats, and the sizes of the fat pieces in the dough, affect how the fats react with the heat of the oven. And the differing sizes of the fat pieces also give variability to those processes within the crust. Both of these factors impact the quality of the flake of the crust.
Add 6 tablespoons of water and work it around the flour and fat. Add a tablespoon of water at a time after that until you have dough that will stay together and form a ball. Jon says, do it until it “feels right.” And believe me, there is a moment when you just look at it and say, “That actually does look and feel right.” He also recommends not squashing everything down into the bowl, but instead pinching and working it up away from the bowl. Work the dough quickly into a ball, and then cut it in half. Place each half in a square of plastic wrap. Gently shape each half into a disk about 1-½ inches thick by placing your palm on top of the wrap and gently pressing down. Allow them to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour. The dough can also remain in the refrigerator and be used the next day.
“Move fast, work fast, keep it cold, don’t press too much or smash. It is light, fast, work. Just get it to a certain place and be done with it.”—Jon
Jon lives in Seattle and in about 15 miles can be in an apple orchard full of heirloom fruit. I would say that I live in the real world, but since I live within a few miles of a Whole Foods and a Central Market, that really isn’t a fair statement. In fact, when I went to survey the apples at my disposal in a single, albeit great, store I found no fewer than 12 varieties of organic Washington apples…in Texas. None were heirloom apples, but it was still a good selection. I know that this will not be the case for many of you. When I gave him the names of the twelve, he sent me back a list of the 6 from that list that he thought were good bets for use in a pie. Remember, you are going for variety more than a particular list of apples so get what you are able to get (Soon, I will be the proud owner of my very own refractometer and I will be able to test my own apples for sweetness). The reward for variety is that there are so many lovely textures and flavors and aromas in the baked apples. Some baked apple pieces will be soft. Some will be firm. Some will bake into a saucy consistency that will bring it all together. It would be optimal if you used a variety of heirloom apples.
Jon says you can fit 7 to 10 apples into a 9” pie, depending on size. There is a trick. But, generally, he said to fill your pie plate with as many apples as you reasonably can, and that was how many apples you would need for the pie.
Core the apples. And, cut them into quarters (from top to bottom, down the core). Then slice them into chunks ranging from ¼” to ⅜” thick. Again, variety is good even here, and Jon uses much larger chunks than are shown in the photos. His sense is that with larger chunks you still get to experience the unique character of each apple. Smaller pieces give you a wonderful composite flavor but you lose part of the experience of enjoying these magnificent individual apples. With regard to the spices and sugar, all choices are made to enhance the essential “apple-y-ness” of the finished product. Thus there is a little shot of unrefined apple cider vinegar instead of the more oft seen lemon juice. And, thus the Calvados, if you choose. But note that there is only ½ cup of sugar for up to 10 apples. When you take a bite of this pie, “you want the aftertaste to be apple, not sugar.”
Place the fruit in a large bowl.
The Pie Filling:
7 to 10 apples for a nice tall pie, rinsed and cut into chunks (I used around 7 apples)
1 Tablespoon unrefined apple cider vinegar
½ cup of sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon all-spice
a pinch of nutmeg
some ground cloves if you are in the mood
2 Tablespoons all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces
Mix together the sugar, cinnamon, all-spice, nutmeg, and cloves in a small bowl. Splash the vinegar and Calvados (if using) onto the apples and mix them around a little. Add the sugar and spices and stir the apples so they are evenly coated. Then sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of flour over the apple mixture, and again, mix it well.
“Calvados, French apple brandy, is no longer an optional ingredient in my apple pies. Indispensable. It coaxes the best out of each apple and then marries them to each other and to a soupçon of France. Thomas Jefferson, a committed apple grower, who sojourned in France, would have approved.” —Jon
Rolling out the Crust:
Though I tend to lollygag verbally, you do not want to lollygag in pie making, because you do not want the dough to warm up, nor do you want the apples to sit and begin to macerate. And, once you have the dough rolled out, you do not want it to sit there in that lonely, warming state too long before you get it into the oven. So, with this in mind, remove the dough from the refrigerator.
Whack the disk with your rolling pin up and across, then turn it over and do it again on the other side. Put some flour on the pin, the counter, and the disk. Jon uses a pastry cloth and I now do too, because I think my counter warms too quickly. Roll from the center of the dough like spokes on a wheel. Flip the dough over and roll it out the rest of the way until there is about 1” of excess crust, adding a sprinkling of flour where needed. Drape the dough over the pin, move it to the pie pan and ease it into the dish. When you roll out the top layer, you will want to brush off any excess flour before applying the egg wash.
Now, pile the apples into the pie pan in which you have laid the bottom crust. Pile them in until you think you cannot fit any more. Then take a shallow soup bowl and invert it on top of the apple pile. Give it a few firm pushes to compact the apples a bit. This will allow you to add yet another pile of apples. Repeat this process until you can get no more apples to stay. It also helps to compact the apples to prevent a giant head space from forming between the baked apples and the crust on the finished pie. The compacting and the vents are critical for this. Before putting on the top crust, dot the apples with little pieces of butter. This will help with the thickening process.
Roll out and lay on the top crust. Seal the edges, trimming where necessary so that the edges are not too thick. Cut lines in the top crust for vents so that you do not steam the apples. Jon suggests cutting them about a third of the way up the crust as well as on top because then some juices will flow out of the vents causing beautiful sweet little apple-y ooze that comes out and rolls down the crust and dries. He told me that it, “communicates the goodness of what is just inside the crust…to tempt you.”
With a pastry brush, apply a thin coating of egg white wash (mix an egg white with a little bit of water and mix it thoroughly with a fork) on the crust and sprinkle it with a little sugar. I found that Sugar in the Raw works beautifully for this purpose.
Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes then reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake for an additional 40 minutes.
You will know when it is ready when it talks to you. Jon says that the finished and happy pie will talk. Remove the pie from the oven and put your ear down close to the vents.
That is the sound a good pie will make. It is subtle but discernible. If you don’t hear this, don’t go on baking and baking until you do. I’ll admit I have heard a lot of sizzle but not exactly a womp. But definitely listen to the beautiful sounds coming from your pie. One hour total is really the right time and if you keep going too long you run the risk of cooking your apples into oblivion. Remove the pie from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack.
Make sure you take a moment to appreciate the aromas that fill your home when you make this pie. There are many different factors that contribute to the aroma and it permeates the air. Jon suspects that the high sugar content of the apples leads to the scent of caramelization. That, combined with the distinct aroma of the butter and leaf lard baking, and the scent of the spices, vinegar and Calvados, will transport you. It is a part of the experience not to be missed.
1) Put crust materials in the freezer.
2) Make the pie crust and allow it to rest in the refrigerator.
3) Prepare the spices.
4) Choose and chop the apples, and mix in the spices.
5) Roll out the bottom crust and fill it.
6) Roll out the top crust, apply it, seal it, vent it, egg wash it, sugar it and bake it.
And, Jon says that an important thing to remember, in all of the stages of pie making is that you are the boss, the pie isn’t. Remember this if your pie starts misbehaving. Below is a printable version of the pie recipe.
|The Quintessential American Apple Pie|| |
- 2-½ cups cold all purpose flour (King Arthur…red bag)
- 8 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted (KerryGold)
- 8 tablespoons leaf lard
- ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt
- 8 Tablespoons ice cold water and as much more as needed
- one egg white (for an egg wash right before the pie goes in the oven)
- 7 to 10 apples for a nice tall pie, rinsed and cut into chunks (I used around 7 apples)
- 1 tablespoon unrefined apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon all-spice
- a pinch of nutmeg
- some ground cloves if you are in the mood
- Calvados (optional)
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces
- Measure the flour, lard, and butter, and place them in the freezer with the pastry cloth for at least 30 minutes before proceeding with the crust.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Place the flour, fats and salt in a large bowl and work the fats into the flour using a pastry cutter or the back of a fork. Once the fats begin to incorporate into the flour, use your fingers. The flour should have pea to hazelnut size bits in it. Do not over incorporate the fats and do not overwork the dough. The dough should remain as cold as possible so work with it only until you have achieved a pebble like texture.
- Add 6 tablespoons of water and work it around the dough with your fingers or a fork. Add a tablespoon of water at a time until the dough will stay together and form a ball. If you can squeeze one handful and it stays together, you are ready to proceed. Work the dough into one ball and then cut the ball in half. Place each half in plastic wrap and gently press down on the dough to create the shape of a disk 1½“ thick. Gently work the edges of the disk with your fingers to eliminate large cracks in the disk. Place the disks in the refrigerator for at least an hour. It can hold in the refrigerator for up to a day.
- Mix the sugar, cinnamon, all-spice, nutmeg, and cloves in a small bowl. In a large bowl, sprinkle the vinegar and Calvados (if using) onto the apples and toss the apples. Add the sugar mixture to the apples and stir the apples until they are evenly coated. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour over the apple mixture and stir to distribute.
- Remove one disk of dough from the refrigerator. Roll from the center of the dough like spokes on a wheel, healing any tears on the edges as you go. Flip the dough over and roll it out the rest of the way until there is about 1” of excess crust, adding a sprinkling of flour where needed. Drape the dough over the pin, move it to the pie pan and ease it into the dish
- Pile the apples into the pie pan in which you have laid the bottom crust.
- Take a shallow soup bowl and invert it on top of the apple pile. Give it a few firm pushes to compact the apples a bit. You can also do this with your hands. Add yet another pile of apples. Repeat this process until you can get no more apples to stay.
- Before putting on the top crust, dot the apples with little pieces of butter.
- Roll out and lay on the top crust. Seal the edges, trimming where necessary so that the edges are not too thick. Cut lines in the top crust for vents so that you do not steam the apples.
- With a pastry brush, apply a thin coating of egg white wash (mix an egg white with a little bit of water and mix it thoroughly with a fork) on the crust and sprinkle it with a little sugar.
- Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes then reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake for an additional 40 minutes.
My Quintessential American Apple Pies:
I made my pies with the apples I could get here. I was quite proud to report the exceptional selection to which I had access.
Jon kept saying, “Yes, but let me send you some of my heirloom apples.”
“No, really these are just fine,” I would say.
Several pies later, he again offered, “Really, I want you to actually taste what I have been telling you about.”
I figured that if I kept saying no, with the best of intentions to not further inconvenience him, he would stop offering, so I said yes. Two large boxes packed full of heirloom apples arrived on my doorstep. In each box were a number of crumpled and labeled paper bags. In each bag were 2 of each of a number of heirloom apples. I was speechless. I felt like I needed to call and apologize, because I truly had not understood the variety and the beauty of all of these heirloom apples. Somehow, I thought they would be small and soft, yet several were some of the largest apples I have ever seen. I was so very excited to get to baking.
Then, I had an epic crust failure. My leaf lard, acquired locally, just sort of died. My last pie had been problematic, crust-wise, and the one I prepared for these special apples fell apart. It was liquid at room temperature and made for a sloppy mess of a crust. Knowing that I was working with a limited asset, I had decided to roll out my crust before cutting up any apples, but this too was a disaster. I stopped and reassessed.
During this process I found out that Jon had been talked into coming to Galveston for the Foodways Texas conference. I had wanted badly to go but found any number of excuses not to do so, but his going made it too fun to pass up. However, Jon immediately started suggesting that I needed to bring a pie made from the apples he had just sent. I related my lard problem to him and he set about trying to figure out how to fix it. He could FedEx some to me. “No,” I said. “I’ll figure it out,” I said. But I was stumped. There wasn’t an alternative source in Dallas. To which Jon replied, well you could just render your own.
He might as well have said I could just whittle up a functional space shuttle for what I know about rendering lard. I was sunk. I actually felt the apples degrading in my refrigerator. A few hours later I got an email from Jim Gossen, president of Louisiana Foods, whom I have talked about in my post about Foodways Texas and Low Country Oyster Roasts. He had taken the time several weeks before to talk to me about sourcing gulf oysters. The email said, “How much lard do you need, I’ll FedEx it when I get home.” He was in the middle of a family wedding in Louisiana. I’d be damned before I let him FedEx lard to me if it was within my power to make it myself. There is no way to explain how I feel about these two gentlemen who were prepared to move mountains to make sure I baked a good pie.
I remember several months ago when I did a post about Chocolate Pie with a Leaf Lard Crust, my mother telling me about how she vividly recalled her daddy rendering lard at their home when she was a small child. That helped. My memories of my grandfather cooking are a great motivation and joy to me.
So, I got on the internet and found several articles about rendering lard and, lo and behold, there is nothing to it. I went to a nearby grocery store, talked to the man behind the meat counter, and came home with five pounds of pig fat. Yes, I did. And I spent the next several hours slowly and carefully rendering it and pouring it off in successively darkening batches. I was left with a dry pot full of chicharron. I’m not sure the last time I was so proud. I really didn’t think I could do this. I know that sounds stupid, but I really didn’t think I could. And, it was fun. I put my jars of lard in the refrigerator, and within a few hours I had the whitest, creamiest, loveliest fat I’ve ever seen.
And, I finally got to make my heirloom apple pie.
I set about making my first pie…and I was euphoric. The colors were fantastic. It was fun. It was pretty. Each apple I cut into was totally unique. The colors, the textures, the flavors. The first apple I cored came out pink. I probably could have figured it out before, as it was named Hidden Rose. I used a Macoun, a Stayman Winesap, a Goldrush, a Spitzenburg, a Newtown Pippen, and a Melrose. Have you heard of any of those? I hadn’t. I tasted every one I cut and each had a completely unique personality. Lily ran in every time I cut a new one and grabbed a chunk for herself and ran one out to her father in his work room.
To me, the pie was perfect. It was so many things. You must know I am a bit sentimental by now. But that one pie was all of Jon’s story and all of his efforts on my behalf, my learning, my feelings about pie, my worry that I had failed, my joy at overcoming an obstacle, my hands in a bowl of sugary apples, a pastry cloth I had made for this very moment, and my intense desire to be GOOD at this, all rolled into a crust. Getting this pie right meant something to me. And there it was on my counter, looking like it should have been sitting in the pie cooler of the blue ribbon winner of the county fair.
Using heirloom apples for the first time was a lovely experience. Even baked, the apples retained a depth of flavor that I did not find in their retail counterparts. Each bite of the pie was different from the one before, and with each bite I imagined the beautiful raw apple pieces in which Lily had so delighted. They kept more flavor in the process of baking, they transmitted more of the depth of those flavors in the pie. I hope for a day when these lovely fruits are more accessible to those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have access to them at farmers markets and orchards. Working with them, eating them, and baking them was an experience I want to have again, and often.
Now, I just had to pull off another perfect one to take with me to Galveston. The Foodways Texas Symposium was a “gulf gathering” of many of the great names in Texas foods. These were chefs, scholars, writers, media folks, and food lovers of the highest order. Somehow I thought I was just taking a pie to Jon and perhaps Jim Gossen, as well. Jim had mentioned that his wife, Diane, was an expert with pastry. I thought that, at the outside, this would be my pie audience. I was wrong. But, getting the pie to Galveston was more than half the battle. I was flying. That means TSA. That means lines. That means countless opportunities to drop it or trip. The first thing I heard as I jumped out of Pitts’ car at the airport was some ass on the curb saying, “You’re not really gonna try to fly with that thing are you? Good luck lady!” If you are failing to hear derision in that line, listen more closely.
I had gone to the restaurant supply store to look for something in which to transport this beast of a pie. I didn’t want to buy a pie carrier mainly because I didn’t want to have to fool with it on the way home. So I bought a clear plastic salad bowl that came with a lid. I used double stick tape to attach the pie plate to the underside of the lid and I covered it with the bowl like a dome. It was actually a brilliant solution. There was perfect clearance for the fragile edges of the pie. It wasn’t too bulky. But it was, inadvertently, a clear display case. It looked like I was transporting the crown jewels. The pie itself, even if it had tasted awful, was magnificent looking. Jon was right, even in mere appearance, it is the Quintessential American Apple Pie. As I approached security with fear and trepidation, I looked up and saw nothing but a sea of smiles. The waters parted. “Look at that.” “Wow.” “Awww. You brought pie for the screeners; we love it when people do that.” And my favorite, “Sweet Jesus, that’s the prettiest thing I ever saw.” The security line was actually fun. I had a lovely conversation with a woman in front of me about lard and Crisco and daughters. She was going to see hers; I was flying away from mine on a rare solo outing.
Because the TSA specifically allows pie travel now, and because of the plastic clear case, I was able to set my pie right in a bin and run it through the x-ray machine. Done. Easy as…
I made it to Galveston. And when I pulled up at the Galvez, I was more than ready to transfer custody of the pie to Jon. It was officially his pie upon entry into the hotel. To my utter delight, when I set the pie on the counter to register, the young woman who was checking me in declared, “That is the perfect American apple pie!”
I immediately called Jon. He met me in the lobby and for the first time I got to meet my phone tutor and apple mentor.
Jon is kind of like my brother Will. It is not so much that he is a quiet man but that he actually thinks before he speaks. My mother used to say that if there were a lifetime limit on words to use I would have run out by age 5. Will, at 40-something would still have about 92% of his left.
I was very happy to finally meet him in person. But, Jon had no intention of running off and eating pie in his room, as I had kind of hoped he would. I was still exceedingly nervous about public tastings. What if it was undercooked? Had I used totally inferior cinnamon? What if the lard made the pie taste like ham? He set it on one of the coffee tables in the lobby of this busy hotel and got on the phone to call Jim Gossen, who showed up with his wife and Penny de los Santos, a photographer whose work I admire a great deal. And that was only the beginning of the parade of people that we told about our pie and its journey. And, it sat there gleaming, illustrating our comments, continuing to make people smile.
After an incredible dinner put on by Louisiana Foods and Tim Byres of SMOKE Dallas we retired to the lobby of the Galvez to taste the pie with Jim and Diane Gossen. The hotel wouldn’t let us serve ourselves “outside” food in the restaurant but kindly brought us plates and forks to the lobby. And then the pie started performing its magic. It was such a big pie.
“Sit down, join us, have a piece of this pie,” we would all say as people walked by.
And they did. I met more nice people around that pie. Tim Byres, the aforementioned noted chef from SMOKE Dallas had a piece. Photographer Jody Horton had a piece. Chef from Dai Due in Austin, Jesse Griffiths, tried a piece. Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle had “a little sliver.” Jim and Diane Gossen of Louisiana Foods had some. And Robb Walsh and his wife Kelly even managed to snag the one remaining piece the next day. It was a little pie social. Pie is imbued with an old style of homey grace. It was a lovely evening.
Given the length of this post, you might be surprised at how little I talk and how uncomfortable I am in new situations with people I do not know…especially the caliber of people I was bumping into left and right in Galveston. The pie was a sweet way to say hello. I think pie had been a little bit sad for Jon for a while, mixed up as it was still in the final chapters of a marriage. But his pie, Kate’s pie, their pie, my pie (your pie now) was having a happy day in Galveston, Texas, showing off its Washington heirloom apples and its Texas lard. It was everything that a pie is supposed to be. It produced smiles. It inspired friendly conversation. It brought a little moment of community.
Am I making too much of a humble and simple dessert? Perhaps. But this recipe has a life. This particular pie had a journey. I learned a great deal through it and I am using it to create more. I made a great friend over it. I met many new and really wonderful people sitting around it. Am I overstating this? I don’t think so.
Food is one of the only constant common threads in our lives. It brings us together. You still remember smells from childhood, do you not? Does the scent of a certain dish cooking take you back and make you think of things you haven’t thought of in decades. Did your father, who worked long hard days, actually sit for a while and smile at the dinner table? Was your mother rewarded with praise and love for her work in the kitchen, or was her work expected and ignored. Did you teach your sons, as well as your daughters to cook? Did your grandparents grow tomatoes? Do you eat dinner with your children now? Do you eat alone at a desk, enjoying the solitude and the quality of flavors in the absence of the constant sensory overload of family? Pie, sweet or savory, good or great, is a symbol of Americana and of our food heritage. It is general to our culture and it is specific, in its presence or absence, in our own lives. It is about food, love, family, and memories. This, my friends, is The Meaning of Pie.
Thank you, Jon.