Ever since the death of my mother, twenty years ago, I've been teaching people to make her style of pie--crust in particular.  I'm guessing the number of my pie students has probably reached the quadruple digits now, and I'm not about to stop.  I have been known to travel with a rolling pin.

The recipe seldom varies much.  What makes good crust has to do with how a person handles the dough. And for that, there's no substitute for hands-on instruction.

In my new novel, LABOR DAY, the character of Frank--a man on the run--instructs the young narrator, Henry, on the art of making a good pie.  I like to think that if a reader of my novel follows Frank's instructions in the novel, he or she will emerge from the experience with all the necessary know-how.  (But in case you need more, check out my pie video).  And let me know how your efforts work out.   --Joyce

FRANK TEACHES PIE (an excerpt from LABOR DAY):

    I picked a peach out of the bucket and washed it.  My mother didn’t believe in germs but I did.  Germs are something they made up to distract people from what they should really be worried about, she said.  Germs are natural.  It’s the things people do you have to worry about.

    Good peach, I said.

    Frank and my mother were still sitting there, holding the tools, not moving.  Too bad they’re all so ripe, she said.  We’ll never get through them all. 

    Here’s what’s going to happen, said Frank.  His voice, which was always low and deep, suddenly seemed to drop another half octave now, so it was like Johnny Cash was in our kitchen. 

    We have a serious issue on our hands, he said.

    I was still thinking about what Mr. Jervis said.  People out looking for the escaped prisoner.  From the newspaper, I knew they’d got roadblocks on the highway.  Helicopters over by the dam, where someone thought they spotted a man matching the description, only now they were saying he had a scar over one eye and possibly a tattoo on his neck of a knife or a Harley, something along those lines.  Now was the moment he was going to take out a gun, or a knife maybe, and wrap his lean, muscled arm around my mother’s neck, that he’d just finished admiring, and press the knife against her skin, and guide us out to the car. 

    We were his ticket across state lines.  That was the story.  I’d watched enough episodes of Magnum P.I.. to get it.  Only then Frank turned around to face us, and he was holding a knife.

    These peaches, he said, looking even more serious than before.  If we don’t put them to use soon, they’re goners.

    What did you have in mind? my mother said.  There was a sound to her voice I could not remember ever hearing.  She was laughing, not the way a person does if you tell them a joke, but more how it is when they’re just in a good mood and feeling happy.

    I’m going to make us a peach pie, like my grandmother did it, he said

    First thing, he needed a couple of bowls.  One to make the crust.  One for the filling.

    Frank peeled the peaches.  I cut them up. 

    Filling is easy, Frank said.  What I want to talk about is crust.

    You could tell, the way he reached for his bowl, that this man had made more than a few pies in his life.

    First off, you need to keep your ingredients as cool as possible, he said.  Hot day like this, we have a challenge on our hands.  We need to move fast, before the heat gets to them.  If the phone rings when you’re making crust, you don’t pick it up. (Not that this was likely to be a problem at our house, where days went by sometimes that nobody called, unless it was my father, confirming plans for our weekly dinner.)

    As he set out the ingredients around our work area, Frank talked about his life on the farm with his grandparents.  His grandmother mostly, after his grandpa’s tractor accident.  She was the one who raised him from age ten on up.  A tough woman, but fair.  You didn’t do your chores, you knew the consequences, no discussion.  Clean the barn all weekend.  Simple as that.

    She had read out loud to him at night.  Swiss Family Robinson.  Robinson Crusoe.  Rikki Tiki Tavi.  Count of Monte Cristo.  We didn’t have television in those days, he said, but there was no need, the way she could read out loud. She could have been on the radio. 

    She had told him not to go to Vietnam.  Ahead of her time, that woman understood no one was going to win that war.  He thought he was going to outsmart them all.  Stay in the reserves, get his G.I. bill college education.  Next thing he knew he was eighteen years old, on a plane to Saigon. Got there two weeks before the start of the Tet Offensive. Of the twelve men in his platoon, seven went home in a box. 

    I wanted to know if he still had his dogtags.  Or souvenirs.  An enemy weapon, something like that.

    I don’t need one thing to remind me of those days, he said.

    Frank had made enough pies in his life—none lately, but this was like riding a bicycle—that he didn’t need to measure the flour, though just for my information he said he favored starting out with three cups of flour.  That way you’d have extra crust, to make a turnover, or if there was some young whippersnapper around, you could give her the dough to cut out shapes with a cookie cutter.

    He also didn’t measure the salt he put in, but he figured it to be three quarters of a teaspoon.  Pie crust is a forgiving thing, Henry, he told me.  You can make all kinds of mistakes, and still come out ok, but one thing a person can never do is forget the salt.  It’s like life:  Sometimes the littlest thing turns out to be the most important.

    One tool he wished he had, for making this crust, was his grandmother’s pastry blender.  You could pick one up anyplace—we weren’t speaking of fancy gourmet shops, just a regular supermarket—but his gram’s had this wooden handle, painted green. 

    First you put the shortening in the bowl with the flour and salt.  Then you cut it in, using your pastry blender, he said, though in an emergency (which was what we had on our hands, evidently) a couple of forks would do.

    And about your shortening, he said.  He had a few things to tell me about that.

    Some people use butter, for the superior flavor.  Then again, nothing beats lard for contributing flakiness.  This is one of the great controversies of pie crust, Henry, he said.  All your life you’ll meet people of the two persuasions, and you may have about as much luck convincing the one to come over to the other side as a Democrat talking to a Republican, or vice versa.

    So which did he use? I asked.  Lard or butter? Amazingly, we had both in our pantry—though not real lard, as Frank would have preferred, but Crisco, from one time when my mother got it into her head to make potato chips, and do some deep fat frying.   We got about ten chips out of the deal, before she got tired and went to bed.  Lucky for us now, the blue tin still sat on our shelf.  Assuming Frank was not, as he might be, of the butter-crust persuasion.

    I favor both, he said, sweeping the spatula through the glossy white Crisco and dropping a dollop in the center of the bowl with the flour.  The butter was important too, however, because he sent me over to the neighbors’ to borrow some.  This was not the kind of thing my mother and I had ever done before.  Doing this—though I was shy to ask—gave me a nice feeling, as if I was a character on some TV show from the olden days, where the characters were always dropping in on each other and doing fun things together.  Like we were all normal people here.

    When I came back with the butter, Frank cut up most of a stick of it into small pieces, and scattered those over the flour too.   No measuring with either of these ingredients, naturally, but when I asked him how much he used, he shook his head.

    It’s all about instinct, Henry, he said.  Pay too much attention to recipes, you lose the ability to simply feel, on your nerve endings, what’s needed at the time.  This was also true of people who analyzed Nolan Ryan’s fastball motion, or gardeners who spent all their time reading books about the best method for growing tomatoes, instead of just going out and getting dirt under their fingernails. 

    Your mother could probably say something about this, as it relates to the world of dancing, he said.  And some other areas too, that we won’t go into now. 

    He shot her a look then.  Their eyes met.  She did not look away.

    One thing he would tell me, though, he said, had to do with babies.  Not that he was any kind of expert, but for a brief while, long ago, he had cared for his son, and that experience more than any other had taught him the importance of following your instincts.  Tuning in to the situation with all your five senses, and your body, not your brain.  A baby cries in the night, and you go to pick him up.  Maybe he’s screaming so hard his face is the color of a radish, or he’s gasping for breath, he’s got himself so worked up. What are you going to do, take a book off the shelf, and read what some expert has to say?

    You lay your hand against his skin and just rub his back. Blow into his ear.  Press that baby up against your own skin and walk outside with him, where the night air will surround him, and he’ll see the moon.  Whistle, maybe.  Dance.  Hum.  Pray.

    Sometimes a cool breeze might be just what the doctor ordered.  Sometimes a warm hand on the belly. Sometimes doing absolutely nothing is the best. You have to pay attention.  Slow things way down.  Tune out the rest of the world, that really doesn’t matter. Feel what the moment calls for.  

    Which—back to pie—might mean more lard than butter on some occasions.  More butter than lard on others.  The water, too, was a variable, depending on weather, of course.  And we were speaking about ice water, naturally.

    You need to use as little water as you can get away with, Frank said.  Most people, when they make their crust, put in way too much.  They get themselves a perfect- looking ball of dough naturally, but nobody’s giving prizes for that. They’re going to end up with a pasty crust.  You know the kind I’m talking about.  A person might as well be eating cardboard.

    Here was one thing I must never forget:  You could always add more water to your dough, but you could never take it out. The less water, the flakier the crust. 

    Mostly I was paying attention to Frank when he told me these things, and definitely, he was paying attention to me, and to the peach pie we were making. He had this way of focusing, that made it seem as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. 

    There was something in the way he talked about the process of making a pie that commanded a person’s attention, to the point where it was hard to look away even for a moment.  But every now and then, as we worked, I’d look over at my mother, standing at the counter, watching us. 

    I might almost have thought there was this whole other person standing there, she looked so different. 

    She looked younger, for one thing.  She was leaning against the counter, holding a peach.  Now and then she’d take a bite, and when she did, because of how ripe the fruit was, the juice ran down her face, onto the flowered blouse, but when it did she didn’t seem to notice.  She was nodding, and smiling.  She was having fun, was what it looked like. I got this odd feeling, when I looked at her—and then at him:  as if some kind of electric current ran between the two of them, He was talking to me, and paying attention closely, too.  But there was this other thing going on, underneath all that, not recognizable to most people, or any people for that matter.  Like some kind of high- pitched frequency only certain very rare individuals could pick up.  Only them. 

    He was talking to me.  But he was sending his real message to her.  And she got it.

    Not that he was finished with the pie lesson:  Now he was telling me how you made a well in the center of the bowl, and splashed in only enough ice water for the top crust first, gathering up the dough to make a ball—not a perfect round ball; that would require more water than you wanted.  Let it hold together just enough so you can roll it out.

    We didn’t have a rolling pin, but Frank said no problem, we could use a wine bottle, with the label taken off.  He showed me the motion first—swift, brisk strokes, from the center out.  Then he had me try.  The only way to learn anything, to do it.

    Our dough, when we rolled it out on the counter, seemed hardly to hold together at all.  His rolled-out dough only vaguely took the form of a circle.  There were places where the pieces didn’t even hold together at all, though these he pressed together with the heel of his hand. 

    Heel of the hand, he said.  It’s got the perfect texture and temperature.  People buy all these fancy tools.  When sometimes the best tool for the job is right there attached to your own body. Always there when you need it.

    For a bottom crust, there was no big problem getting it in the pie dish.  Frank and I had rolled out the dough on wax paper, and now that it was thin enough for his liking, and holding together, if just barely, he flipped the plate over, so it lay upside down over the rolled-out dough.  Then he picked up the wax paper and turned the whole thing over.  Peeled off the paper.  Presto. 

    He put me in charge of the filling.  He let me sprinkle the sugar on the peaches first, and a little cinnamon. 

    It would be great if we had Minute Tapioca to soak up the juices here, he said.  What do you know?   We did. 

    My gram’s secret ingredient, he said.  Scatter a little of this stuff over the crust before you put your filling in—just so it looks like salt on a road in winter, when there’s ice—and you’ve seen your last of soggy crust.  This stuff soaks up the juices for you, without that cornstarch flavor.  You know those pies I’m talking about here, right Henry?  The ones with that gluey consistency, like the inside of a Pop Tart.

    I did.  We had about a hundred boxes of them in our freezer at that very moment.

    Then we were ready for the top crust. 

    This one has to stay together a little better than the bottom. because we have to lift it, he told me. Still, it was always easier to add more water than take some away. 

    I looked over at my mother again.  She was looking at Frank. He must have felt it because he looked up then himself, back at her.

    Funny the way advice works, he said.  A person might have been  gone from your life twenty-five years.  Certain things they said just stay in your head. 

    Never overhandle the dough. Another of his gram’s sayings. 

    He got that one wrong, however, he told us.  Thought she meant money. That was a joke, he explained. We might not have known because one thing about Frank, the muscles on his face, that pulled so tightly under the skin of his jaw, seemed never to have formed what you could call a smile.

    We rolled out the top crust, also on wax paper.  Only this time there was no way a person could turn the pie dish over on the dough, because there were peaches in it now.  We’d have to lift that circle of dough off the sheet and flip it on top of the pie.  For a split second there, our flaky crust, with only the minimum amount of ice water holding it together, would be suspended in the air.  Hesitate in the act of lifting it and turning, and the whole thing would fall apart.  Flip too fast, and you could miss your mark.

    A person needed a steady hand, but also, a steady heart.  This is a moment about faith and commitment, Frank said.

    Up until now, Frank and I had worked alone, just the two of us.  My mother had only been watching.  Now he put a hand on her shoulder. 

    He said, I think you can handle this, Adele.

    Some time back—I could no longer remember when this wasn’t true—my mother’s hands had begun to tremble.  Picking up a coin from the counter, or chopping vegetables—on the rare occasions, like today, when we’d have some kind of fresh produce to cut up—her hand would sometimes shake so violently on the knife, she’d set down whatever it was she’d been cutting up and say, Soup sounds good tonight.  What do you think, Henry?

    Times she wore lipstick—rare times we went out—the outlines didn’t always match her lips exactly right.  It was the reason she’d  mostly given up her cello, probably. On the frets, she had a natural vibrato, but she couldn’t keep her hand steady on the bow.   Something like what she’d attempted that afternoon—stitching his pants—was also a challenge.  Threading a needle, impossible.  I did that part.

    Now my mother stepped up alongside the counter, next to where Frank had been standing with the wine bottle that had served as our rolling pin.

    I’ll try, she said, taking the circle of dough between the fingers of her two hands, and folding it over the way Frank showed her.  He was standing very close.  She held her breath.  The circle of dough landed just where it was supposed to, on top of the peaches. 

    Perfect, honey, he said. 
    Then he showed me how to pinch along the sides, to fix the top crust to the bottom one.  He showed me how to brush the top with milk, and sprinkle sugar on, and pierce the dough with a fork in three places, to let the steam out.  He slipped the pie into the oven.

    Forty-five minutes from now, we’ll have ourselves a pie, he said.  My grandma had a saying, Even the richest man in America isn’t eating tastier pie than we are tonight.  That will be so for us.

    I asked him then where his grandma was now.

    Passed on, he said.  His voice as he said this suggested it might not be a good thing, asking more.