Frank Teaches Pie

Excerpt from Labor Day, 2009

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.