Why I Teach Pie

Twenty years ago this summer, when my sixty-six-year-old mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, I left my home and family to take care of her. One part of that care—with no medical value attached, but of comfort to her, and most of all to me, no doubt—was that nearly every night I baked my mother a pie.  I make good pies because I had a good teacher.  Her.

Sometime over the course of that long sad summer of my mother’s dying, one of her friends, who had come over to share a meal and say goodbye, told me how much she’d miss my mother’s pie.  I offered to teach her.  Pretty soon I was teaching many others in her circle all the lessons my mother taught to me. 

Though I have a few thoughts about fillings, the secret of a good pie is the crust, and good crust can’t be easily learned from a recipe.  It’s all in the handling of the dough.  And the skills a person needs to make good crust—adaptability ,  a certain bold faith, a willingness to abandon the concept of hard and fast rules and follow instinct instead—are ones that have served me well in many other aspects of life as well.  You can worry a pie crust—or a problem—to death. In pie, as in life, this seldom makes things better.  

My mother died that fall, five months after her diagnosis. Measured in baking terms: that summer we probably shared a few dozen pies. 

When I returned home to New Hampshire in the aftermath of that large loss, I began a tradition that has continued all these years, of teaching people (first it was friends, later those I’d never met before) how to make good pie crust. That first fall, twenty years ago, the group I assembled set to work making pies for our local soup kitchen for their Thanksgiving dinner, but over the years, the gathering has taken many different forms, with varying goals, though always among them is the necessity that every baker bring home an unbaked pie to place in her own oven, so it will be her home (or his) that fills with the smell of great pie.  Everyone brings his or her ingredients and rolling pin.  Also a story about their mother. 

 My pie classes are nearly always held in my home—sometimes groups of fifteen or twenty, sometimes just one or two people --possibly a friend, or someone who eats my pie and asks, how did I do that? , or a young friend of one of my sons, heading off to college and the challenges of adult life on his own.  Men can make good pie crust (and therefore, good pie) too, of course.   It’s a skill that comes in handy: being able to step into any kitchen, anywhere, and with only a handful of easily accessible ingredients, produce a food as delicious as just about any other.  (As my mother used to say, when she set the pie on our table:  Even the richest man in America isn’t eating a pie any better than this one, tonight.)

Over the years, I’ve probably taught over a thousand friends and strangers how to make a great pie.  (And strangers, who turned into friends.)  Sometimes I teach pie to make money for some good cause or other I want to support, and often I bake for my candidate in a political race I care about a lot. Sometimes when I see a person going through a hard time, or when I want to give a gift, it’s the secret of good crust I choose to pass on, as my mother passed hers on to me. 

I do this to honor my mother, but also to honor the set of values that , to me, are what a good pie is all about:  In our busy lives, keeping alive the tradition of making something by hand, now and then, without a single piece of technology involved.  The beauty of a simple pleasure, in a complicated world.  (And an affordable one, by the way.  Total cost of the ingredients for a great apple pie should not run more than three dollars.)  For me, those times I make pie also serve as a form of meditation—a few minutes out of my day to stop and think about people I love –the ones no longer here, the ones with whom I share the gift of pie. 

At the moment, I don’t have any pie workshops scheduled, but if you watch the video here—and maybe read the passage from my novel Labor Day, in which the escaped convict teaches the son of the woman who’s hiding him in her house the secret of great pie, I promise you.  Good pie is in your future.