17 June 2009

Sweety Pies

I was raised by a giant conglomerate of women. Some were white and some were black. I make this distinction, not because it is important to me but because "race" is such loaded word in our culture and because I was raised for the most part in Alabama, so race tends to hang in the air like rotting kudzu.

One of the women that raised me was Pearl, my great-uncle Jim's cook. She called me Sweetie Pie.

She made the most wonderful little peach pies, dusted lightly with sugar and a mahogany colored fried chicken that could make you weep. Try as I might, I have never been able to replicate either. Every summer, part of her job was to look after me. My Mother and Uncle Jim would sit in the formal living room while Pearl and I were confined to the kitchen. I was never terribly fond of Uncle Jim as he was an imposing man with a horrible scar on his leg that he loved to show me. In the kitchen, Pearl and I were subversive. On the days he would make look at his wretched scar, she would lift me up to sit on the sink edge while she washed dishes and I would put my feet in the dishwater.

Pearl's kitchen was filled with laughter. She would always let me set the table and I always set her a place. Before she rang the bell for dinner (lunch to you Yankees) she removed her plate. One day, when I was five, I ran out of milk. Uncle Jim rang for Pearl to come into the kitchen to get the milk. I said the refrigerator was right there, my Mother could get the milk. When Pearl tried to pour the milk, I put my hand over the glass. Pearl was excused and Uncle Jim told my mother that perhaps she should bring me back to Alabama so I could learn manners. To save face, my Mother took me by the arm and dragged me out the back door while grabbing the rag mop. She beat me with mop till it broke and returned me, apologizing and banishing me from the table.

I went to find Pearl, who was sitting on the foot of Uncle Jim's bed. I sat beside her but she didn't say anything. She didn't comfort me and I didn't really understand so we sat there, none of our feet reaching the floor, until it was time to wash the dishes. Despite this minor embarrassment, we remained thick as thieves. When my father died, my Mother fell apart and following Uncle Jim's advice, brought me back to Alabama. In the months following my father's death, I was adrift, but knew if I could just get back to Pearl's kitchen I would be safe. When we finally arrived, I asked for Pearl. "She's dead," my uncle said without any explanation. I didn't think I would ever be safe again.

I told that story to a friend of mine who said I was racist for loving Pearl. There was some post-modernist spin on her logic. When I was a child I loved Pearl. I never knew her last name, never met her husband, never got the chance to inquire why she had no children, and never got the chance to copy down any of her recipes. I know that with her I felt safe. I know she made extraordinary pies. I know that it was she who made me love kitchens and stoves and sifters and aprons. When I looked at mother I never saw my future but when I looked at Pearl I did. Race is complex. Family is complex. Class is complex. But, love is simple, as is food.

One of the most loving cookbooks in recent memory is Patty Pinner's Sweety Pies: An Uncommon Collection of Womanish Observations, with Pie. In Pinner's book, every pie has a story and a woman behind it. My friend Ann is coming for the Fourth of July. She asked me if I would make her an apple pie or, "I can just buy one," she said. It seemed almost un-American to serve a "bought" pie for Independence Day! The second she said "pie" I knew where to look.

There is, however, a profound problem with pulling Sweetie Pies from the bookshelf. You can't put it down. I just wanted to read her Grandmother's apple pie recipe. But then I had to read Mayor Ham's Brown Sugar Peach Pie recipe, and the one for Miss Mancini's Rice Pie, the was Aunt Betty Jean's Lemon Pie and two hours later there was no pie.

Patty Pinner grew up in Michigan but she is a bona fide Southerner in my book. Here is her somewhat, dressed - up version of her Grandmother's apple pie.

Pink Lady Apple Pie

Dough for one 9-in double Flaky Pie Crust
1 cup sugar, plus 1/2 teaspoon for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 medium-sized Pink Lady apples (or any good pie apple), peeled, cored and sliced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut not small pieces
1 teaspoon milk (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Gather the dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Refrigerate the smaller one. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the lager ball of dough, into 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Place a 9-inch pie plate upside down on top of the rolled out dough. Use a small knife to cut a 1-inch border around the pie plate. Remove the plate. Fold one side of the crust over in half. Fold the crust into quarters. Pick up the crust so that the center point is positioned in the center of the plate. Unfold the dough and press it firmly into the pie plate. Refrigerate until you need it.
In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of the sugar, the spices, and flour until well blended. Sprinkle evenly with the vanilla, a few drops at a time. Add the apples and toss until well coated. Remove the bottom crust from the refrigerator. Pour the filling into the crust,dot with the butter.
Remove the smaller ball of dough from the refrigerator and roll it out into an 11-inch circle the same way you did the bottom crust. Lay the top crust over the filling. Trim the overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold the edge of the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust until the edges are even with the rim of the pie plate. Flute all around the edges with your fingers. Cut steam vents in the top crust. If you like, brush the top crust with the milk, then sprinkle it with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of sugar.
Place in the oven and bake until bubbly and golden, about 1 hour. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving with vanilla ice cream, or a wedge of cheddar cheese.

Patty Pinner's grandmother said, "Good cooks have good hands."
My great-aunt Ruth said the same thing. "You have lovely pie making hands," she would say to me as I rolled out dough.
Patty Pinner's grandmother gave her gift's to run a "pretty household."
My great-aunt Sissy gave me similar gifts to tuck away in a "hope chest."
Patty Pinner's grandmother gave her her prized aprons.
My great-aunt Lizzy gave me hers.
Patty Pinner and I both have an unusually large number of recipes that call for store bought cereal.
Patty Pinner and I both know someone named "Sister Baby."

If Patty Pinner had known Pearl, she would probably have a copy of her Peach Pie recipe. I wish she had.

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