No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Happy Pi/Pie Day

I've bemoaned the fact that many holidays are colliding this week, but I forgot to mention one. Earlier this week on the 9th of March was the birthday of my pie baking mentor, Jessie. It seems most fitting to remember her on of all holidays, Pie Day.

As flour flew out of the bowl all over the checkerboard linoleum floor, Jessie would glance up from peeling apples while watching "Dark Shadows" and say, "Why don't you use a bigger bowl?" And so my baking apprenticeship began. Under Jessie's watchful eye I learned the intricacies of sifting and measuring, separating yolks and folding in whites. She taught me how to navigate rolling pins and icing spatulas, what was meant by "clean test" and "springy to the touch." Jessie had me baking right alongside her in a grown-up oven while all of my friends were baking by light bulb in their EZ Bake ovens.

Seasonal pie baking was a constant- a Farberware double boiler held center stage for cream pies and lemon meringue. In warm weather months, a huge red and white bowl held berries or peaches for tossing with just enough, but not too much sugar.

Jessie's handwriting was curlicued like the white icing scrawled across Hostess chocolate cupcakes. Most of her recipes were of course, in her head. When I would ask for specifics Jessie would say, "This much" offering a visual of her flour dusted hands or a verbal, “That’s enough” when adding water to pie crust.
I would try to repeat her directives, not always successfully. Never one to mince words Jessie would say, "Next time you don't want it to look like this... "  I must also credit her for teaching me not only recipe development, "Why you fussin' with that? There's an easier way..." but also problem solving, "Here. I fixed it."

Jessie's culinary talents encompassed sweets and savories; she prepared dinner nightly, desserts daily and could orchestrate and execute holidays such as Thanksgiving and Passover seemingly without effort. I must say that her fried chicken was legendary, and her pies as well. She would pack up care packages of fried chicken to send me on my way back to college after holiday breaks. It should also be noted that she was responsible for my early Music Education. Her bedroom was located directly below mine and in the evenings, the voices of Ella and Frank, Billie and Nat would creep up through the floorboards.

I still have the red and white bowl for mixing fruit pies and I think about her and miss her every time I'm in the kitchen. My kids would often say, "We should have had a Jessie" to which I'd reply, "Everybody should have had a Jessie."

My workday would not be complete without making a few rounds of pie dough. As I hoist the 20 quart mixing bowl onto the commercial Hobart with the paddle attachment mixing the butter, flour and just enough cold water to hold it together, I always think, "See Jessie? I'm using the bigger bowl."

Happy Pie Day.


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