I waken wanting a piece of pie. It isn’t a specific flavor I imagine, just oozing juices softly jelled, and flaky, melt-away crust. I excel at eating pies, not at making them. Pie perfection is Mother’s realm, though she’s no longer here. I begin pulling things together… butter-flavored Crisco, sugar… and the flavor of rhubarb comes to me.
I love the snapping sound the ruby stalks make against the cutting blade. I load them in a pan, sprinkle with sugar and turn to making the daunting crust. Mother could whip a pie together on a dime, measuring nothing, cleaning up as she went. By the time it was in the oven, her kitchen was put away. She looked self-righteous.
On market day we’d catch the bus by six a.m. for the hour’s ride. Though it was open ‘til four, best to get to Lancaster Market while pickings were plentiful. Among the Amish goodies — free-range chickens, smoked bacon, fat green barrel pickles — she’d buy souse for Dad, and fresh horseradish. We’d return sucking spearmint twists, the bus scented with sticky buns.
Mother brought a wicker basket to carry her pies. When we got there she’d slip them on an Amish table. They quickly sold with all the others. She’d collect no money; this was about her pride — being as good as any Amish woman at pie baking. A rush of shoppers crowded in, ignoring her. The table was bare by ten. Assuming participation at market uninvited was a prideful boast. Presumptuous and proud, Mother was anathema to Amish humility. But they pocketed the money her pies earned and excused her arrogance.
To assuage her guilt, Mother purchased an Amish shoo-fly pie. She knew her own reputation for shoo-fly. Hers had a soft, achingly sweet bottom layer of molasses cushioned against flawless crust with the top layer of sugared crumb sinking into the molasses, resting against the goo. She learned it from her mother who learned it from her mother. I can make shoo-fly worth a fork-stab, but nothing near hers.
Eating it, though, was a ritual. Mama had something to prove. I sat at the table with my brother, forks at the ready, swinging our feet as she sliced the purchased pie. (Here’s the thing: Amish shoo-fly is spectacular, so bad-mouthing it was difficult but expected).
She sat like a hawk, watching every bite. “So? How is it?” Brown eyes searched our own as she leaned forward.
“Mmmmm….mmmmm! Not as good as yours, though,” my brother lied. Mama beamed.
Trying to be a food critic, I answered. “You know, Mama, the goo is really tasty, but the crust leaves something to be desired.”
“What’s that mean?” she asked. “You don’t like the crust? Just say you don’t like it! Stop putting on airs!”
I’d done my duty, she was puffed up, and Bobby’s plate was empty. He lacked the finesse to eat as though it wasn’t his favorite. To him, pie was pie. We knew better than to ask for seconds, though if it had been hers, she’d have let us eat the whole thing. Funny, to think Mama sought reassurance from a couple of kids.
I stand now in my kitchen fretting over the crust. I sift the flour, measure it, and dump it in Mother’s large mixing bowl. Measure the lard; lard is her secret. I’d forfeit butter-flavored fat for her choice. Quietly, out of the mist that separates us, she speaks into my ear. “Don’t put all the lard in at once. Do it in thirds. Rub it in with your fingers ‘til the fat’s the size of large peas.” I do as she says. “Now, add a third more lard and use your pastry cutter. Cut through the dough until the fat’s like little peas.” She speaks to me softly, without her usual sharpness.
“Good! Add the rest. Cut it in until the whole bowl looks like oatmeal flakes,” she whispers. A cup of ice water sits beside the bowl. I won’t need it all, adding it by the teaspoon, sprinkling it across the dough, anxious because this is the hardest part. Not enough water and the dough won’t hold together. Too much will make it gluey. Kneading too long will make it tough.
“Just enough now, to keep it together. You can’t take it back.” I add water drop by drop, seeking “just enough,” moving the dough in a swirl in the bowl. It gathers together under my fingers. I’m a nervous wreck, holding my breath. I dump it on my marble surface, work it into a round, and cut it in half. Using Mama’s rolling pin, the dough moves like velvet. I lay it into the pan and pour in the rhubarb filling. I repeat the process, fluting the remaining dough, painting with egg, then popping the pie in the oven. I glance around my kitchen, with flour on every surface. I know she stands behind me, smirking. The bell rings. The pie is done. The kitchen is redolent with rhubarb; my mouth waters. I lift its heaviness from the oven and place it on a rack, admiring it as I clean up. I’ve pulled a fork from the drawer and put the coffee on. Not hurrying, I think on those pie lessons. Never patient, she’d rush through them. “Wait, Mama! Show me again!” I’d plead. “Just do as I say!” she’d snap. I’ve been trying to do what she said for years.
The pie has cooled, the juices jelled. I slice through the crust, feeling its crisp resistance to the blade, and slide out a serving to share with Mother. She’s right here with me, just as she’s been for all my attempts to duplicate her pies. But this time she helped, coaching me through to achieve that prize of pies, rhubarb, our favorite. A forkful of pie, ruby red and glistening, tangy sweet and tender, tells me that.
Mama’s Rhubarb Pie
3 cups rhubarb
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp flour
1/8 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
tsp almond extract
Line a 9-inch pan with plain pastry. Peel the rhubarb and slice in 1/2-inch pieces before measuring. Mix flour, sugar, salt and eggs. Add flavorings. Add rhubarb and turn into pie pan. Moisten pastry edge with water. Cover with top crust. Press edges together, crimp. Vent top crust. Bake at 425 degrees for ten minutes; drop heat to 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Cool on rack. Enjoy.