Monday, January 21, 2008

How I Learned to Bake Pie

Everyone always asks me, “How did you learn to bake pie?” I grew up in Iowa and my grandmothers both grew up on farms. With those down-home Midwestern roots you might assume I learned to bake pie as a young girl just by hanging around in my grandmas’ kitchens. As if it’s a rite of passage. Or genetic. No. I was too busy learning other things in my youth and had lessons in just about everything a privileged kid could get. (My dad was a dentist and we lived in a city, miles from the nearest cornfield.) I had lessons in ballet, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, skiing, cello, piano, knitting, sewing, pottery, and more. But not in pie baking.

During high school I spent my summers working as a camp counselor. It was already clear that I wasn’t going to be a dancer or musician or any kind of professional athlete. And that I was not going to stay in Iowa. I was born with a case of wanderlust, driven to venture out into the world with great curiosity, high hopes, and chutzpah – a combination of traits that would lead me into trouble sometimes, but always out of it too. In one case, I even learned a valuable lesson: how to bake pie.

At the end of my last summer at Camp Abe Lincoln a fellow camp counselor, Dan, and I planned a bicycle trip down the West coast. I was 17 years old that summer. We took the Greyhound bus from Iowa to Vancouver, British Columbia with our ten-speeds packed in boxes and our sleeping bags packed in panniers. Dan was more an acquaintance than a real friend, but having a companion was better than going alone. My companion, however, turned out to have very different goals. He wanted to stop at every antique store along the Pacific Coast Highway when I just wanted to log as many miles as possible in one day. I never stayed in touch with him after that trip, but I’m guessing he finally came out of the closet and probably owns his own interior design business. But I digress.

We took a ferry across to Vancouver Island, pedaled down the large island getting our first taste of the lush, mossy forests of the Pacific Northwest. We wore our Gore-tex most of the time. We camped in parks in wilderness settings, cooking our own meals over a portable gas burner. We took another ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to enter Washington State and headed south on Highway 101 on the inland side of the Olympic Peninsula. It was somewhere along this stretch that we rode our bikes past an apple orchard. About two acres in size the property was surrounded by a ranch-style log fence. It was early September and the trees were full of red, ripe fruit. The branches were so heavy with the weight of all those juicy-looking apples they seemed to begging to be relieved of their load. For two young and hungry cyclists this was an open invitation to stop for a free snack. With all those apples, who would miss a few? We got off our bikes and began to help ourselves, picking a few from a tree.

“What are you doing on my property?” an old man yelled. We looked up at the farm house about fifty yards away and saw the old geezer stomping toward us. We were two clean-cut kids from Iowa on our bicycles. What harm did he think we could possibly do?

“We’re riding our bikes down the coast,” Dan explained.

“From Vancouver to San Francisco,” I added.

As we told him about our trip he looked us up and down, scrutinizing our suntanned, athletic bodies clad in skin-tight bike shorts and funny shoes, and his tough-guy demeanor eventually softened. Not only did he soften, he invited us to spend the night.

Turns out the grey-haired man with black horn-rimmed glasses was a retired pastry chef from the Navy. His house was a comfortable, cluttery mess and had no electricity. He lit kerosene lamps and entertained us with stories about his days at sea while showing us how to make an apple pie – from our stolen apples.

To make the dough, he used two knives moving them against each other in opposite directions to cut the butter into the flour. He added enough water to hold the flour together and put the bowl of dough in the fridge. While the dough was chilling (his refrigerator and oven were fueled by propane) we peeled and slice about ten small apples, saving the peelings for the compost and putting the slices into a bowl with lemon juice. He later rolled the dough out on his wooden slab of a kitchen table, first heavily flouring the surface, then flattening the dough into a circle with a heavy wooden rolling pin. We put the sliced apples in the pie dish, added a cup of sugar, a few tablespoons of flour, some cinnamon, and a pat of butter, and then covered the heap with the top crust. That baby went into the oven and as it baked for an hour the room filled with its heavenly, homey apple-cinnamon-butter scent.

Dan and I ate a lot of apple pie that night before falling asleep on his living room floor in our sleeping bags. And we ate more apple pie before we continued on our bikes the next day. Our trip went on for another three weeks during which time we met more people, took more ferry rides, saw more spectacular scenery, visited a few more antique stores, and built up some very solid leg muscles. We ended our journey early but safely in Southern Oregon and went our separate ways. We didn’t steal anymore apples.

That was more than twenty-five years ago now and I don’t remember the town where that apple orchard was or the old man pastry chef’s name – and I doubt he is still alive – but I remember the glow of the room from those kerosene lamps. I remember the cragginess of his face and can still picture his horn-rimmed glasses. I remember the stacks of books and magazines piled around his living room. I remember how he acted so mad when we were stealing his apples and how quickly he welcomed us into his home. I remember his generosity and how it brought him so happiness to share his stories about his life at sea. I remember – and how I wish I could tell him this myself – I remember how to bake an apple pie.

So old man, wherever you are, please know your legacy – and your recipe – lives on.