Judith Moore bakes a pie – a transformation that is almost sorcery

What pleasure cake offers seems meager.

Once the pie is brought to the table, I like to take a moment to admire it. I like to give a chance for the pie to wet the mouth with anticipation of its tastes. I like to contemplate the lustrous, lightly browned crust.
  • Once the pie is brought to the table, I like to take a moment to admire it. I like to give a chance for the pie to wet the mouth with anticipation of its tastes. I like to contemplate the lustrous, lightly browned crust.
  • Image by Tim Brinton

As a child stirring mud and as an adult, sifting flour and blending in shortening, nothing has seemed as intriguing to make and to contemplate as pie. Its filling sequestered beneath a canopy of top crust, hidden from the eye (if not the nose), pie (not unlike the body) offers itself for reverie on the enigma of inside and out.

Even when I was a little child, a preschool toddler, I adored concocting for my dolls, in doll-size pie tins, mud-crust pies filled with pansies or nasturtiums or marigolds or yellow china berries picked off bushes that grew along the back alley or tiny pea gravel culled from our driveway. Belinda my rag doll snuggled in the crook of my arm, I would curl up in bed at naptime or at night, engrossed — transported, really — figuring what ingredients I could fill pies with later that afternoon or next morning. I would in my mind roll out mud circles and more daintily in thought than ever I did in fact would tuck these crusts in pans. In my mind’s eye I would see myself, in passionate imitation of adult pie-makers, layering in flowers or pebbles, then dribbling over them my sandbox sand for sugar and a few daubs of wet mud butter. Then, carefully, with an enormous sigh of satisfaction that comes as one nears a task’s completion, I would spread top crust over my pie’s filling, and with the same stubby dimpled fingers I see now in my photographs at that age, I would pinch together, around the pies’ entire circumference, the edges of top and bottom mud crusts. What was in the pie, then, was a secret only I knew.

I so heartily believed in my mud and sand ingredients that falling asleep I would smell my pies baking (and it would be a doubled make-believe because I did not smell mud, I smelled apples, cherries, apricots). While my body gave off that last shudder of tensed muscle letting go, I would begin to arrange (again, in my mind’s eye) on chairs around my playhouse table, all the dolls, even incontinent Betsy Wetsy (who wherever she sat left wet spots), the cloth rabbit, the woolen Pooh Bear come across the ocean from what my father called “war-torn England.”

Next to pie, what pleasure cake offers (as looked at or eaten) seems meager. To wonder about cake’s interior, given well-made cake’s unvarying, uniform web and constant all-chocolate or all-“white” taste (even when lemon or raspberry filling or dark chocolate glistens silkily between its layers) is to have the mind taken nowhere. The simplest breakfast muffin, aclutter with plump raisins and walnuts, seems more a marvel, inciting curiosity in the mind, bonanza for the mouth.

Another person might see this pie/cake distinction in an entirely opposite fashion and might think cake, leavened — which means that its volume is significantly increased by internal gas expansion — as it is by air-retaining foam of whipped egg whites or whole eggs and baking powder, is far more the miracle. But it seems to me that mere chemistry can explain what makes a cake while pie demands metaphysics.

This opposition between pie’s inside and out, this dialectic, if you will, between crust and filling, can’t help but set minds wondering. As children and as adults this opposition between outside and in never loses its interest for us. Confronted with the turtle or snail shell, high fence, blank wall, lid, door, veil, or wrapping (think of egg rolls, turnovers, pocket bread) past which the eye cannot go, the mind proceeds at once to ask, “What’s in there?” or, a bit more suspiciously, “What is being hidden?” and, of course, “Why?” If one is in a certain elegiac mood, this consideration of outside and in may steer the mind onto certain qualities of innerness: tenderness, vulnerability. One may then find oneself filled with emotions similar to the poet Rilke’s in which “the imagination sympathizes with the being that inhabits the protected space.”

In my mud pie days, I had a tiny wooden rolling pin equipped with handles lacquered bright red. I had to ask permission, but once having done so I was allowed to dust the wide lower step of the back stoop with sand from my sandbox and then I’d plop down my mud mix on top sand, pat my mud flat, and roll out my crusts on concrete.

How did I bake mud pies? Next to my sandbox I had built an oven from red bricks left over from some project of my father’s. Four bricks made the oven’s floor, four bricks stood on their ends made its sides, and for the oven’s roof, I used a piece of corrugated tin. I had more bricks that I stood up against the oven for its door. My baking, of course, was entirely make-believe, and as pies (I could fit two in the oven) baked, I would conjure in my mind drawings from my picture books: pies cooling on wide wooden windowsills, steam rising up out of vents cut in the pies’ top crusts and floating in chimney smoke whorls across blue skies above fairy-tale villages, and I could work myself up into a fret of fear by thinking that sweet fruity aroma drifting off my pie had attracted a sharp-toothed wolf. I would inevitably remember the nursery rhyme verse that began:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

Who it was of whom I asked permission to use the back stoop for my mud pie making was Black Mary, so called to distinguish her from my father’s aunt, whom I guess, were things equal, we would have called “White Mary.” Black Mary lived with us, kept our house, washed and ironed our clothes, and cooked our food. She had raised my father and his younger brother from the day they were born, and after their mother died, when my father was six, she became all the mother my father had left. He adored her. Black Mary had what my father called a “Queen Mary” bosom, by which he meant a breastline carried well forward, like a ship’s prow. She was better to me than anybody, better than my maternal grandmother and paternal step-grandmother, my mother, and better even than my father, if only because she, unlike my father and mother, was always home. I loved to bury my nose deep down in the cleft between her breasts, where her smooth skin gave off spices and breakfast bacon and furniture oil and flowery talcum she dusted her brown skin with, spotting it white. I loved to lay my cheek along the bodice of Mary’s print dresses and hear her heart beat. Its thump reverberated through her huge body into my ear, her flesh quivered and hummed, and I would begin to breathe with her. I would feel lulled and narcotized, and I would wonder, if like Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle, I might not fall asleep there forever.

I remember a springtime afternoon when a storm had come up; bright lightning strokes and a series of thunderclaps — not rolling thunder, but sharp, harsh cracks — woke me up from my nap. It was not long after lunch, but outside the sky looked dark as evening. My mother was at school and my father at work. Mary set me at the kitchen table. Our dog, a black Scottie like President Roosevelt’s Fala, lay under the table and whimpered every time another thunderbolt crashed. Mary had her little Bakelite radio turned on to one of her stories, which were about romance and did not interest me. I touched the dog with my bare toes, and he growled.

My father loved Mary’s chicken pie, and she was fixing us one for dinner. To make the pie, she had to start out by stewing what she called “an old hen.” I remember old hens coming to us (but don’t remember from where or how they got to the kitchen). The hens arrived headless and plucked of their feathers, with their skinny yellow scaled legs and feet still attached.

I remember that afternoon that Mary stood by the stove and held the old hen over gas flame, singeing off bluish pin-feathers that poked out from the hen’s naked body the same way my father’s weekend beard poked from his chin. The hen’s broken neck drooped downward, and a long, empty sleeve of loose skin hung off it and the skin bobbed. Every time flame caught at a pin feather, the burning feather set off a psst sound. The feathers burning smelled the same as hair burning.

The storm didn’t let up a bit, and rain had begun to come down so hard onto our roof that I couldn’t even hear the voices anymore on Mary’s radio. Mary had a big pot of water boiling by then in her black iron stew pot and had put the hen in bubbling water and then turned down the flame and covered the pot with a lid. Right away the glass in the kitchen windows began to steam up so much I couldn’t see out the window, and soon my father called from his office to make sure we were all right in the storm. Mary let me talk to him for a minute. He said if I couldn’t see out the kitchen windows I should go get in the dining room window seat and watch the storm from there and then the line crackled and I could barely hear him and gave the phone back to Mary.

I knelt on the window seat cushions, which were covered with rough monk’s cloth and scratched at my bare knees. I pulled back the curtain and looked through the glass Mary kept spotless with ammonia, out into the unnaturally dark side yard. Lightning flared across the sky, leaving behind an eerie radiance. Rain hit the grass and beat yellow blossoms off the forsythia canes and knocked petals off the red Darwin tulips. Low spots in the yard were drowning.

In no time rain turned to hail and Mary came and stood by me, hand on my shoulder and dog whimpering right behind her, and Mary said that with so much hail hitting the roof so hard she felt like we were stuck inside a drum that was being rat-a-tat-tatted with about a hundred drum sticks. She said she hoped the hail didn’t ruin our roof or break her windshield, which had happened before, or beat down lettuce and spinach that had just been up a few weeks out in the garden.

Mary said come along into the kitchen, which was by then hot and smelling good of chicken steam. I helped by shelling peas while Mary chopped onion and carrot and potato that would go into the chicken pie. The dog went to sleep, and when I had all the peas shelled and a bowl on the table half full of bright green peas and a pan heaped up with empty pods, I looked up and the storm was over and sun was shining down in a funny twinkly brightness onto the yard. I squinted because I had gotten used to dark. Mary brushed flour off her hands that had made them all white and helped me into my shoes and tied them and, telling me not to fall on slick grass or get in puddles, allowed me out the back door to go play.

Right away, of course, I went out to the sidewalk to see if my friend Janet from across the street was out, but she wasn’t. I started looking around to see what had happened in the storm. Hailstones, big as mothballs and as white, littered the lawn, and my father’s spinach and lettuce were beaten down into rows he’d planted them in, and dirt was on the lettuce leaves. The poplars that stood in a line between our lot and the one next door had leaves knocked off, and apple trees along the back fence also had leaves knocked off. My foot touched something soft, and I looked down and what my foot touched was a dead baby robin.

Maybe wind blew the bird from its nest; maybe first, rain drowned the bird in its nest or maybe hailstones killed it. It had no real feathers yet, only fuzzy down and the down was soaked. Bluish-pink skin wrinkled all around its body, and its wings had hardly formed and were more like flippers. Its feet were needle-like and not strong enough to have held up the bird if it had tried to stand up. Its head looked too big for its body, and its eyes looked too big for its head. Its beak was halfway open as if maybe it had struggled for breath. There was no life left in it.

It was cold to touch. I wasn’t supposed to touch it and I knew I wasn’t. I felt voracious guilt, the quality of which returns to me even now. I was disobeying Mary and my parents — “Do not touch wild birds. They’re dirty, crawling with filthy diseases and nasty lice.”

I knew what I should do, I should call for Mary and say, “Come, quick, there’s a dead baby bird out here.” Against my better judgment, against what I knew was right, I felt my will move the other way. I felt myself slide down into the desire to do what I wanted to do, to make this dead bird into a pretend-chicken pie. I ran to the door and knocked, and Mary stuck out her head. The smell of chicken pie baking came out. Mary looked up in the sky and wondered out loud if I needed my sweater on, and I said no and asked permission to make mud pies and got it, as long as I didn’t come in and out and track her clean linoleum. She said soon my father and mother would be home.

So I gathered my pots and pans and used water from a puddle and dug with my old tablespoon in the back flower bed where my father let me dig, and I got two mud balls, one for top crust and one for bottom, just right, not too wet and not too dry, and I put some sand on the stoop and took the red lacquered handles of the rolling pin, one handle in each hand, and rolled and rolled the mud balls out flat, and I fitted bottom crust into the little pie pan and then looked up at the kitchen window with its blue-checkered curtains and the window in the back door to see if Mary was looking out and she wasn’t and I hurried with my pie pan over to the fruit trees where the bird was with its beak half open and its feet up in the air and I picked it up and tucked it on its side in the pie shell and it just fit and then I put some soft apple tree leaves over it for vegetables and then I carried the pie pan back to the back stoop and still when I looked up Mary wasn’t looking out, her big face wasn’t smiling in the window, so I put the pie pan down on the stoop and carefully picked up the top crust and laid it over the leaves and pinched the two crusts together all around and carried it to my oven and put it in and piled up the bricks and sat down on the corner of my sandbox to wait for it to be done. I never told anyone this until now.

Of course, I knew I couldn’t feed the pie to my dolls because it didn’t seem right and I wasn’t happy, sitting there, and all the robins by then were singing and out in the yard pulling worms from the wet ground and I thought that one of them was the one whose baby was dead and she would fly up to her nest and her nest would be empty. I undid the door bricks and took the pie out of the oven and walked to the far corner of the garden and gently turned the pie over at the back of a flower bed and tipped all of it onto the ground and covered it up with dead leaves that my father stacked there in the fall.

By the time I got my mess cleaned up off the stoop, my mother and father were home. My father first thing checked his garden for damage, and Mary let the dog out and he yipped and ran in circles around my father and got muddy paw prints on his trousers. My father and mother asked Mary and me if we’d been scared during the storm, and we said no. For dinner, we had the chicken pie, served in the high-sided Pyrex pie pan in which Mary had baked it. I am sure that it tasted as it always did and does now when I make it, chunks of white breast meat, green peas, squares of potato, carrot, celery, the rich chicken gravy, which mixed together is like tasting an old-fashioned farm landscape. But I didn’t eat much and Mary said maybe I was tired because the storm woke me up from my nap.

I didn’t make mud pies anymore. Not for a long time or not for what seemed, at that age, like a long time. Probably it was only a week or two. And then I went to nursery school and then my parents broke up and then we moved and I started grade school. All that was a long time ago. But it stayed with me.

I felt as a child rolling out mud crusts much as I feel now, wearing an apron in my kitchen, that making a pie I’m handmaiden to a miracle. I will begin, let’s say, with pale green and ruby rhubarb stalks, sour red pie cherries, Macintosh apples, butter, sugar, flour, salt, and shortening. I peel the coarse strings off the outer blade of rhubarb, I pit cherries, peel and core apples. I spoon the raw fruit into the bottom pie shell, daub the fruit with chunks of butter, I dribble sugar and strew flour, the latter for thickening. I sprinkle all this with no more cinnamon than will lightly freckle the fruit. I fold the second round of pie dough in half and gently lift it onto the heaped high fruit with the fold in the pie’s center. One half of the pie’s fruit, then, is covered. Last, ever so painstakingly, I unfold this top crust across the pie’s other half and crimp edges of top and bottom crusts together. With a fork I prick the top crust in several places so that while the pie bakes steam can escape.

Set on a middle rack in the heated oven, a transformation that is almost sorcery begins. While I wash out the bowl, knives, dust flour off the pastry board, baking fruit’s aroma begins to perfume the house. Thirty, 40 minutes later, I will open the oven door a few inches and peer in. The oven’s radiating heat rises around the pie in waves that are indistinct, like the contour of a dream. The heat insinuates itself into the pie’s interior, creating between the sealed crusts its own steamy, primordial climate, a site (to use the French postman/philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s translated-into-English words) of “thermal sympathy” and “calorific happiness” in which apple and rhubarb and cherry cell walls break down and sugar crystals alter and butter melts.

Another half-hour, 40 minutes pass and I lean over, open the oven door. Heat rushes out onto my cheeks, reddens them. What I take out from the oven (my hands protected by thick potholders) seems precisely as did those childhood pies: born rather than made.

If the weather’s right, I’ll set the pie up to cool on the windowsill in my kitchen. I have no trouble, all these years later, imagining that heat floats off the pie’s browned crust out the window and sails in highly stylized whorls out into the courtyard and over the fence into the neighborhood. If I happen to be anxious, I may fear that the pie’s aroma has tempted a distant wolf. The wolf will appear decidedly older, leaner, and more vicious than the wolves from my childhood.

As a child with mud and as an adult with crust and apples, in the moment before the first cut is taken into a pie, I often have felt uncomfortable, as if I were about to violate taboo. Someone has suggested to me that cutting into a pie is not all that different from cutting into the body. So I think it is good to make something of a ceremony of cutting a pie. The table can be laid with a pretty cloth and napkins and the best silver and your favorite plates.

Once the pie is brought to the table, I like to take a moment to admire it. I like to give a chance for the pie to wet the mouth with anticipation of its tastes (the mouth’s imagination at work). I like to contemplate the lustrous, lightly browned crust. I like to think one more time about inside and out. Because the moment the pie is cut, outside will have no more meaning. A new dimension, the dimension of this pie’s delectable inferiority, is opened up.

Gathered around the table, those about to eat will say “Ahhh,” and “Mmmmm. Doesn’t that look delicious.” They will lean forward, noses alert. Sometimes you can hear them, breathing in.

Pierced through by the fork from top crust to bottom, the first bite rises towards the opening mouth. The sentinel nose having anticipated pie’s arrival, a tide of saliva crests in the mouth, pools in the tongue’s center, washes over the several thousand tastebuds embedded in the tip of projections called papillae. The teeth bite gently through flaky, slightly salty crust and then into tart cherries and rhubarb and apple. The fruits’ sweet and buttery juices, in a total-immersion baptism of the mouth, flood tongue, teeth, cheeks. There is no more outside. Everything is in.

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