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Personal Essays | Two Fistfuls of Flour, One of Shortening

He may not have been much of a ladies’ man, but when it came to dessert, Georgy Porgy was my kind of guy. Anyone with a passion for pudding and pie deserves more than a nursery rhyme; he deserves a holiday dedicated to lattice tops and meringue crowns. Thank goodness the folks at the National Pie Council chose to commemorate Crisco’s 75th anniversary by declaring January 23rd National Pie Day. Although the unofficial holiday was launched in 1986, thanks to Jessie, my grandmother’s housekeeper and my baking mentor, I grew up believing any day could be Pie Day.

Our kitchen was separated from the dining room by a swinging door that creaked comfortably when pushed open again and again by two older brothers, a younger sister and myself.  At the helm of the kitchen was Jessie, a formidable presence who turned out three meals a day for a family of six, and also found time to fill cookie tins and bake our birthday cakes and birthday pies with seeming ease. Jessie’s dress code never varied; a bib-front apron worn over a crisp dress the color of sherbet with starched white collar and cuffs. The aprons billowed about her full figure and encircled my little girl waist with plenty of room to spare. Under Jessie’s tutelage, I learned the intricacies of cake baking, how to separate whites from yolks, what was meant by clean test and springy to the touch. My mentor made it very clear that accurate sifting and measuring were critical to cake baking success. Pie baking however, was literally hands on. It was about the feel, the touch of the flour and the shortening, about knowing when just enough water was enough. I was fascinated.

There were three constants integral to Jessie’s pie crust; the yellow-lidded Tupperware flour canister, a can of shortening emblazoned with the blue Crisco label and an oversized cherry-red Pyrex mixing bowl. Assembled on the kitchen table, I watched Jessie use her hands to scoop two generous fistfuls of flour into the bowl. Sprinkling in what she referred to as a ‘good’ pinch of salt and a ‘good’ pinch of sugar, she then added a gentler sized fistful of shortening, working the mixture together with one hand. Jessie never bothered with ice cubes bobbing in cold water, she preferred to use filtered cold water directly from the sink. The water was never measured, it was just added ever so slightly, tossed over the flour and shortening until the mixture in the bowl morphed into a perfectly flaky top and bottom crust.

Jessie’s collection of glass pie plates nested together in a cabinet above the oversized Westinghouse oven. The CorningWare cornflower blue plate was seldom used and then only for graham cracker crumb crusts. When I asked Jessie why she preferred the glass plates over the gussied up Corning plate with its nosegay of flowers, she said she just did. Truth was, a clear glass pie plate afforded a visual test of a golden bottom crust.

The red bowl received a quick wash and dry before being filled with seasonal bounty; crisp apples, sassy lemons, sweet-tart blueberries or sun blushed peaches.

Jessie peeled and sliced, squeezed, removed stems and emancipated freestones in a methodical, seamless motion. In the background, the television hummed with game shows, cartoons, the Million Dollar movie.

Rolling out the bottom crust, Jessie eased it into the pie plate, leaving a healthy overhang for joining top crust to bottom. Once the fruit had been sweetened, spiced and tossed with thickener, Jessie emptied the contents of the red bowl over the welcoming crust, dotting the filling with bits of butter. The top crust was rolled out at the very last minute, draped high atop the mountain of fruit then seamed, tucked under and crimped. Jessie’s fingertips were dusty with flour as she placed the pie on a cookie sheet, sliding the tray onto the bottom rack, closing the oven door with a creak and a thud.

The hours spent in Jessie’s kitchen were my safe haven; out of reach from the teasing of two older brothers, safely distanced from the perils of mean girl adolescence. Jessie was more sounding board than advisor, but often her pearls of wisdom concerning the cool kids’ lunch table made the next day at school just the slightest bit tolerable.

From my perch at the kitchen table, I learned more than the correct proportions of flour to shortening to water.  Jessie demonstrated the importance of organization, the need for anticipating and simplifying. I like to think I developed my crisis management skills from Jessie, who had a knack for resolving last minute kitchen disasters. Perhaps her delivery of, “Here’s your such and such. I fixed it.” wasn’t the gentlest approach, but it was honest. In the too often male-dominated food world I would later enter, mercurial personalities were often brutally honest, fueled by ego. The bumpy roads of baker, restaurateur, and pastry chef were easier to navigate having honed my skills alongside a strong-willed woman, the lessons learned invaluable.

I have long since turned in Jessie’s oversized apron to don a regulation blue bakery smock, a white chef’s jacket, a faded and frayed linen service apron, a short sleeved linen service jacket, a rickrack trimmed overpriced floral apron from Anthropologie, and a green bib apron with the words Williams-Sonoma emblazoned across the front. The apron that evokes the warmest memories, however is the one that is folded in quarters, tucked away in a kitchen drawer, the wayward ties of the waistband refusing to lay flat. As January 23rd nears, it seems fitting to celebrate National Pie Day. I have just the oversized red mixing bowl and the apron necessary for the occasion.

Ellen Gray is a freelance food writer and professional pie whisperer at a small bakery in the Garden State. She wields a rolling pin by day and pens observations about pie by night at nomoremrnicepie.com. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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