West Virginia folklorist Emily Hilliard wasn’t so sure about my plan to spend February learning about pies.
In an email, she wrote, “The best pies are made from fresh fruit though, so you may want to reconsider taking this project on in the winter.”
Emily, who used to write the well-regarded pie blog, “Nothing In The House,” and is sort of considered a pie guru, had a point.
The only fresh fruit we were getting in Charleston would be oranges and grapefruit arriving on the back of a refrigerated truck from Florida or Texas. Eventually, there might be strawberries, but the blueberries on sale at my local Kroger for $2.99 a pint were shipped in from Chile.
If I had to guess, those would be coming across the Atlantic Ocean in the cargo hold of a big metal boat.
We won’t see a local apple or strawberry until summer at the earliest, but I’d already committed to a plan. I had a group of bakers lined up to help me get the job done — and really, I didn’t care that much.
My favorite pie is made with coconut and pineapple, which I’d be pleased to grow in my garden, but I have trouble enough with tomatoes and peppers.
Whether I was misguided or not, Emily agreed to let me ask a few questions as I dug into the crust of the subject.
Spending a month learning about pie took me a while to get around to.
Originally, Sarah Plumley at Sarah’s Bakery on Bridge Road suggested this, just after I spent a month with Petra Vasale decorating cakes at Cakes by Design, my first certifiable failure.
During that month, I tried to improve my cake decorating skills, but mostly I cowered behind the sink washing dishes. I took some notes but barely improved. I never really mastered the proper ratio of marshmallow and Crisco to make fondant.
My final attempt looked like a junior high science project gone wrong.
I needed some time to get over the loss. Besides, I had taken on cake decorating because I didn’t know much about it. Fancy cakes were really left field for me, but I’ve made pies.
For the last few years, I’ve raised a small garden in my backyard. When I can fend off the deer, rabbits, powdery mildew and Netflix marathons, I can usually eke out some pumpkins and apples — enough to make a few pies, at least.
But my pies aren’t that good. The crusts tend to be lumpy, grainy and dense; not thin, light and flaky — the way pie crust is intended to be.
The crust doesn’t taste that good, and I’ve never been very good at putting a top crust over the filling. At best, my crusts look like patched denim; at worst, they resemble a skateboard injury.
So far, I’ve only been able to salvage my pies by applying generous scoops of vanilla ice cream.
Almost any pie or cake can be salvaged with the help of Haagen-Dazs — and maybe some chocolate syrup and a little whipped cream.
When all else fails, bury the thing. That’s my motto.
Making pies has always been a hassle, but I’ve always loved pie. As a chubby kid, I used to look forward to the amazing pies my granny made on her farm in eastern Virginia.
She used to bake a lot, but I liked her pies more than I liked the cookies, the brownies and chocolate layer cakes she made from scratch.
I had my reasons about the cakes.
While I would never speak ill of my grandmother’s cooking, the crusts of those cakes sometimes came out of the oven a little crispy, which required slathering a little extra icing in between the layers to make it palatable.
Whenever we visited, Granny always had pie for us. There was always apple, cherry or peach; chocolate or lemon meringue; and my favorite, coconut and pineapple pie.
She made that just for me.
This wouldn’t have been one of those family recipes handed down over the generation. Pineapples and coconuts aren’t native to either of the Virginias.
She probably picked it up from Southern Living magazine or the pages of a Baptist church cookbook. She made the pie once and likely thought nothing of it, until I raved about it six months later.
She probably had no idea where she got the recipe and might have started digging through whatever magazines or cookbooks she had around, hoping to hit upon what I liked so much.
I believe this because she never made that pie the same way twice for years — not that it mattered to me. I liked them all.
In my memory, the pie was always perfect. Whenever I think of it, I think of her and the energy she spent trying to please her dopey, tropical fruit-lovin’ grandson.
She bothered because she loved me. The pie was a gift.
At long last, I told Sarah I would spend a month learning about pies. She would be my chief tutor on the subject. I could come to her very fine bakery on Bridge Road, hang out, learn some skills and then go home and practice making pies.
I would inflict my progress on my family, friends and co-workers, just as I had when I studied sushi with Chef Evan Wilson at Ichiban.
Co-workers were positively jubilant after I promised to make every Friday “Pie Day.”
“But wait,” reporter Becca Carballo protested. “I don’t work Fridays.”
Sarah and I discussed a basic curriculum. Then I reached out to a couple of local bakeries to see about coming by for a tour. From the library, I checked out a stack of pie cookbooks and books on pie history and culture.
The history of pie is long and complicated.
I learned about the centuries-long controversy regarding the difference between tarts and pies, which still rages on in some quarters to this day. I learned that yes, putting blackbirds into a pie was actually something people did, and I read that the legend about how the sandwich got its name was probably a lie.
The Earl of Sandwich was a gambler. According to the story, one night, while refusing to leave the card table, he told servants to just bring him some sliced meat between two pieces of bread that he could hold in his hand.
Allegedly, this was how we got the sandwich, though it’s considered unlikely at best.
People have been eating things wedged between slices of bread since bread was invented thousands of years before the Earl was even born.
Janet Clarkson, the author of “Pie: A Global History” pointed out that the Earl probably wouldn’t have bothered with a complicated instruction. He would have just sent for a slice of the meat pie left over from dinner.
The British (and Americans) used to eat a lot more pie, and many of them were things you could eat with just one hand.
As I was working out how many laps I’d need to swim to work off the extra calories I would take on sampling pies this month, plans began to unravel.
My schedule and Sarah’s didn’t line up. Business picked up at the bakery. Between the two of us, we had bad weather and doctor’s appointments. Then Sarah came down with a bug.
She couldn’t give me a pie lesson right away. I was going to have to start on my own.
So, I dug into my stack of books, found a basic crust I thought I could manage and came up with a first recipe. It was for a blueberry pie.
The Sunday newspaper circular from my local grocery store was sitting in the backseat of my car.
I called it a sign, rather than proof that I needed to clean out my car.
I read through the ingredients and then looked at the tips from Emily.
She wrote, “Trial and error is the best teacher. Keep everything cold, especially the butter, and don’t over work the dough (no kneading!).”
It wasn’t the most auspicious start to my month, but I drove to the store and bought the ingredients I needed, only going back once to get the correct flour.
True fact No. 1: You don’t want self-rising flour. That’s for bread and biscuits.
At home, I found the big, plastic bowl I use for popcorn, the biggest bowl I owned. I placed the bag of flour and the box of butter inside the bowl, then put everything in the freezer to chill overnight.
Slowly, I was getting started.