A is for Apple
A is for apple, and when it comes to kitchen action in America, A is for apple pie. Everybody knows that mothers make the best apple pies. It is not like the pitch men of the ad agencies would have it, pumping for the purveyors of refined products from the merchants of grain, doing duty for the Pillsbury Dough Boy, flacking for Betty Crocker, hustling Krusteaze. Who IS Betty Crocker? Sometime back the thrust of investigative reporting sought an interview with Betty. They might as well have called the Pentagon for a word or two with General Mills. And Mrs. Smith? Sarah Lee? Flaky figments of that unique psychic state induced by a craving for carbohydrates. Nothing wise quite will do when what it is one wants is a piece of pie. And blackberry, blueberry or banana cream notwithstanding, there is noepie anywhere, ever, that evokes A similar national identification, the welling up of gustatory anticipation, the salivary presentiment like the warm wafting fragrance of apple pie, as it sits there cooling on the window sill, redolent with sugar, cinnamon or a hint of clove, spice-speckled and juicy inside, crinkled around the edges and toasted on top into golden undulations.
Some say, "Just like Grandma used to make." But in my own memory, underscored by testimony of my own mother, the truth of the matter is that Grandma was only an honorary Queen of the Wedgewood. She could and did roast the seasonal turkey. As a wee one, I adored her creamed corn, while admiring at the same time the Jolly Green Giant on the can it came from. Grandma's name was Rose, and there was a garden of rosebushes around her house, of which so it seemed there were always some in bloom. She had been born in Albuquerque of all the unlikely spots, stopping off on the way west. No New Mexico chili inspiration infused her veins, though, so far as any of us could remember. Mother said she boiled the vegetables to death and kept a padlock on the refrigerator. But I remember from Thanksgivings the mince and pumpkin pies. My favorites were the mince, with gobs of whipped cream, although I do not know if it was made from scratch and suet or if the box was labeled Nonsuch. It may even be that mother actually baked the pies we ate at Grandma's house.
Both my mother and Grandma swore by Wedgewood. Their stove models were slightly different, but on each stove the French-curved, highly glossed enamel legs of angled iron swooped down to the floor with a smooth and cool white luster, edged with black. Black handles dangled from the oven doors, the incinerator drawers, the pot and pan storage and warming space. When my world was a crawl space below three feet elevation from the kitchen floor, I already knew the difference between the casters under the legs of Grandma's stove and those of my mother's Wedgewood that kept it from denting the particolored linoleum at home.
It was from my mother's marvelous Wedgewood stove that the pies and tarts emerged to provide the elemental flaky sustenance of my childhood. Raisin pie I remember, mince I have mentioned. And there were others to be sure, down the list of berries and seasonal California fruit. Lemon I only later learned to like. Banana creams were rare. Chocolate pudding pie with grahamcracker crust comes under a different heading, as with cobblers, cakes and the other baking, from angel food to the rafts of cookies that sustained me while I was in the navy. What I am getting to is the epitome of the American mother's baking art, which we all know is apple pie.
No mistake about it. My mother makes the best apple pie in the world. So I asked her, "Mom, I'm working on this text for a book on food...could you please give me your recipe for apple pie?"
What can be transmitted in words is easy, quite straightforward. As you may suspect, there is something more, some subtle yet perfectly obvious Zen-like secret, which mysteriously keep every other attempt from smelling or tasting quite like the archetypal apple pie of my mother's ineffable touch. No, it was not the Wedgewood--for she has long since gone through a couple of modern stoves, but an inscrutible constancy in the pie-ness perdures.
The most important thing about apple pie, coming at the question from a practical, ordinary approach, is appleflesh: hard, green Pippin apples, as fresh as possible, and ripe, but a little tart to the taste if eaten raw. They get peeled and cored.
The technique of peeling an apple has little enough to do with the apple meat left, however, the variation in styles may be noted here. An adept of elegance with the paring knife circles around the stem end and continues the unbroken coil to the base of the fruit, removing the skin entire and reassembleable. I admire the efficiency of that paring tool which works for both right- and left‑handed people, although a properly sharpened paring knife does too.
The peeled apple is then set on its base on a cutting board, cut in half, then quartered in wedges. The core is then easily cut out with a paring knife...the seed-surrounding section pops out like a crescent moon. If the apple is big, these quartered wedges may be sliced into smaller chunks. I used to hang around the kitchen and scarf up the apple peels. They are good food. But you know what happens if they get into the pie? It seems like some sensitive, unsuspecting lover of apple pie gets a little piece of the skin stuck in between the teeth, and has to call time for emergency dental flossing. Or what is worse, a piece of the apple skin cups itself convex on the back of the tongue. Choking risks of apple skins, unless eaten by themselves, with attentiveness, are not so bad as popcorn, but they are annoying enough to avoid with deliberation.
Some of the acid in apple was thought to help bleach the teeth, although now dental science draws attention to the sugar, and suggests one brush after eating apples. This is also true for apples baked into a pie. Because one of the other principal ingredients in my mother's recipe is a heap of white sugar poured over the sliced apples. In with this went a pinch of cinnamon, and maybe some clove or allspice. That's about it for the insides. True, much remains in way of commentary on apples, such as whether or not they are the forbidden fruit, their relationship to Proto-Indo-European tree words, to the Greek god Apollo, representation in the fine arts and so forth. And there is a fine book already on sugar: W. R. Aykroyd, The Story of Sugar (Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1967).
Now the pie part, which is perhaps the most maddening of all. Mother goes on like this, "Well, you just follow your recipe, only use a little more shortening that the recipe calls for."
"But Mom, which recipe? That's the whole point. I want to write down the ultimate recipe for your non-stop, ever-lovin', incomparable, dee‑licious, and nearly world famous apple pie: the words in the simple language of the ordinary world, with a few, easy-to-read numbers representing common quantities, standard units of measure, using substances obtainable from the standard supermarket or old-time corner grocery store. No hidden meanings, no tricks or innuendos: I mean, the secrets revealed, set forth in the marked state, in print, black on white, in the conventional shapes of the letters, combined in the common words of our widespread tongue."
So, in a T'ai Chi sort of response, assuming that the secret of perfect and light, flaky, never‑fail pie crust is the one recipe, so well-known it hardly bears repeating, with just a little more shortening that the recipe calls for. Flour, of course. Good old enriched white flour. It gets sifted, but I never saw it or anything else measured out with precision. "How much?" "It depends upon how many crusts you want to make, if you want a full top, criss-crosses or open, and how thick you want the crust to be." Stands to reason. At home, presumably, the baker could also change intent in the midst of the process. Not enough crust left to cover the whole top? Well, let's just cut out some fancy designs and float them on the top of the pie.
Flour, a little baking powder, some salt, and the shortening. Not butter. People use butter thinking they will make a nice rich pie crust with delicious flavor. It gets oily, heavy-‑ never fluffs up with flaky crispness. No bacon fat in the pie crust either. Save it for the cornbread, where it is unbeatable. No peanut, sesame, safflower, Wesson, almond, avocado, et cetra oil. Plain old shortening. Crisco will do, that's all it is anyway. No, not lard. How much? A little more that you might otherwise think.
After one makes enough pies--in different seasons, year in, year out, early in the morning, in the middle of the night--one comes to understand things like the texture of the pie dough, just how it should crumble, roll, sit. There may be shortcuts to all this, the best of which would probably be looking over the shoulder of someone who really does it well. I missed the opportunity, being for the most part too small to look over my mother's shoulder, although she measured but an even five feet tall, and has gotten a little shorter, if anything, since the years I was a kid. Perhaps I could have annotated the process from a highchair or stool. I did not, however, I remember enough of the general swirl, the sight of subtly sensed and proportionate handfulls of flour going into the mixing bowl together with the Clabber Girl baking powder--now a little more, now a little less, contingent, possibly upon my Mom's inner hygrometer reading of the relative humidity. She shied away from the Calumet brand, even though the Indian on the tin now fascinates me in its transformations. (Where do you see Mohawk gas these days? What do the Stanford "Cardinals" have to do with California Golden Bear and an ax that is a tomahawk? While in the East we might well ask the real meaning of Dartmouth's "WahHoo-Wah.") We cannot get away from the so-called Indian in these matters: conservation, food, and what our mother's taught us. They are merely distinguished predecessors interpreting the intelligence of the soil, the soil's intelligence.
The question comes up again in the subject of spices, particularly with pepper. The ghosts and spectres of this continent's aboriginal inhabitants chant an eternal chorus which accompanies every recipe for chili--blustering, poltroonish, red-necked Texans notwithstanding. The issue of "Indians" is intrinsic to the history of corn, which includes (as we shall see) in addition to murals, manuscripts and mythology, the price of porkbellies, and the rise of Palladian architecture.
Kurt von Meier