In our first year as pastor and wife, we came to a large church, headed by a senior pastor who loved pie, the shepherd of a church full of Germans who also loved pie. Naturally, the pie-baking skills of all the German ladies were legendary, and the array of gorgeous pies at potlucks and picnics was stunning to behold. Germans love dough in any form, and if you fill a pie crust with fruit, you have two food groups on one fork.
Coming from a pie baking heritage, you'd think I would have mastered the art of pie crust. Unfortunately, at that point in my life I had not. I'd made a few attempts at pie crust, but this was back in the days when butter was bad for you, and all the recipes I tried used oil in its place. Even if I ended up with a decent lump of dough, the skill of crimping totally eluded me. Once, completely misunderstanding the crimping instructions, I folded the top and bottom crusts together, then over and under the rim of the pie plate. The result was slices of pie that could not be removed from the plate without hammering off the rim first.
These sub-standard pies of mine could not go public.
I managed to escape the shame of my pie handicap for the first several months at our new church. But the day came when I could hide no longer. I got a phone call from the head planner of what was unfortunately known as the Widow's Banquet, held in November each year. I think the original idea was to show kindness to women who had lost their husbands by treating them to a pre-Thanksgiving appreciation meal.
The woman who called me was formidable and strong-minded. She did not request that I bring a pie to the Widow's Banquet; she told me I would bring a pie. I was a green young pastor's wife, whose husband was at the bottom of the staff totem pole, and I was a little bit afraid of her. I dared not refuse, so I agreed to bring a pie, and then hung up, horrified at my fate.
Since there was no way one of my unsightly pies was making an appearance with all the other glorious pies, the solution was a frozen Sara Lee pumpkin pie. On the appointed evening I didn't want to be seen carrying in my cheater pie in the foil pan, so I sent my husband on ahead with the pie, directing him to sneak it into the banquet hall and leave it on the dessert table before coming back to pick me up for the Widow's Banquet (we were newly graduated and poor, and had only one car). Surely there would be other frozen pies to join mine, so nobody would ever know. My honor was saved, and I congratulated myself on my cleverness.
But my honor was about to take a beating. When the two of us arrived at the banquet, there was my poor, pathetic, frozen Sara Lee, the only store-bought pie, surrounded by gorgeous, golden-crusted pies in magnificent pie plates. Sara Lee was dreadfully underdressed in her foil. And so obviously mine.
I survived the indignity, mostly because the widows didn't care about the origins of my pie. They were just happy we came to eat with them. I would counsel my younger self to not be so hung up on what people think.
But in my old age I've learned to make a decent pie. For starters, the secret of a tasty, flaky, good-looking pie crust is butter. I wholeheartedly agree with Julia Child, who famously said, “You can never have too much butter.” The crimping part just takes practice. I won't ever reach the pie-baking heights of either of my grandmothers, who could turn out fabulous pies almost in their sleep, and in great numbers, but I think they'd both approve of my accomplishment.
In elementary school we sang a song called, “Billy Boy,” a call-and-response that describes the attributes of Billy's wife. One of the questions is, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Can she bake a cherry pie, charming Billy?” And of course, she can, because in the culture of that song, and in the culture in which I grew up, pie-baking was a required womanly skill.
Of course in today's world pie-baking isn't required for anybody, but anybody who wants to can learn to bake one. I wanted to, and am pleased to say, “Why yes, I can, Billy Boy.” Cherry, peach apple, pumpkin, pecan, you name it. In fact for this year's Thanksgiving, I'm trying a mixed-nut Mexican chocolate pie.
I'll let you know how it turns out. But I'm pretty optimistic, because you can't go wrong with butter.