I grew up in my Southern home on pound cake, cheesecake, layer cakes with frosting, chocolate chip cookies and two kinds of pie: pecan and key lime. We didn’t do fruit pie in our house.*
But when I met my husband, and more specifically, ate my first holiday meal with his mom, dad, sister, and two pies for the five of us, I discovered the gift of cherry pie.
Until his mom’s cherry pie, I had only eaten frozen or pre-made fruit pie, or pie made with filling from a can, where the fruit was mush or mealy, and the only flavor was sugar. From those experiences – at diners? on all-you-can-eat buffets? as a guest in someone’s home? they weren’t my mom’s, so I’m not sure where I tasted them – I assumed I did not like fruit pie, and I turned my nose up at it. But at this meal with my then-boyfriend’s family, the only dessert option was pie, and the pies were beautiful, and I didn’t want to offend his family, and so I ate pie.
I remember the crust, homemade and flaking, and the fruity burst of tart and sweet when the cherries touched my tongue. My limited experience with fruit pies in the past had not prepared me for this. I was transformed. Into a pie-lover. I ate the whole piece, then served myself another. Ate pie for breakfast the next day, because they do that in my husband’s family.
My husband is a Midwestern man, and in his family, pie is as vital to life as laughing. Over the years I’ve eaten every kind of pie they served up (except mincemeat): apple with a double crust, apple with a crumble top, apple with lattice work, pumpkin, sour cherry with a double crust, sour cherry with a crumble top, peach, strawberry rhubarb, loquat, pecan, chocolate pecan, and the most legendary of all, Aunt Sue’s grape pie. At nearly every holiday – Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas – during the pie eating portion of the meal, when everyone is sinking forks into golden crust and warm fruit, three pieces of pie on their plates (a slice of each – my kind of people), someone will inevitably say, “But have you tried Sue’s grape pie?” Eyes will roll in pleasure. “She always tries crazy stuff, and boy, that one is the best.”
Over the years, I have watched how they do things, building my pastry repertoire. Grandma Janet, the matriarch, advises not to cut the shortening all the way down to pea size when you’re making your crust. She says the secret is to leave some bigger chunks. Sally, my mother-in-law, uses a waxy rolling pad, with guiding circles printed on it to show how big to roll your dough, depending on whether you’re making a 9”, 10”, or deep dish crust. Aunt Sue (yes, I have had her grape pie, made from grapes she grows on her vine out back in Chicago, and yes, it is as good as they all say) uses a tea infuser – the $1.99 stainless steel kind with a handle that you squeeze to open the ball – to sprinkle flour on her board to roll out the dough.
But the best part of all is that there is never, ever shame associated with eating pie. At that first meal with my husband’s family, the meal with the life-altering cherry pie, there were actually two pies to choose from: cherry, and chocolate pecan. I stressed, plate in hand, about which one to try. The pecan was a sure bet, but the cherry was golden and red and glistening and beautiful. I wanted both. Then, talking and cutting, like nothing strange was going down, nothing greedy or gluttonous or shameful, my husband put one of each kind on his plate. So did my sister-in-law. And my mother-in-law.
I looked up at them, “So I can have them both?”
And they looked at me like, “Who is this woman Brian has brought home with him? Doesn’t she know how to eat pie?”
And I knew I wanted to marry this man. And his family.
Last year, we went to Aunt Connie’s for Thanksgiving, where the second incarnation of the family cherry tree still produces. It, or its predecessor, has stood in the same spot in the Columbus, Ohio yard since my mother-in-law and her six siblings were children. When they were growing up, Grandma Janet would harvest the sour cherries and make pies and cherry jam, just as Aunt Connie continues to do now.
When we arrived for Thanksgiving, Connie had two cherry pies on the counter (one with a crumble crust and one with a pastry crust), along with an apple and a pumpkin. I added my pecan pie to the spread. Our children, then 6 and 8, stood at eye level with those pies, and they drooled. Cousin Joe, in his mid-40s, immediately recognized them as competition.
On Thanksgiving day, after we feasted on the savory portion of the meal, we got to the part everyone was waiting for. The pie. Our son wanted apple. Our daughter wanted pumpkin. Cousin Mikie, in her early 40s, watched as our daughter squirted whipped cream on her piece. “That’s not enough, girl!” she said. Our daughter looked at me for permission, and I tipped my head. She grinned, flipped the can back over, and kept squirting.
I served myself a piece of cherry, a piece of apple, and a piece of pecan. I don’t know what everyone else ate, except that our son went back for a second piece of apple with Aunt Connie’s blessing.
Afterward, as we slouched in the dining room with our heads lolling on the chairbacks and our tongues hanging out of the sides of our mouths, totally spent from our day of gorging, Cousin Joey wandered through the kitchen. He didn’t know I was watching him, but I was. He surveyed the mostly empty pie plates, calculating how much was left, how much we would eat in a couple of hours, and how much might remain after that. He planned to go home for the evening and come back tomorrow. He looked up and I was looking right at him. “There were five pies,” he said. “Five.” His shoulders slumped. “I hope there’s some left tomorrow,” he said as he picked up his keys to leave. It didn’t look promising.
Sure enough, a few hours later, when we could move again, we hit the pies for a second round. Our son sliced yet another piece of the apple and I chided him. “Dude, leave some for everyone else.”
Aunt Connie swatted her hand at me and crouched down to our son’s level. “You eat as much as you want. I’ve got an extra one in the freezer.” Our son’s eyes widened, and he showed a bunch of teeth.
“You have another one in the freezer?” I asked. I didn’t know you could freeze pies.
Aunt Connie shrugged. “Yeah, you know, for emergencies.”
I heard the squssssshhhhh of the whipped cream can, then Mikie and our daughter giggling. Our son looked at Aunt Connie and gave her one of his sweet, soul-felt smiles, where his eyes crinkle and his irises clear, and you can see down into his deepest, gratitude-filled, awe-inspiring depths and you wonder, how many lives has this little boy lived? How ancient is this happy, Buddha soul? Then he turned his smile to me, holding his pie-filled plate in both hands, and he said, across the golden brown crust and with his silly open mouthed grin, “I love my family.”
* Apparently my dad loves apple pie, but for some reason I don’t remember apple pie from my childhood. Maybe my brother and I complained so much my mom threw her hands up in frustration and quit making them. If so, I’m sorry Mom and Dad. I didn’t like tomatoes either, but now give me a tomato and a salt shaker and I can make a meal. Likewise, I certainly appreciate apple pie now.