In the summertime, I bake pies. Blueberry-blackberry pies, strawberry-blueberry pies, nectarine-raspberry pies, peach pies. Pies with all-butter crusts and lattice tops, made from scratch, baked until the fruit bubbles and the crust is golden brown. People have told me that my pies are the best they have ever tasted.
When I bake a pie, I use the tools I inherited from my Grandma Mary Martin—her Pyrex pie dish (a glass dish is best for pie; you can see when the bottom crust starts to brown), her early-model Cuisinart food processor (she kept all the parts and instructions for use stored away in Ziploc bags), the marble slab she used to roll dough on (so it doesn’t stick), her teeny rotary cutter (to crimp the edges of the lattice strips). I keep my clothes flour-free by wearing my Grandma’s favorite apron, which we Martins call a “schmatte,” borrowing from the Yiddish. It’s a flowered cotton housedress Grandma sewed herself, worn with the buttons in the back.
I baked my first pie from scratch with my Grandma about ten years ago. I was sleeping over at her condo in Staten Island, and I wanted to learn how to make lemon meringue pie—then my favorite. I had been sucking on the lemon slices from my parents’ drinks since I was three years old, never puckering from the shock of the sour juice. I always preferred tart and fruity to sickly sweet.
Grandma Mary only ever seemed stern in two situations: while sewing and while baking. It was in these two disciplines that she exercised her perfectionism. Patterns and numbers had dictated Mary’s working life—she was first a seamstress, then a check-clearer at Irving Trust—and even after she retired, she preferred hobbies that consisted of defined steps. Sure, she took some liberties where she could, always trimming garments with care and decorating her cookies like little gems. But there is math to a dress pattern and science to a pie.
Baking that first lemon meringue pie with Grandma was not a lovely bonding moment between grandmother and grandchild, laced with giggles and clouds of flour thrown about. There were rules in Grandma’s kitchen. Baking wasn’t playtime.
The night before we were to put the pie in the oven, we made the crust, which had ground walnuts in it. Grandma handed me the manual nut grinder and told me not to put more than a few walnuts in the feeder at a time. I plopped in a handful, and as I turned the handle, chunks of walnuts went flying all over her pristine kitchen. Grandma looked more exasperated than I had ever seen her before, except maybe the time that I fidgeted through a fitting for the First Holy Communion dress she was sewing me. I got stuck with pins and yelped the whole time as she implored me to stand still and keep my shoulders back. This time, Grandma grabbed the grinder from me and demonstrated how to avoid making a mess, how to be patient and work slowly until each nut was pulverized into a fine dust. This took me the better part of a half hour, taxing my pre-teen attention span. Couldn’t we just have used a pre-made crust? Or one without nuts? That, in Grandma’s opinion, would be cutting corners, ignoring the recipe, marring the reward of the final product. While I fussed with the nuts, Grandma measured out the flour and sugar and cubed the cold butter just so and floured the chilled marble slab and preheated the oven. She did all of this with a serene look of concentration, her mouth set but her eyes soft. When I finally finished my grinding, Grandma showed me how to use a pastry cutter to combine the cold butter with the dry ingredients, making a smooth dough that would roll out without crumbling. My arms tired quickly when it came to mixing, and I couldn’t seem to get the right grip on the rolling pin, despite Grandma’s precise directions. It was late and I was tired by the time the crust had par baked.
The next morning, I almost couldn’t bear the tasks of making the lemon curd and meringue. I knew I would mess up again and there would be more sharp looks from Grandma. But I really wanted the sense of accomplishment from knowing that I helped to bake what was bound to be a gorgeous pie, crowned with shiny, caramel-colored peaks of meringue. I wanted to be able to mimic Grandma’s ease with rolling and folding and whipping some day, and I was beginning to see that that took practice and a commitment to doing things the right way.
The pie did turn out perfect that morning: the filling set into a glossy, not-too-sweet, not-too-tart curd; the egg whites whipped with sugar and cream of tartar until stiff peaks stood and not a second more. When my aunt came over later that afternoon and we sat down for a slice of pie, she commended our efforts as she asked for another slice. “Who made this, really, Mom?” she asked. “Kris did,” Grandma said. I had merely helped, but I still felt for the first time the satisfaction that comes with feeding loved ones.
I didn’t bake with Grandma again until some years later, after my sophomore year of college. Summer break had just started, and already I was feeling restless. I needed a task to keep me busy, to fill in for all the reading assignments and papers to write and late-night talks with my roommates, and I wasn’t starting my internship in Philadelphia until June. I decided to spend a few days at my Grandma’s house to kick off the break. There were always little things to do around Grandma’s that made me feel useful—buying milk at the grocer, walking our family dog, helping her figure out the DVD player or her cell phone—and this was especially true that summer. The year before, Grandma was diagnosed with colon cancer and spent several months in the ICU at Memorial Sloan Kettering due to complications following surgery. Though she recovered, got out of the ICU and the hospital and got the cancer more or less under control, she never really regained her strength. She was nearly 84 years old at that point and losing her stamina at the stove. She no longer cooked alone.
And so, when we baked together that summer, I was the one with the strong arms. We made a peach cobbler from a 1950s Betty Crocker recipe. Grandma told me what to do this time—she didn’t show me. “Peel the peaches with a paring knife, not a vegetable peeler, Kris. The skin is too fuzzy for a vegetable peeler. No, no, turn the blade AWAY from you.” She monitored as I sliced the peaches to perfect 1/8” thickness, as I measured the flour (“You have to level it. You know how they eyeball everything on TV? It doesn’t work that way”). I liked this recipe because I actually could make it myself—there was no sticky, difficult pie dough, just biscuit-like blobs to drop by the spoonful on the sugar-and-spice-laden peaches. When I pulled the cobbler out of the oven, Grandma gave a nod of approval. It wasn’t a beautiful dessert, but it was delicious. Grandma topped hers with vanilla ice cream and asked for seconds.
While we ate, my Aunt Mary Ellen said, “I can’t believe the girl who didn’t know how to cook herself a hot dog a few years ago made this.” She was shocked that I wanted to learn how to cook after resisting for so long. I had been intimidated: nervous of failures at the stove, worried about how I would measure up to a family of great cooks and bakers. After spending two years away from those great cooks, I was ready to turn my love of eating into a love of cooking, so that I could make for myself the dishes I craved.
And as I learned more techniques and recipes, baking started to become a method of meditation for me. I like to think that Grandma thought of it that way, too. My Grandma’s life had its trials—losing her husband suddenly at a young age, raising five children on her own, the death of her daughter-in-law, helping to raise my teenaged brother and me, and the illness and death of her son. The way I see it, sewing and baking were pastimes that imparted a sense of control to my Grandma. She knew that if she creamed butter and confectioner’s sugar, added flour and leavening, rolled out and cut the dough, and put it in the oven, she would get cookies every time, and that those cookies would make her family happy. I take the same solace in the rhythm of a recipe now. Peeling and slicing nectarines, cutting cold butter into flour and sugar, and rolling discs of crust forces me to concentrate on the task at hand and not the skipping record of worries in my head.
There are times when even cooking cannot help. Almost exactly a year after I made my first peach cobbler at Grandma’s house, my Uncle Joe passed away after a long illness. Uncle Joe was something of a surrogate father for me—I lived with him and my dad’s sister, Alice, after my mom and dad died, and losing him reopened the wounds I had been trying so hard to keep sewn shut.
For Catholics, mourning follows a pattern: first the wake, then the funeral, and then the graveside goodbye. Then back to life. But there is always a period of waiting before the wake, and for me, that time is the hardest. After the burial, life resumes—there are routines to cling to, obligations to fulfill. But between the death and the wake, daily life is held in abeyance. You don’t go to school or to work. Arrangements are made for the wake, funeral, and burial, but I have never been a part of making those arrangements. You go home, stay close to loved ones, look at old pictures. For me, this doing nothing invites a wave of helplessness. And so the night before Uncle Joe’s wake, I was gripped by the need to feed everyone. I clung to the idea of a home-cooked meal—something healthy, something energizing. What I really wanted was something to do: a way to show my family that I could hold it all together.
My Aunt Nancy took me grocery shopping, and I bought tofu, broccoli, red bell peppers, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, onions, rice: the makings of a stir-fry. I was adamant about the tofu, though Aunt Nancy said, “Why don’t we just use chicken?” I don’t know why I chose then as the time to introduce my family to soy protein. The idea of cooking had filled me with a high—a feeling that I could fix things by fixing dinner.
But when we returned to Grandma’s house laden with grocery bags, I crashed. I sat down on my Grandma’s bed and started to cry. I cried for my Uncle Joe, I cried for my dad, I cried for my mom. Grandma held me and rocked me. “I know, Kris, I know. I know this is harder for you than it might seem.” Grandma had been stoic since she heard the news of Joe’s death, stationing herself in her armchair and watching silently as the routine of mourning went on around her, but now, she cried too. We didn’t talk about it, but I think we both understood that though we were sixty-five years and two generations apart, the past decade of our lives were filled with the same losses: losses that were all too near to us, losses of parents, losses of children.
I eventually did cook the stir-fry, but not by myself. Like Grandma, I wasn’t quite strong enough. Grandma and Aunt Nancy helped me get the meal on the table, and all pretended to like the tofu.
As I get older, I have come to understand that making things for her family, whether they were Communion dresses or Christmas cookies, was a way for my Grandma to nurture us and to share her love. When she watched her grandchildren clamoring over her cookies, she must have felt the same satisfaction that I now feel when I see a slice of pie perk up a friend’s mood. Grandma never got to taste a pie that I made from scratch all by myself. She died March 17, 2011, at age 86. But on her 86th birthday in November 2010, I did get to cook her lamb chops and a side of Brussels sprouts. The lamb chops were my Grandma’s recipe, a special dinner that she and Aunt Mary Ellen, her oldest daughter, used to share. The Brussels sprouts recipe came from the New York Times, and it probably wasn’t anything my Grandma would have made herself, but as she cleaned her plate that evening, pronounced the meal “gourmet,” and kissed me on the cheek, I felt like I had finally started to repay her for all the times she nurtured me.