Jun 4, 2012

Mothers, Cookbooks, and Apple Pie

For years, my daughters have been asking me to teach them how to bake an apple pie. I suppose they view it as a gold standard of domesticity, the kind of task and knowledge that mothers naturally pass on to their girls and that they therefore expect to receive. Problem is, I’m not much of a cook and can hardly claim expertise in any matters domestic, partly because I lost my mom before I realized these things were valuable to learn—she knew how to bake an apple pie, though lemon meringue was her trademark—and partly, I suppose, because willfully refusing to learn how to bake pies effectively separates me from my mother and therefore, in a form of twisted logic, from her fate. I’ve felt guilty about having two daughters who want to bake, though, as if somehow I’m not stepping up to the maternal plate in the manner they want or need.

Isn’t pie baking (and knitting, and sewing, and knowing how to use a Crock Pot, and all the things I’ve taken halfhearted stabs at during the years and then promptly abandoned) just part of what mothers do?

And then this past Sunday while my husband was on a trip to New York I found myself home with the girls with a leisurely afternoon and no plans, a rarity for us three. For a reason that still escapes me, even as I sit here writing, I decided it would be a fine day to learn how to bake an apple pie.

I started by Googling “basic apple pie recipe.” The ever-trusty Cooks.com came right to the rescue, but something about referring to a laptop or iPad screen while baking felt fundamentally wrong. I decided to look in my rarely-touched stash of cookbooks for a useful alternative. My new-ish Better Homes and Gardens cookbook didn’t have a recipe for apple pie. (I know. That surprised me, too.) An older New York Times Cookbook I picked up somewhere years ago didn’t have one, either. It started to occur to me that cookbooks either a) assume that everyone with an interest in cooking already knows how to cook an apple pie; or b) an apple pie is just too basic for their readerships, who’d rather learn how to make apple-strawberry-rhubarb gluten-free latticed cobbler extravaganzas, or some such.

In the end, the recipe I found was almost exactly the one on Cooks.com and came from my mother’s old Better Homes and Garden cookbook from the early 1960s. I inherited the book when I left for college, or maybe I just took it with me without asking; I honestly don’t remember, but I’ve carried it with me from state to state, house to house, for the past 30 years. The book was a staple of my childhood, with its red-and-white checked hard looseleaf cover and silver-ring binder interior. The printed looseleaf pages have turned sepia with age, and over the years someone (my mother? me during college?) unclipped some of the baking recipes and tucked them inside the front cover without clipping them back in. But there about 2/3 of the way into the book, right where they belonged, were the recipes and instructions for double pie crusts and a simple apple pie.

The girls and I had most of the ingredients on hand – flour, salt, butter, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. We also had my mother’s wooden rolling pin and her big, plastic Tupperware mat with the concentric circles that tell you how wide to roll the dough for 8-, 9-, and 10-inch pies. My daughters love that mat. It looks progressive and vintage at the same time. They also like knowing the rolling pin we’re using is the one from my childhood home. Baking this pie was practically a three-generational effort, or as close to it as we could get.

With three people on the job, the pie took about 45 minutes of prep time and about 30 minutes of oven time. And the result was much better than you’d expect from three cooks who’d never tried it before, even after Eden and I got absorbed in a logo guessing game on my iPad and didn’t hear the oven timer go off for at least five minutes after the pie should have been done. Oops.

I don’t harbor any illusions that I’ll become a master baker, or magically transform into a crafty mom. I still don’t knit, and I still can’t sew. Most nights will still find me playing board games or proofreading high school papers rather than wielding a Cuisinart. But there was a certain, deep satisfaction that came from tackling that pie, from discovering it wasn’t as difficult or as mystifying as I’d imagined from a distance, and from having my mother participate in the enterprise with the two granddaughters she never met, even if it was just through her possessions. My older daughter, who took most of the pie to school to school today for a lunchtime picnic, asked if she could inherit the cookbook one day. Which will be exactly the right place for it to land.