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When I was young I hated peas. There are stories and vague memories of me, around two, sitting for an hour on a little chair with my cheeks puffed out with peas, refusing to swallow. In my defense, the peas were mushy canned peas, and my mother always overcooked them. I can still remember how unpalatable they were. I refused to swallow them because I was afraid I’d throw up.

One Thanksgiving several years later, still bearing the same affliction, I was at the dinner table, mouth, full of peas, when an alarm came from my stomach to send them forth in an outward direction.

My father, perhaps aware of a disturbance in The Force, pointed a menacing finger at me and growled, “Don’t you dare!”

In fright, I reversed the flow and swallowed, possibly saving my life. Thankfully, my mother eventually changed over to canned corn, and it became a non-issue.

Later still, my father reopened an old diner called the Dinner Bell. On the menu was split pea soup. Since I could have almost anything I wanted to eat, I had no intention of trying it.

One day I was washing dishes in the back (as part of my father’s slave labor campaign) and I smelled a wonderful aroma emanating from a pressure cooker on the stove. I asked the cook, a very large and kind woman, what it was.

“Split pea and ham soup.”

I must’ve made a face, so she said, “It’s good; you should try it.”

At lunch, I took a thimbleful out back and very carefully and very slowly tried the smallest taste of it—it was delicious. I had a large  bowl and have loved it ever since. It didn’t taste like peas to me at all.

Epilogue

My wife and I would make split pea soup sometimes. I especially liked making it with lots of shredded carrots.

When Brian, my youngest was five or six, Helen had it on the stove cooking when he got off the bus from school.  As soon as he walked in the kitchen he said,”What’s that awful smell,” started to make involuntary heaving sounds and ran to the bathroom.

When he emerged, he stood in the middle of the kitchen and sternly declared to his mother,”Don’t you ever make that again!”

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Pie, particularly the dessert variety, is purely a comfort food. Comfort is a good, psychologically healthy thing, while white flour, fat, cornstarch, and white sugar, the major components of pie, are not.

The Middle Way* would neither dictate abandoning pie completely, nor overindulgence. My recommendation, if you have a pie, is not to overindulge by eating the whole thing, but rather, only eat half, unless of course it’s wild blueberry or strawberry rhubarb.**

I have always loved pie and I’m not alone in thinking it is the greatest food known to man. I’m not sure, but I think my mother may have made one once. She was not famous for her cooking skills. My father, after one of her fine meals, would declare, “That was a good meal, Rose… Larry, could you go get me the bread and peanut butter.”

Grandma, my mother’s mother, however, was a great cook. She was famous for her fried chicken, strudel, and, her pies. When she was at our house over the holidays she would sometimes make a couple. They were so delicious I can still remember how I yearned for more after finishing my little piece.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a large family. Eventually there would be 11 children. When I was nine there were fewer, but still a lot of pie eaters to contend with. My brother, Bern, often remarked it was like growing up in the Army—you ate as much and as fast as you could in order to get enough. For that reason, when it came to having a treat like pie, my parents would divide it up. You would get one small piece, and that was it! This is why I talked my grandmother into teaching me how to make them.

She warned me it was going to be hard. My plan was to make eight to ten pies, so that when they were shared, I could have as much as I wanted. She showed me how to make the crust. You mix 2 cups of flour, a little salt, and a cup of shortening, then you cut the shortening into the flour. This was a labor-intensive task, often done with a fork and knife, to get the cold shortening to blend with the flour—not easy. She next showed me how to form the dough by adding a touch of water and using our hands to knead it. “Don’t add much water and don’t handle it much or the crust will be stiff.”

She made a pie and with her help, so did I. I had to handle the dough a lot. When I rolled it out, it stuck a bit to the rolling pin, but she helped me. Then as I was putting the top crust on, the crust started to fall apart and she helped me again, and though my crust was a little small and I had trouble sealing the edge, she managed to flute it into a work of art.

Her pie was awesome. Though my crust was a little stiff, dry, and crumbly, my pie was still good, and now, I knew how to do it.

When the Saturday before Christmas came, I was ready. My mom bought me the pie filling and other ingredients. I measured out into two large bowls enough flour for eight pies. I cut in the required amount of shortening, an even more difficult undertaking than usual because I had 8 cups of flour in each bowl. My hands started to ache from the interminable cutting in of the shortening. But I didn’t start complaining…not yet.

I was not known for my patience in those days. Yet, I hung in there while visions of pies danced in my head.

Once the gargantuan task of cutting-in was complete, I formed the balls that would become top and bottom crusts. I had trouble because the dough didn’t want to stick together, so I kept adding water. Then came the hard part—rolling out the dough.

First I cleared a small area on the cluttered countertop. I took one of the balls and lightly floured the space. Lightly, because Grandma said to use as little as possible, then I plunked the ball of dough there and smooshed it with the roller. I attempted to roll out the crust, it stuck to the roller, I had forgotten to add flour to the roller, I did so, it still stuck. I added more flour; my limited patience was beginning to wear thin, unlike my pie dough. There may have been a few curses at this point. I rolled again, still stuck, louder curses. More flour—still sticking.

Finally, adding a great bit more, it began to roll out. However, it began developing cracks, “Shit!” I patched them with more dough. More sticking ensued. After much effort, a complete bottom crust was formed, a little thick and floury, but measuring with the pie pan, it was ample enough.

I went to pick it up by the edges, it was stuck to the countertop, “Oh, my, God.” I may have thrown a pie pan at this juncture.

Never-the-less, I persevered, the rolled crust broke up in my fingers. My beatific vision of sitting down amongst a table of brown crust with caramelized bubbles of an assortment of fruits was in danger of crumbling also. I may have thrown another pan and allowed another invective to escape my lips. I patched the new holes and cracks in my crust and started working a large spatula between it and the counter. I attacked it from all sides, until it was free; then I tried to lift it onto the pie pan. The concept was sound, but the application was fraught with difficulties. It kept falling apart amidst my cries of anguish, “Nooo!”

Finally, I got the dough into the pie pan; it was now in about eight or nine pieces. I hammered them together with my fist punctuating each blow with a word like, “Damn, you, stupid, dough.” At last, I had a crust that almost filled the pan.

In went the filling and then it was time for the pie’s top crust. More flour went on the countertop—Formica is not a suitable surface, by the way.

Despite the added flour, the top crust went on the pie in sections. I patched the cracks as best I could and tried to flute the edges. Since the dough was so brittle and scanty, that did not go well either. After some more labored nine-year-old cursing, I used a fork to mush the top edge to the bottom edge.

As you might imagine, the next seven pies did not go off effortlessly either, in spite of the fact that I went from solid top crusts to lattice after the second pie. Even the “ribbons” of lattice went on piecemeal.

At one point, my mother came into the kitchen. She felt compassion for her suffering oldest son. Either that or she couldn’t stand any more loud cries of lamentation or metallic bangs of cookware hitting the wall and floor with accompanying exclamation.

By the time she made her entrance the kitchen counters and floor were covered with flour, pans, bowls and utensils. It looked like a bakery war zone.

She stood beside the island at the end of the kitchen surveying her son covered with flour except for the flesh-colored tracks where tears had coursed down his cheeks. The kitchen actually looked worse than usual (The kitchen never looked like Betty Crocker’s, my mother did her best, but maintaining the house and the horde of beings under her care was a job that she, an “only child,” found beyond her grasp).

“Larry, don’t make the pies if it’s going to make you so upset.”

I managed to choke out these words, “But I like pie.”


*Buddhist path of avoiding extremes.

** The subject of whether to slather it with vanilla Häagen Dazs, whipped cream, or both will be treated in a separate post where it can be given the attention it deserves.

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