Sitting on a plate, atop a cheap metal turnstile stand beneath a plastic hood… waits my perfect slice of apple pie.
I know she's there, served up by a gal who calls me Hon and wears her long auburn hair up under a paper cap and has those soulful truck-stop eyes above cheeks rouged with the kitchen heat and has heard every manner of tired come-on, complaint, and compliment.
But after all these years I’ve never quite found her. The pie, that is.
I know she’s a she, because aren’t all wonderful nurturing things in this world feminine? And surely if one were to be an apple, peeled and sliced, your only remaining consolation in life would be a long bake inside the embrace of two flaky crusts, the top one perforated to let your fragrant steam fill the oven and then burst forth into the kitchen when you’re soft and redolent and just a little bit cinnamony to tell some humble Searcher that yes, you can look homeward to mother once again, angel, no matter where you are.
The search began in early childhood, at an age little past squalling. I could barely see over the counter of grandmother Agnes’s kitchen in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, while she prepared the crusts for two pies. Puffs of flour released themselves from beneath an ever-thinning sheet of flour, water and lard as her big wooden rolling pin clunked and pushed the dough’s glacier edge across a well-dusted cutting board.
I’d already watched in fascination as her quick hands snicked the skins off a bowl of Granny Smiths or pippins with a potato peeler that made a little clicking noise, back and forth, back and forth. She’d sliced the apples with one of her ultra-worn kitchen knives. All of her working cutlery had been sharpened so many times that the blades were skinny memories of their former selves. I still have one of those knives in my kitchen drawer: a hand-me-down long meat knife with a blade—now—no more than a half-inch thick along its length.
Her favorite paring knife was nothing more than a carbon-steel blade of grass, but wickedly sharp. Women in those days, at least in that Little Scandinavia part of the country, didn’t usually put vegetables or fruit on a chopping board to slice it. They held it in one hand, while the other pulled the blade toward a bracing thumb. In that way the carrots, the celery, or at that moment in Agnes’s kitchen, the apple slices, fell directly into a big crockery bowl and you didn’t have to gather them up from an ungainly pile on the board.
One of her pies was always apple. The other might be the fruits of the season, often combined in ways that back then struck me as astonishing. Still do. Raspberry-rhubarb-peach. Nectarine-raspberry. When you mix a stone fruit with a berry, especially fine things happen. These would battle with the apple pies for supremacy in the family, but no matter how tasty the experiment, one thing was sure: there would always be apple. Pure, simple, American, apple pie.
And always the fruit held inside a crust that no-one else seemed capable of equaling: leafy and layered, shatteringly fresh but of solid, structural integrity to hold in what must be held in. A good crust must be both a stern and controlling corset as well as a tender striation of fat and flour.
Nowadays, after the Dark Ages of food manufacturers and heart surgeons telling us that butter and lard are kitchen dinosaurs that simply must be replaced by Crisco and margarine (which all turned out to be a crock of hydrogenated bull anyway), the use of butter is back. But lard? Oh my. Nobody uses lard, do they?
Of course Agnes did, and so would her daughter, my mother. There is no substitute for lard in a pie crust, and all the better if you could get it cold and unadulterated (what would now be called “artisanal”) from my grandfather Jim, proprietor of Thompson’s Market and butcher shop, the little river-town store that had been in the family since 1866 and was still going strong over 100 years later when I was a kid.
When the pies came out, they went over by the window, the one that faced away from the river and up toward the Methodist church on the corner. No shadow of a cross fell over them, but they were still blessed as they were cooled by the St. Croix air that flowed off the upper farmlands and down into that glacier-melt-carved valley.
Maybe they were served with ice cream. Maybe not. A slice of sharp Wisconsin cheddar was something my mother liked, I think, but honestly all I remember is the pie, and I’ve been looking for it ever since.
Not long ago I drove down the hill to our house in San Diego, a hill of sandstone, not glacial till pushed off the Canadian shield, a hill with pines that don’t look anything like the Barrens back home, nor does the air roll in through a window with that sweet kiss of alfalfa. A home with no Agnes or Mary. A home with a rolling pin that hides in the bottom of a drawer, little used in this age of everyone driving off to work, every day.
The kitchen was a disaster. Flour covered the countertops and a big cutting board. Dishes, bowls, everywhere. On a wire rack near the stove above a granite counter (Agnes would have gazed upon this as if it was a precious gem) sat an apple pie that looked suspiciously just like the ones the ladies in my family used to make. It smelled like the ones the ladies in my family used to make. And when I took my first bite, it tasted just like the ones the ladies in my family used to make.
“Why wouldn’t it?” my wife said, somewhat indignant. “After all, your mother taught me, didn’t she? Just like Agnes taught her.”
Then I knew (especially since she will teach a daughter-in-law someday) that at least one perfect apple pie in America will always be found somewhere, sometime, between the two shores of this land, our land.
And if you’re lucky, you might even get called Hon.