The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage is a gorgeous collection of essays about that big picture theme that’s behind every segment we air on Good Food – what we eat affects who we are. The book’s contributors share raw but self-aware portraits of the insecurity, existential questions and pure joy that food can elicit.
One of those stories is about pie. Lisa McNamara’s “Pie-Eyed” tells a tale of femininity and love, mediated in the oven.
Read the story below, and find her Apple Pie recipe here.
We hope McNamara inspires you to pull out some pastry dough – sign up for Good Food’s 5th Annual Pie Contest. It’s happening Saturday, September 7th at LACMA.
(By Lisa McNamara, from The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat. Ed. Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper, Roost Books, 2013.)
My mother came from a family of diabetic Sephardic Jews, all dangerously under-skilled in the culinary arts and, it seemed, devoid of a sweet tooth (diabetes notwithstanding). In our house, desserts were scarce, only making an appearance on special occasions: honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, hammantaschen for Purim, macaroons or sponge cake for Passover. They were better than nothing and I was lucky to have them, my mother, who had grown up in the Depression, would remind me, but as a small child it was difficult to muster much excitement for coconut, prunes, and nuts. What I craved were the kinds of confections I had seen on television: old-fashioned sweets like fudgy brownies and chewy chocolate chip cookies and lattice-topped pies bursting with ripe fruit. How I ached to come home from school to be greeted by a plate of warm cookies, a big slice of layer cake, or a wedge of pie topped with a scoop of rich ice cream. Instead, my mother, neither cut from TV-mom cloth nor from the “Eat, dahlink” breed of Jewish mother, would give me a bowl of cereal or a plate of crackers with a little saccharine-sweetened apple jelly for my afternoon snack.
That’s why the happiest outings were when she took me with her to buy bread, which in those days meant a trip to a real bakery. I wished I could live there, among the thrilling aromas of cinnamon and chocolate, instead of at our house, which smelled of boiled chicken and tomato sauce. The plump, white-haired women, their ample bosoms straining the buttons of their pastel uniforms, always looked so cheerful. And who wouldn’t, surrounded by cakes adorned with roses sculpted from royal icing, fat éclairs filled with golden custard, and hundreds of cookies? I would stare longingly at the glass case of cookies—thumbprints with dollops of chocolate or raspberry jam in the center, sandwich cookies with creamy fillings, butter cookies coated with colorful sprinkles—until one of the nice ladies asked my favorite question: “Would the little girl like a cookie?” Then the bakery lady would wink at me as she tucked it into my hand, urging me to taste it just to make sure the rest of them were good enough to sell to the other customers. It was as though she knew my stern, slim mother would tell me that I had to save it for after dinner.
My much-older brother—playmate, best friend, and protector—was pained by my mother’s strict rules about giving me sweets and made it his mission to rescue me from dessert purgatory. On the rare occasions when my parents went out, he would drive us to the store to buy a cake mix and at home, using a pair of round cake pans warped from years of disuse and a cracked rubber spatula, we would make cake together. He’d lift me onto the kitchen counter and let me stir the ingredients until my arm got tired and always made sure I could lick some of the bowl. Thanks to him and Betty Crocker, baking began to seem less like pure magic and more like the kind of magic I could learn.
My brother left for college when I was six, halting my education in the kitchen, but those early lessons had started me on my way. In those days the cake itself was always the goal—we frosted it while it was still warm so we could gorge ourselves before my mother came home and stopped us. (“You’ll make your sister sick!” she would say, scowling as she put the remainder on a plate on top of the refrigerator, well out of my reach.) But even then I sensed there was something more to baking. It was a way my brother showed his affection for me, and a way he could provide me with something I was missing. Those lopsided cakes were small acts of love.
By the time I was ten, my mother had fallen seriously ill with uterine cancer. One of our housekeepers, a tall, gentle woman named Hazel, shared my passion for baking. When my mother was in the hospital, we would bake something special for home. She, too, used mixes, but she did so with finesse, turning out cakes with even layers that didn’t bulge on top, were never burnt on the edges, and were always evenly frosted. Guiding my hand as I held the spatula, she showed me how to make frosting swirls like those pictured on the cake mix box. When my father came home from visiting my mother, Hazel told him that I had made the cake by myself and cut him a thick slice. My father, who had a peculiar habit of frowning when eating something he liked, frowned a lot over those cakes.
As the years went by and I was often left to care for my mother, baking was one of my comforts, reminding me of my brother and Hazel, even though I now (truly) baked alone. I had mastered the mix cake and was venturing into a new world of scratch cakes and cookies, muffins, and quick breads. I followed recipes in the 1950s cookbooks in our kitchen, which were notorious for rarely giving detailed instructions. Nevertheless, I learned how to add beaten egg whites to lighten a cake and how to sift and measure flour properly. I discovered that when the recipe said to use butter it meant sweet, not salted, and I practiced rolling cookie dough into neat little balls so that they would be nearly identical in size and shape when baked. A shy, awkward teenager with frizzy hair and a thick unibrow, I had grown into a high school misfit who never dated or attended a dance. Only in the kitchen did I feel exceptional.
Then, after my mother died when I was in 11th grade, things began to change. The kitchen became my exclusive domain and, free to make whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I baked with abandon, eradicating the odor of boiled chicken from our house once and for all. Both my father and I ate my creations greedily, but even so I baked more than we could consume. I began to bring cakes and cookies to school as gifts to the teachers who had been so kind during the long months my mother spent dying. It was the only way I knew how to give something back to them. My teachers, in turn, shared these gifts with other students and word of my baking abilities spread. Before long, my house became a destination for after-school or late-night snacks. In my kitchen, the popular girls and the boys who would never have given me a second glance before saw me in a different light. There, the summer after I graduated from high school, my wish for a boyfriend came true. The president of the drama club, on whom I’d had an unrequited crush for two years, developed a passion for my poppy seed Bundt cake and, along with it, for me.
By my late teens, my repertoire had grown—my German chocolate cake and Boston cream pie outshone those from any bakery, my banana cake was dense and moist, my angel food cake light and airy.
It occurred to me that baking was perhaps one of those talents that had made less-than-attractive women seem more attractive to men for hundreds of years. I imagined that if I had been born a century earlier in my paternal grandparents’ native Kiev, before electrolysis and orthodontics, I would have been the village meiskeit, a Yiddish word meaning homely. Despite my substantial dowry, I am certain my father would have had difficulty marrying me off. “Wait,” he would say, as the potential suitor turned away, unwilling to take me, even in exchange for three donkeys and a good milk cow. “She may not look like much but her strudel is to die for.” And years later, my fat husband would tell that story to our unibrowed daughter as I attempted to impart my skills to her, sparing her the lonely life of a spinster.
For my first live-in boyfriend I learned to make sour cream kolachkes; for my first husband—whose startling increase in girth during our three-year marriage was an unfortunate side effect—Key lime pie with a real graham cracker crust.
In my mid-twenties, after my first marriage ended, I met the man who would become my second husband. He cared nothing for cakes or cookies, eschewing dessert—unless it was pie. But he scoffed at my Key lime pie and dismissed cookie-crusted cream-filled pies as pretenders. For it to truly qualify, pie had to be handmade, with a butter or lard crust, and filled, ideally, with Maine blueberries or crisp sweet and sour apples.
In short, he wanted something I had never made.
Where I grew up, in Miami Beach, pies were either behemoths that sat in delicatessen dessert carousels, better to look at than to eat, or cryogenically preserved in the supermarket freezer case. There was, however, one pie that held a hallowed place in my childhood memory. I can still picture it standing tall on the round kitchen table at my aunt’s house, its brown crust glistening with sugar, steam curling out of its tidy vents, infusing the house with the smell of cinnamon and apples.
My aunt fancied herself a Jewish Jacqueline Kennedy (someone had once told her that she bore a resemblance to the then-First Lady) and refused to do her own cooking. Luckily for all of us, she hired a cook, Cora: a large, clubfooted woman with a wide smile full of gold teeth and a hairnet knot on her forehead. Cora was my hero.
Cora had my three cousins to care for and a five-bedroom house to clean in addition to her cooking responsibilities, so she baked pies only occasionally, usually for Chanukah. As my mother and aunts marveled over the tenderness of the brisket and the juiciness of the roasted chicken, my cousins and I ate just enough of our meat and vegetables to satisfy our mothers, making sure we saved plenty of room for dessert.
My father and uncles asked their wives why they couldn’t learn to make pie like that. They might as well have asked a centipede why it couldn’t walk on two legs. When I married my first husband, I asked Cora to teach me how to make her pie. Sadly, she died before I could collect this gift. Like many great home cooks, she baked without recipes and the secret of the pie was lost. I missed Cora for her hearty laugh and the way she let me help her in the kitchen when I was small, but I never missed her more than when my second husband declared his love of pies.
The expression “easy as pie” is misleading—pie is only easy to make once you know how. It’s simple enough to dump a can of food-colored sugar and modifiers masquerading as fruit into a frozen crust and call it pie. But to craft one by hand from butter and flour with a filling made from fresh fruit is a very different thing. And if, like me, you must learn on your own, without a patient teacher or secret family recipes, the quest for pie perfection can be long and laborious. Julia Child taught me soufflés, but with pie, I was on my own.
Unlike cakes and pastries, where following a recipe to the letter will produce relatively predictable results, pies require more from the baker. Fruits, like people, need to be respected as individuals. Certain fruits demand more sugar, or less acid, or more thickening. My early attempts produced apple pies with gummy, under-baked crusts and lumpy, mushy fillings, or blueberry pies that tasted of overly sweet pancake syrup. The shriveled berries seemed stranded on a life raft of pale crust afloat in a dark, murky sea. Yet, undaunted by my failures, I continued my experiments with thickeners and sweeteners until I was satisfied that whatever came out of the oven would taste better than what had gone in.
Unfortunately, it was around that time that we divorced. Like my pie skills, my expertise at relationships was only half complete. My self-image as the village meiskeit compelled me to say yes whenever someone proposed, believing that it might be the best (or only) offer I would get. That I did not love either of these men was beside the point. Having someone to cook for was better than being alone—at least until it wasn’t.
Newly single, I once again turned to baking both to keep me company and, more important, to help me find new and better company. I’d learned about a study designed to identify which scents men find sexually stimulating. It so happened that the smell of baked goods, specifically cinnamon and pumpkin pie, was judged more arousing by test subjects than the most exotic perfume. Researchers speculated that these scents might stimulate the septal nuclei, a portion of the brain that induces sexual arousal. Therefore, the aroma of pie produces a nostalgic response, recalling memories of their mother’s kitchen.
Fascinated, I conducted my own very unscientific study, asking every man I knew what his favorite dessert was. With few exceptions, the answer was pie. Pie like their mothers or grandmothers used to bake, but that in the world of career women with scarce free time, no one seemed to make anymore. Although none of them articulated it, the implication was clear—a woman who could bake such a pie was exceptional. A twice-divorced workaholic, I yearned to be an old-fashioned girl with an old-fashioned husband for whom I could bake old-fashioned pies. Armed with the knowledge that pie was sure-fire man-bait, I continued my quest with renewed zeal, now focused on perfecting my crust.
I experimented with flours and fats, baking times and temperatures, metal and glass and ceramic pans, setting them on oven racks of different heights or even directly on the oven floor. I used my predominantly male co-workers and clients as my taste testers, and no matter how dissatisfied I was with a particular attempt, everything I baked was gratefully eaten to the last crumb and indeed, made me very popular at the office. I even garnered several marriage proposals. Mercifully, another thing I had learned along the way was how to say no.
At last, after years of practice and hundreds of what I deemed failures, I had achieved a crust that was crisp and flaky both on the edges and on the bottom, one that held up to a juicy filling without getting soggy. It was a classic formula: plenty of cold, sweet butter, unbleached flour, salt, and ice water—minimally handled, thinly rolled. I used the slender wooden French rolling pin I bought after husband number two’s departure. And none of the elaborate earthenware or silicone or air-cushioned pans can top simple Pyrex for even browning.
By the time I made an apple pie that came close to Cora’s, I had married again, this time to a man who could have happily gone without dessert for the rest of his life. He loved me without my baking, for which I was unspeakably grateful, if a little disappointed. And so my motivations for baking shifted yet again. My confections were no longer my weapons of mass seduction. Instead, they became a way for me to give something special to those who hadn’t a mother or grandmother or wife to bake for them, or the time or ability to bake for themselves.
I’ve never had that unibrowed daughter to whom I could pass on my knowledge, but I happily share it with those who are interested in preserving a technique that is, in our increasingly hectic times, in danger of becoming a lost art. Thirteen years into our marriage, my husband haunts the farmers’ market throughout the year, seeking out the heirloom apples called Bellflower, the rare Marion and Boysenberries, fragrant Meyer lemons, and the deep orange/red Sierra Lady peaches, presenting them to me with a victorious flourish and delighting in my happiness as I receive them. Of the many gifts that have been bestowed on me throughout my baking odyssey, my husband’s gifts of beautiful fruit delivered with unconditional love were perhaps the sweetest of all.
Hey! Did you enjoy this piece? We can’t do it without you. We are member-supported, so your donation is critical to KCRW's music programming, news reporting, and cultural coverage. Help support the DJs, journalists, and staff of the station you love.