Monday, February 27, 2006

The Joy of Lemon Pie

I've always liked lemon pie. I grew up with lemon pie. My mother made the best lemon pie I've ever tasted. Mother took no shortcuts, used no mixes, no simple buy and fold out crusts, no prepared fillings in a can, no meringue in a spray can or plastic box. She created the whole delightful desert from scratch.

We had what I would call a working kitchen. No fancy countertops, no electric mixer to ease the stirring efforts, no timers on a fancy range, just the basics. Simple bowls, canisters and measuring parapharnalia for allotting the ingredients, a rolling pin for forming the crust, tin pie pans to bake the crust, a hand juicer for the lemons and a grater for making zest from the rinds, and lots of mixing crockery and wooden spoons for stirring and mixing.

Mom could turn out a pie with seemingly little effort and she did so regularly. Not only lemon, but also apple, peach, custard and raisin pies were regulars in our home. Sometimes she would be critical of her efforts. "Oh, I wonder what I did to that crust. It's just not as flaky as I'd like. Maybe I added too much water." I could never discern any quality problems but she was always a perfectionist with her pies.

During the Depression when I was only a toddler, I remember mother getting up in the wee hours of the pre-dawn to make pies. This was a business for her at that time. She had devised a system of making a dozen pies each morning and having them ready to deliver to a local grocery store by 7 AM. My older brother Bud was assigned the duty of delivering the pies in a large wooden case. Mom had a transporter case especially constructed to carry them. Bud would do this each morning on his way to school, walking the several blocks, pie box in hand, to the little corner grocery store in Sedalia, Mo. The pies invariably would be sold out by the end of the day. I remember Mom saying that the owners and employees at the store usually set them aside to take home after work and many of the pies never got to the retail customers. Mom used the money from this kitchen operation to keep us afloat during those days when no work was to be had and unemployment was common.

Fast forward to the present. Our part time neighbors Keith and Ann were coming out to the river for the weekend and called asking us to come for dinner Saturday night. Keith was planning to grill salmon on cedar planks, a not-to-be-forgotten eating delight. Overjoyed, I asked what we could bring, and Ann said they wouldn't mind if we brought some desert. I boldly offered, "Why don't I make a lemon pie, that is, if you like lemon pie. A friend just sent over a whole bag full of ponderosa lemons and we don't know what to do with them all."

Ann said that would be great and so I was committed at that point. I gave it no more thought until the morning of the appointed Saturday dinner date. I won't bore you with the details of my many trials in creating two lemon pies. Let me just say that from 10 AM until going on 3 PM I labored mightily with something I had always taken for granted was a simple operation. I was reminded of something that my brother Bud used to say. I'm not sure he ever cooked a day in his life but he liked to say, "Anyone who can read can cook." I was proving him very wrong. Separating eggs should be relatively easy. That is unless you get the whites and yolks mixed, drop some shell into the mix and have to poke around with your fingers to extract them.

And grating lemon rind is relatively easy too unless you try to do it after the lemons have been squeezed and you intertwine your knuckles with the rind and end up with grated knuckles.

Well after seeing that each pie filling requires a cup and a half of sugar my love affair with lemon pie was coming to a quick end. Let's see, 6 slices of pie equals a cup and a half of sugar. Divide by 6 and each slice contains a quarter cup. Contemplate eating a quarter cup of sugar for desert. And we have not yet considered the meringue which requires another generous application of sugar. And even though I can read I failed to heed the warning to add the sugar after the egg whites were beaten and stiff. I can tell you confidentially that egg whites don't like to get beaten and stiff if you add the sugar first, as I did. After 45 minutes of beating with a rotary beater I finally achieved a semblance of semi-stiff meringue. I had no choice because we were at this point out of eggs and the nearest resupply was a 28-mile round trip to town.

It was high time to get these masterpieces in the oven. If they didn't turn out, I would still have to make that dash to town to pick up some substitutes. Wow, success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. They say a watched pot never boils and I might add a watched pie never browns until the phone rings and then it browns in 20 seconds. By the time I had dispensed with the untimely call the pies were at the very least a bit overly well done. Perhaps the meringue could be useful as a Frisbee.

By now exhaustion had set in and the wine bottle I had used to roll the dough became uncorked to help quell my frustrations. Added to this, Robbie announced that she had located the rolling pin....only a day late and two funny crusts short.

At least the Salmon was excellent. Keith is an excellent Chef and a diplomat as well. He and Ann raved about the pie. Just goes to show the value in having great and gracious neighbors.

If there were a lesson in all this it would be to take with a grain of salt all that your big brother might tell you about the simplicity of cooking.

© 2006 David Agniel


Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, A voice from the past. This is Jeff Smythe, alive and well. Saw your blog and Becky said see if I can find you. Give a shout.

1:36 PM  

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