Laughing all the way – Life of Pie

January 2, 2014

By Pat Detmer

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During the holidays, I make pies. When my mother — an excellent baker — passed away, I inherited Christmas Eve and pies. I don’t how that happened, but my sisters are nearly as useless as I am when it comes to food and domesticity, so it may be that as the eldest I felt a misplaced sense of responsibility.

Knowing that we all sucked at it, 20 years ago we videotaped Mother in the kitchen making pies. I transcribed the session after the fact so that we would have 3×5 recipe cards for reference. In doing so, I literally wrote out exactly what Mom said as she did her demo, thinking it funny and assuming that we would remember what it meant. “After adding the water,” she said (and I carefully hand-printed on the cards) “Go like this.” The videotape has long been lost, and so whatever “this” is has been lost as well.

I asked the Sainted One — who actually knows his way around a grocery store — to pick up the ingredients for this season’s pies: lard (yes! lard!), butter, pumpkin, evaporated milk, and I set to work making the dough the day before and letting it rest in the fridge. That, at least, I’d remembered.

The next day, the two balls of dough had the general consistency of metamorphic rock, but after the addition of a little water and the warmth of my hands, I managed to flatten them enough to accept a well-flowered rolling pin. The first crust looked like a pastry display of tectonic plate movement, with gaps and fractures that I attempted to stitch together. The second was perfect, a thing of beauty, and I began to consider myself quite the baker. I started on the filling, opening the evaporated milk, mixing in the eggs, and adding the pumpkin.

I poured half of it into the bowl before some tiny, baking-aware part of my brain made me stop. The mixture was almost pure liquid. How could the filling ever become firm? What was I doing wrong? Then I realized: The Sainted One did not buy pumpkin. He bought pre-made pumpkin pie filling.

We were due at my sister’s house in two hours and I was looking down at a rolling pumpkin ocean, an orange tsunami. The Sainted One offered to go to the store to get the real thing, but I didn’t have time for that and wasn’t interested in going backward to go forward. I added flour and cornstarch, poured the mixture into the crusts, and put them in the oven.

They actually weren’t bad-looking pies when they came out if you had myopia and stood on the other side of a large, poorly lit room. Up close, they appeared dark and leathery, like they might make beautiful purses, with undissovled cornstarch blooming on the surface.

Looking down at them later, my Army Ranger nephew said, “I’ve walked through Afghanistan at night, but these pies scare me.”

But the crust — perfection!


You can reach Pat Detmer, whose family will never be videotaping her, at


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