The Making of the Secret Pie Crust (A True Short Story from The Arrogant Chef)
It was hotter than hell in our apartment above Leduc’s shopping center. My father was out on the balcony as he always was on warm summer mornings, trying to catch a fresh early morning breeze. I was getting up after a long night of partying and joined him to see if I could clear my head with a little fresh air. My father was not a big talker. Now that I look back we had had few actual conversations over the years. That’s just the way he was. I sat beside him and looked out over the shopping centre’s parking lot and watched as he wiped the small beads of sweat from his forehead with that old hanky he always kept in his back pocket. Suddenly this crazy idea came to mind, “You know Dad, what you should do today is show me how to cook pies.” My father had been the cook in the Courtauld’s kitchen back in the late 20’s and was renowned for his pies.
There wasn’t much of a reaction.
“It’s too hot” he grumbled. “And you don’t “cook” pies, you bake pies.
“No seriously. And not with the recipes you gave to Colette, Joyce and Pat - your actual recipe with ALL the ingredients. EVERY single one of them nothing left out.
“Some other time, I am tired and it’s too hot. And why do you want to learn to make pies anyways. And I don’t leave out ingredients. They just don’t know how to make them.”
“Well then show me how to “make” them. What if you died tomorrow? The recipe would be lost forever.”
“I am not going to die tomorrow. It’s too hot and…
He got up, mumbled a little, might have even sworn under his breath and disappeared into the apartment. I had really hit a nerve. My father had never been sick a day in 75 years until the year before when he had a heart attack. He was very proud of the fact that that that was the first time he had ever stepped foot in to a hospital or a doctor’s office.
So much for that I thought. It was hot and he did look tired and he was probably angry with me now over the dying comment.
But then the screen door opened and my father said: “Look if you want to learn how to make pies then you will have to go to the store and pick up some stuff for me. Oh and on the way back stop by the liquor store and get me a 40oz of Seagram’s Five Star.” Five Star is Canadian whiskey, his favourite whiskey and this was a weekend and Five Star was a frequent guest in our apartment on weekends.
“Do you want to come with me?” I asked. My father didn’t drive and when I was home from university I was pretty well relegated to delivery boy most of the time.
“No it’s too hot and I’m tired. Just get what’s on the list and when you get back well we’ll see. And don’t forget the Five Star.”
Little did I know that the Five Star might just be one of the secret ingredients to his pies. I just figured the “we’ll see” comment meant: go get me the stuff, get me the whiskey, I’ll have a few drinks, fall asleep in my chair, you will forget about this crazy idea of learning how to make pies and that would be that.
I returned about an hour later not thinking much baking was actually going to take place that day. It was really hot and our tiny apartment would be much too hot to be baking in the oven. But as I entered the apartment there was my father in the kitchen, mixing bowls laid out, rolling pin on the table. He looked refreshed despite the heat in the apartment and looked like a man who was going to teach his son how to make pies. At that moment I thought just for a second that what my brothers had always said about me being his favourite might just be true. I was actually going to be taught “the recipe”, the secret recipe, the recipe that had never been given to anyone else on the planet, the recipe that my sister in laws had desperately tried to duplicate on several occasions without success.
“So did you get everything on the list?” he said.
“What?” I said, sort of coming back to reality.
“Did you get everything on the list?”
That warm fuzzy feeling I was having was suddenly beginning to fade. This was not a father/ son moment. This was serious. Pie making was serious business. It always was. Pie baking at Christmas was even more serious. Even my mother stayed out of the kitchen. Pie baking began early and ended late. Twenty pies later we were allowed back in the kitchen. My father would flop into his chair, prop his head up on his hand and fall asleep courtesy of his Five Star friend.
“Yes”, I stammered, “I got everything, the flour, the Crisco…yes everything.”
“The Five Star?”
“What’s that for anyway?
“You’ll see. Just pay attention.”
And the process began. You know being twenty-two and somewhat hung over, and never having cooked anything more serious than macaroni and cheese, I realized this could be a life changing event. I was going to learn from the master. I had devoured his pies from the time I was a little boy. Countless people raved about his pies. My sister`s in law had cursed him for not giving them the whole recipe and here I was on a hot July morning and I was going to be taught how to make pies.
`’Did you hear me?
“What? I said.
“Get us a couple of shot glasses. The key to making great crust is hand temperature. You have to have the proper hand temperature to work the dough.”
“Really I said.”
“Yes really. Do you want to learn how to do this right or not?” Pour us each a shot.”
I opened up the bottle of Five-Star and poured us each a generous shot.
“Ok drink up”, he said.
It was ten o’clock in the morning and here I was having a shot of whiskey with my father. This had to be a father and son moment.
“Now just go and sit down.”
“What?” I said.
“Go and sit down.”
He flopped down into his chair, propped his hand onto his chin and looked like he was going to have a nap. I figured the lesson was over. This wasn’t going to happen. After all it was hot, and he did look tired.
Ten minutes passed. He shot up from his chair.
“Ok. Run your hands under cold water for about thirty seconds. That should do it. You have to get our hands to the right temperature to handle the dough.”
He then went to work. I watched somewhat in amazement as he began the crust making process. I realized that I had never actually been in the kitchen to watch him at work. When he was baking the kitchen was his and we had learned over the years to find something else to do while he baked. We stayed clear of the kitchen until the baking was over and then my mother would go in to clean up the mess and my father would pour himself a glass of Five Star, and a water chaser and then would go to his chair, his work done for the day.
“Are you watching this?” he said. “First you sift 5 cups of flour into the bowl. Add 2 teaspoons of baking powder, ½ a teaspoon of salt, ½ a teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 1 pound of Crisco. Then you mix one egg, 1/3 cup of vinegar and one cup of water in this measuring cup and then pour it in like this. Now feel my hands.”
“What?” I said.
“Feel my hands. Feel the temperature. That is what your hands should feel like.”
I felt his hands. I felt the temperature. I was beginning to understand the secret behind his pie baking. This wasn’t about ingredients. It was about technique. Technique perfected after baking hundreds maybe even thousands of pies; technique that he was sharing with his favourite son; technique that he had never shared with anyone else. I realized then that he had been telling the truth. He never left out ingredients. He just never had the patience to sit down and walk my sister in laws through the process.
I focussed my attention on the process.
“The most important part, he said is how you work the dough. Pay attention. If you work it too much it will be tough. Here give me your hands. Feel the dough. See it is too moist we have to add a bit more flour.”
I watched with amazement at how he handled the dough. He seemed to barely touch it. I realized then that I wasn’t just watching a former cook from Courtaulds, I was watching a master pie baker.
“Now, feel this”, he said, taking my hands in putting them in the dough. “This is perfect. Remember this. You see not too moist or too dry. Remember this.”
I could see by the look on his face that he had taught me the secret, the feel of the dough. I think this was the beginning of my love for cooking. And yes maybe my brothers were right. I was his favourite son.
We made pies together a few more times before he died. The lessons were not as intense. He grew older and more tired. I would always get him to get up from his chair to feel the dough to make sure I had it right and then would pour the two of us a drink of his favourite whiskey.
By the time the pies were baked and on the counter we had had our share of drinks. My father went to his chair and I went to the couch.