At thirteen I made my first pie crust. Channeled from the back matter of Martha Stewart’s Pies and Tarts, it was a basic pâte brisée: a half cup of cold butter cut into a heaping cup of flour until it resembles coarse meal, then bound into dough with as little ice water as possible. The ball of dough is chilled for a half hour or longer, rolled out on a floured surface, formed into a baking pan with edges crimped, chilled again while the filling is prepared, then filled and baked. In the heat of a 400+ degree oven, the butter melts, releasing water molecules that turn into steam, puffing up the crust into flaky layers. Meanwhile, the starch in the flour breaks down and the proteins slowly begin to toast, turning the whole thing golden brown.
This 1:2 ratio is elegantly simple and improved only by the fact that it involves just three ingredients–making it surprisingly easy to whip up in a pinch. In the more than two decades since I was thirteen, I have probably made this dough close to a thousand times. I have used it not only for dessert pies, but for pot pies, hand pies, tartlets, turnovers, and, in a few cases, cookies. I can tell from the way a dough rolls out whether it will puff or shrink, from how it sticks to the counter or the rolling pin just how flaky it will be. I’ve worked in different temperatures, altitudes, and degrees of humidity. I’ve experimented with gluten-free variations. Since I was eighteen, I’ve baked exclusively with vegan ingredients, eschewing butter with accomplished results. There aren’t many things I know entirely how to do, and, now that I think about it, making pie crust might be the only one.
Like so many of the things we end up knowing too well, however, my affinity for pie began as an interest in something else. My childhood home was one without many books. My parents encouraged us to read, but failed to provide us with much reading material, nor, indeed, with much of an example. Their preferred vehicle for educational media was PBS shows. These were not only boring, but, even more inconveniently, they couldn’t be watched without volume. And here was the real issue: even as a child, I was a morning person, often waking up three or four hours before my parents, who, on the weekends, slept until nearly noon. Good children, we were told, let their parents sleep, and so watching TV in the early mornings was out of the question, unless the volume was minimal, and, somehow, when the reprimands came, it was never minimal enough. Children grow up under different imperatives; I learned early never to awaken sleeping giants.
Weekend mornings became pantomimes of silent play, and on one in particular, while trying to amuse myself by surveying the contents of our kitchen cabinets, I discovered a cache of cookbooks. That morning and for weeks to follow, I read my way through two-dozen volumes of a Time-Life series on techniques, a Maida Heatter book on chocolate, and a few other sundry volumes, mostly, as I recall, devoted to baking. The real coup de grâce was Pies and Tarts. Martha Stewart’s lavishly photographed book palliated the loneliness of those weekend hours like nothing else. She paired not only crust with filling, but slices of tart with antique plates, silver forks with elaborate linens, bouquets of flowers with crystal vases. Her attention to garnish and presentation was a form of care that was light years beyond anything I had ever seen. I vividly recall a two-page spread in the chapter on berries that showcased a heart-shaped blackberry and cream tart, served on a silver platter, surrounded by amethyst-colored goblets filled with blackberry liqueur, and set on a table with white tea roses whose centers resembled the deep purple of the mis-en-scène. This, as the thirteen-year-olds of today sometimes say, was some next-level shit.
Everything about this situation was a bit too much. I must have guessed something was amiss, because I know I never told my parents that I had been reading their cookbooks. I sensed that an interest in baking was somehow inappropriate, and I feared being identified as precocious. Part of this fear was self-protective. To be recognized as precocious might have required me admitting how hard I was compensating for the fact that no one was paying attention. Part of this fear was also protective of others. To be precocious might have meant that a ten- or eleven-year-old confining himself to hours of morning silence was taking care of his parents, instead of them taking care of me–and, even more horribly, since in fact I was taking care of them, to acknowledge this role reversal would have been an extraordinary betrayal. Taking care of caretakers is the ultimate thankless job, for to be done perfectly they cannot know you have labored at all.
It now seems rather overdetermined that Martha Stewart’s maniacal focus on detail spoke so loudly to me in these hours of casual childhood neglect. I craved attention, and I gravitated hard to a place where someone else’s attention was lavished on objects that seemed, in their pictorial exorbitance, aspirational but not unattainable. In those youthful morning hours, I poured out my longing as I poured over glossy pages whose exquisite presentations were the evidence of great care. Like all people who brim with inarticulate desires, I could not tell whether I wanted to be cared for in this way or to do the caretaking.
To make a long story short, I settled for the latter. Before too much longer, having rather elaborately sought parental permission, invented an occasion, and denied any prior study, I made my first pie crust. Over the years I repeated the feat, refined my technique, and mastered my craft. What began as lack became knowledge, then skill. I was starving for something other than pie when I first opened Martha’s pages, but it is pie that I have been eating for more than twenty years.
Pies and Tarts was published in 1985, amid the first burst of Martha Stewart’s transformation from a regional A-list caterer into an international media mogul. The volume is long out-of-print and has since been supplanted with a series of baking books and promotional tie-ins (including 2012’s New Pies and Tarts) that by design are more entry-level in their sensibility. But thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to locate a cheap, used copy of the 1985 book for $4. When it arrived in my mailbox earlier this month, I again poured over its pages, none of which I had seen in (at minimum) fifteen years, and all of which seemed so familiar that I wondered idly whether in all this time I had ever really stopped looking at them.
What did surprise me, however, was book’s copy. It turns out that Pies and Tarts isn’t really a cookbook. Instead, it is what the industry calls a “lifestyle book.” Page after page is replete with details of Martha’s own experiences: the particular party for which she made this tart, the particular client who loves chocolate, the particular tree growing on her Westport, Connecticut acres from which these pears were picked, the particular antique shop where she acquired these plates. It’s less “how-to” and more “how I spent my summer vacation.” The details are far too specific to be repeatable. Indeed, the only repetition is in her vocabulary. Over and over she tells us how a particular taste, a compliment, a well-puffed pastry, was “satisfying.” Amid this satisfaction, there is almost no instruction at all.
Pies and Tarts is meant to incite desire, not to teach a lesson. In all of her splendid baking and presentation, Martha Stewart neglected to be much of a pedagogue. My attempts to credit her book with teaching me about pie turns out to be not much more than another too-grown-up attempt to take care of a grown up whose priority was herself, not me. After all these years–after all these pies–Martha was revealed to be one more parental figure who wasn’t really there.
I’m not entirely sure where this leaves us, other than to observe somewhat blandly that, somehow, whether or not anyone was there, here we still are. The longings to which we aspire in our childhood mornings are rarely preserved in tact with us as adults–and even when they are, their originary motives can be obscure. The space between Martha’s pages and the pie I made for last night’s dinner party is a gap. In that gap are hours of practice and years of experience, none of which are all that immediately tied to anything I read or felt as a child. In any case, I am now a grown up, and part of becoming one has involved submitting to the orthogonal pull of desire. It is this quality of our experience that allows one longing to substitute for another. It is this inevitable force that compels us do that unglamorous, grown up thing called “compromise.” Sometimes, though, the results can be deliciously pleasant. Sometimes we find that the pastry puffs very nicely with vegan margarine rather than butter.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Not always the theory guy.