Memories of Apple Pie

One of my first memories with my mother was standing on the stool in front of the sink, mixing apples with cinnamon and sugar, readying them for a pie. I was probably 4 or 5. I don’t know if there were any lessons before this but I’m pretty sure, there were none after. I can still smell the tart-sweetness of the filling. The flour smell from the homemade dough, almost medicinal. I remember my mother’s freckly hands on mine, mixing the apples until they felt gritty from the sugar. The stained glass hangings suction cupped to the window behind the sink. Measuring cups and spoons dirty and everywhere. The screen door letting in the last of the summer breeze. That house was a castle. A wonderful, worn-in place with pink-gray carpet and pink-tinged walls. The pots and pans were a mismatch of what my parents had accrued up to this point and typically were used more for my amateur drum solos than cooking. I don’t know where my mom found the apple pie recipe, I assume it was my grandma’s. It may have been an old family friend’s. It was handwritten, taken from a plastic recipe box from the pantry. Oh man, that pantry. We had 100 boxes of Jell-o chocolate pudding that were 10 years expired. It was perfect.

I can bet that pie wasn’t pretty. There were no leaves to border the thing, nor an even crimp. But it didn’t matter. The doing was what mattered. Years went by, pan after pan of Duncan Hines brownies devoured (the batter was the important part), and that from-scratch memory faded almost completely. As time goes on, and kids grow up, baking with your family becomes tedious and time-consuming. Why would you spend ages on a pie dough? What’s the point if you can whip something like lemon bars or extra fudge chocolate birthday cake up in a flash? I am by no means regretful of not learning to bake (or cook) as a child, I didn’t care. I had convenience on my side. And so it went on like this. Never missing what I didn’t know and never pushing the brownies away from me (they’re still brownies, guys). I was lucky to be born into a time when things had changed and still were changing. Moms worked AND took care of the kids, they didn’t have time to spend all day in a hot kitchen, flour on their noses, wishing for a quicker solution. With new technology, everything changed. And, as with everything in life I suppose, it’s changing back. Over the last several years, there has been a need for locally grown, lovingly made food. We lived a few decades without homemade meals and desserts and we eventually realized…it’s all bullshit. Science may be a wonderful thing. But when it comes to food, you gotta stick with the basics. Did you know that you can make chocolate pudding from scratch? Blew. My. Mind.

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Mom and me, 1988.

Fast forward to 2007. I’m working in a high end bistro and loving life. I’m serving seasonal dishes, with beautiful produce and meats. Infused cocktails and European wine, and our specialty; homemade baklava. So homemade, the little old Greek ladies would bring in a batch every morning from their own kitchens for us to sell that evening. I was young and knew nothing. I was making money and spending it on beer and bad outfits. On my nights off, I would “cook” spaghetti for my boyfriend. And by cook I mean, ruin. How you ruin boxed spaghetti and Ragu sauce, I can’t recall. But through the tears caused by embarrassment and hunger, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to learn how to feed myself. I was tired of eating bland, overpriced food. It was time for a lesson. And so started my cooking adventure.

Now, I’m not gonna lie, there have been some terrible nights. I’m a known perfectionist and when want to accomplish something, failing is not an option. And when you know nothing about the high heat/low heat phenomenon, things tend to get a little sticky. I cried. A lot. So much that I swore off trying for a couple years. If I couldn’t master grilled cheese sandwiches, what hope was there? I was doomed to repeat my ancestors’ mistakes.  But when I started working once again with talented cooks and bakers, I fell in love all over again. Listen to the food, they would tell me. Don’t stare at the recipe on your phone…feel the recipe. Use your instincts, watch the process. This advice made me a better cook. I’m lucky that my mama and I shared baking that pie. If we hadn’t I might have eaten garbage forever, never knowing what I was missing.

Thanks mom, for teaching me how to mix apples for a pie. Every thing I put in a pan has a piece of that pie in it.

It made me want to learn everything I could about the science that is preparing food. To cook is

Tough Love or A Professional Kitchen Introduction

Talking to me now, you wouldn’t know I grew up on fish sticks and take-out. My parents, how do I put this nicely? Cannot cook. At all. Mom’s specialty was cabbage in the slow-cooker with no seasoning and dad had a decent BBQ chicken that he would scorch on the grill from time to time. But that was about as far as my culinary horizons reached. Once the divorce was final, of course it became worse. Mom worked hard, and it was easier to pick up chili spaghetti with cheese for us a couple of nights a week than preparing something that wouldn’t sate our spoiled mouths anyway. Dad was king of Wednesday night dinners at Steak n’ Shake. Chicken fingers, cheese fries, and chocolate milkshakes are nothing to complain about when you’re 12. I knew no better, how would I?

My life in food service began at the tender age of 14. I worked for the local rec center concession stand while the kiddos played baseball and soccer. After 2 years, I was in charge of the grill. Burgers and hotdogs. I was proud of this. This was the first lesson I received in cooking. Meal-wise, I once again was the victim of my surroundings. Walking tacos nourished me in the evenings after school, not home cooked meals. Once I turned 17, I could work at a REAL restaurant. Making tips, instead of $75 a week. (I made about $150 a week at the diner.) More cheeseburgers, more frozen dessert, more fake chili. I turned 19 and knew it was time for something bigger, something more grown up…something with alcohol. A friend of mine had been in culinary school for a year and had been offered the pastry chef position at a local independent restaurant, Madison’s Bistro. He said he could get me a job there. I started a week later.

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I have to polish wine glasses too??

Naiveté is underrated. There are only two days of training? I need to memorize the wine list? I have to POLISH SILVERWARE?! What kind of place is this? I was on another level. I was working with real chefs and restaurant “lifers”, the ones that smell like cigarettes and don’t put up with a 19-year-old’s attitude. I learned a lot. Mostly, I learned what real food is. You can’t serve lamb chops if you don’t know what they taste like. You can’t discuss the delicacies of the oyster with guests that “order them everywhere we dine” if you have never tried one. And to the boys in the back of the house, I owe all of my appreciation to you. I wasn’t necessarily a willing participant. I wasn’t even curious. I had lived a life full of bland food and was, like so many other middle class Americans, ignorant to the richness that existed on the other side of that expo line. Continue reading “Tough Love or A Professional Kitchen Introduction”