Saturday, August 18, 2012

What's in a word?


My mom stopped baking pies about sixteen years ago, shortly after my dad was diagnosed as diabetic.  This had two effects: first, it verified my instinct from childhood that my mom really cooked for my dad; we kids just got to eat the results by happy coincidence.  Second, it cut off my supply of pie.
I had been blessed from birth.  My grandmother and mother both made splendid pies.  Plum was my dad’s favorite; I often had for my birthday peach pie instead of cake.  But after the cataclysmic Pie Shutdown, I wandered the earth pieless.  Life was grim.
Finally, this year, in a fit of frustration at the pathetic excuses for crusted food that vendors peddle under the unmerited name of pie, I resolved that I would learn how to make pie.
I consulted my mother, and I consulted books.  I went online to answer a few specific questions.  I bought flour and I bought sugar.  I scoured farm markets for miles around to find the best fruit.  I tried this for shortening, and that for shortening.  I kept the oven hot for whole afternoons through July’s withering heat wave.  Chris Seith, our summer seminarian, was pressed into service as sous chef, and loyally mustered the enthusiasm to peel and roll and taste.  The rectory staff valiantly presented themselves around the kitchen island for forensic pie tastings:  too this, not that enough.  Try again.
We learned many things, such as how to pit cherries with a paper clip, how to dazzle with latticework, and that pies take a very long time to cool after baking, preferably overnight.  We were reinforced at every draining step by the discovery that People Really Like Pie, and so we persevered.  Our triumph came when Chris and I made six pies in one day to serve to the priests and seminarians at the send-off party for the new men going to the North American College in Rome.  Their approval sounded more like forks scraping plates than like applause, but happy noises abounded. 
I don’t know how theological it is to observe that fresh pie for breakfast is a foretaste of heaven, but far from being a diversion or a distraction, pie-baking can reveal the truth to those who care to learn it.   The other morning as I rolled out some chilled dough that a few hours earlier had been flour, shortening (what type is my secret), water, and a pinch of salt, I marveled at how these few basic elements had become a completely new thing, with no distinction of their individual selves.
Because there is a word for what you do to diverse ingredients when you bring them together in such a way that they can no longer be separated, and they become a new thing.  Do you know what that word is?  You marry them.
Monsignor Smith

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