The Doctrine of Sugar
MOTHER ALLGOR’S WORLD-FAMOUS PIECRUST
- 1-1/2 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour (Most recipes say you should sift, but
- Mom says it doesn’t matter these days–all flour is pre-sifted. She uses Pillsbury’s, but hastens to assure that Gold Medal is good, too.)
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- Between 1/2 and 3/4 cup of Crisco (This must be ICE-COLD; Mom suggests keeping your Crisco in the fridge at all times.)
Sift flour and salt together; cut in Crisco with a pastry blender. Most recipes say that you should cut in shortening until the mixture is uniform — most describe the pieces as “the size of small peas” or “cornmeal.” But Mom says that if you cut that much, you will make the crust tough, so cut in the Crisco roughly, leaving sizable hunks of shortening in the flour.
Sprinkle the ICE-COLD water one tablespoon at a time onto the flour-salt-Crisco mixture. Do not mix; rather use the water as a way to pull the mixture into a mass at the bottom of the bowl. The action is like scratching or pawing (rather than stirring), using only enough water to incorporate the flour in from the sides. Don’t let your crust get damp and soggy.
Don’t knead it, but shape the mass with your hand into a sort of ball. Wrap the ball in waxed paper and put it in the fridge for 10 minutes–it’ll be easier to work with cold.
Sprinkle a few drops of water on the counter and lay down a big sheet of waxed paper, sprinkle with flour, so the dough won’t stick to the paper. Put ball in the center of the floured paper, flattening it slightly with your hand. Roll out with a rolling pin, but don’t go back and forth, roll in one direction only, out from the center. If your crust begins to stick to the pin, sprinkle a little flour on it to loosen.
Your rolled crust should be about 3/4 of an inch or so larger than the pie pan’s outer rim. You should only use a metal pie tin — it has to do with heat conductivity and reflectivity. Here’s where you’ll be glad you rolled it out on waxed paper. Just turn the tin upside down on the crust, positioning it in the center. Slide your hand between the waxed paper and the counter and just flip the crust and pan right-side up together. Adjust the crust to fit the pan and crimp the outer edges of the crust. Bake or fill according to recipe.
Mom’s final piece of advice: The secret lies more in technique than ingredients, so make lots of pie — you’ll only get better!
On Ash Wednesday this year, I decided to move from Boston to California to take a new job. Over a glass of wine, I told a friend that I was planning, in the good old American tradition, to recreate myself in the West. “Don’t do it,” he said.
I told him how nineteenth-century pioneers would sell and give away belongings before they set out on the Overland Trail to California, packing only what they needed for their new life. Of course, that included luxury items that conveyed civilization, objects that no doubt seemed even more significant as the pioneers faced an uncultivated world. But as they traveled, they needed to lighten their loads. They dumped silverware, china, even pianos all along the Trail. Purged, the Westerners arrived at their new world baptized by hardship, divested of the possessions that bound them to their old one.
My friend nodded. “That’s the mistake people make,” he said, “They don’t realize that they’re going to need everything. Even their sins.” I rolled the wine in my mouth and thought about what I’d like to leave behind.
When I was a child, Saturday night was fried onions and hamburgers — a glory of flesh after a meatless Friday. After dinner, Daddy would pile us all into the Country Squire wagon and drive us to confession. My memories of the time in the Black Box are like those of most Catholics — vivid, specific, and trite. I was never terrified — after all, this was a weekly event and besides, I had a crush on Father O’Brien — but just nervous enough to want to pee my pants a little. I worried that by not remembering all my sins in accurate quantities, I was inadvertently lying to Father O’Brien and God. But Jesuit training came to my rescue, and I hit on the technique of ending each confession with a request for God to forgive me for “all lies of omission and commission.”
Friends who have experienced Protestant adult baptism — the kind with white robes and total immersion — tell me about the unbelievable feeling of renewal and regeneration they felt after that single dramatic event. But I reckon you can’t beat that post-Confession feeling I had, every week, as we pulled out of the church parking lot, heading downtown on a Saturday night. Tumbling back and forth between the station wagon seats, we were as light-hearted as Luther, clean-souled and off the hook. And the first act of our new life was going to Hyatt Drugstore, where Daddy bought us candy, three or four bars each to last the week.
Daddy loved candy the way he loved doctrine, with a rigorous joy born of suffering. His stories of the Depression did not focus on the lack of necessaries, though often he had no shoes, and malnutrition, rather than candy, had deformed his lower jaw and teeth. For him, the story of his poverty was his longing for refined sugar. The relatives who took him in after his parents deserted him baked with molasses and tried to pass off raisins as candy, but he wasn’t fooled. He had tasted just enough of the real stuff to hate raisins forever, and when he grew up he ate real candy and ice cream. Other Dads smoked and drank on a Saturday night, but he lined up with us at the candy racks, blinking in Hyatt’s fluorescent light, and made his selection.
I had a sophisticated palate, actually enjoying Good ‘N’ Plenty and developing a taste for licorice Allsorts. But on Saturday — chocolate. Hershey with almonds, Calvinist in its harsh pairing of raw nuts and stark chocolate, without the mediating grace of even a layer of caramel. The effete Three Musketeers — sleek, fluid, supple. Sky Bar promised four candy bars in one. Each bar divided into four pouches, one plain fudge, the others filled with caramel, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff. Like most committee efforts this one failed to satisfy — the pockets were too small and the chocolate definitely inferior. But its promise of total fulfillment lured me, and I bit, every time.
We got to eat one of our bars right away in the car, though I often waited until I got home for the first bite. Partly, it was the exquisite agony of pleasure deferred, partly, I wanted to extend the moment of grace and purity. For chocolate was not an unambiguous good. Not forbidden, not a sin, nonetheless when Lent came, it was the first thing to go. Not only for us children, but for Daddy. And we all suffered.
The wine stung the back of my mouth like cheap chocolate. I made a face. What spoils my Western saga, I told my friend, was that the newly-purged pioneers did not appreciate their baptized state, but set about importing luxury from the East as soon as they could. My friend nodded, as though it was just as he expected. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Old sins cast long shadows?'” he said.
I learned early that Lenten sacrifice was not just about subtracting a pleasure. A candy-less forty days loosened the tie that bound your spirit to your body. You could also gain Lent points by addition — going to early Mass or saying extra rosaries. Taking on pain or discomfort — like standing up to do your homework — and offering it up to the souls in Purgatory also counted. Novitiates began their marriage to Christ by taking on the hardest, most menial jobs, trusting that mortifying the physical self would ready them for ultimate transcendence.
I had absorbed this complexity with the Host I swallowed without chewing, and one Ash Wednesday I announced that I would devote my Lent to learning to make piecrust. My mother looked at me hard and then looked away. Since I could walk, she had been training me for my future life as a good Catholic wife and mother. This training centered on the acquisition of housewifely skills. In the world we lived in, these master skills involved the manipulation of white flour, sugar, and fat. Thus far, I had been a recalcitrant pupil.
But now I went straight home from school every day and sifted flour and experimented with varying combinations of lard, butter, and Crisco. I learned about the crucial action of iced water on flour and fat and the goal of a “short” crust. Sometimes piecrust crumbled through my hands; at other times, it stuck to my fingers. Once it just lumped up, a white blob on crumpled wax paper, stuck to the red Formica counter. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Getting it into the pan was a whole other skill, but about halfway through Lent, I got it.
The first pie that worked was a cherry pie (Daddy’s favorite). The filling was too-sweet, too-red filling from a jar, but the crust held together as my mother sliced into the pie and lifted the first piece. On the plate, it crumbled at a touch. My mother put down her fork and said, “Good. This is good. I couldn’t make this.” I baked pie all that Lent. Apple, lemon meringue, coconut custard. For Easter day, I made a big chocolate pie for Daddy and my brothers and sister, and a small raisin pie for Mom and me. She loved raisin pie, but wouldn’t make it for herself. “Good. This is good.”
When I became a teenager, I stopped baking pie and made my last confession at sixteen, with Father Flanagan. My mother took my piecrust recipe and became a superb pastry-maker. Her crusts were so good you forgot the filling. One of my boyfriends actually wept a few tears after tasting her strawberry pie.
In their fifties, my parents became fundamentalist Christians, and, later, became perpetually disappointed when I married a Jew. I made hamantashen for my husband’s Hebrew class all through Lent, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas we visited my parents’ silent house. My stepdaughter loved the pumpkin pie and unstintingly praised my mother, who glowed, and always sent a pie back home with us — “for later.”
I’m a historian, and my job involves the relationship between now and then and later. As a historian and an atheist, I’m a true believer, firmly focused on the human, convinced that the past provides lessons that we can choose and change to fit our lives. And I still don’t know what to do with my own history. My parents are thrifty, parsimonious people, pack rats. Their solution was to keep everything and transform it — my father tried to turn suffering into candy, my mother tried to turn me into her dream of a happy woman.
How do I choose what to leave behind and what to transform? Can I choose? Will I lose parts of my past without realizing? What old pianos await me — out of tune and warped by the sun — when I get to the end of my Overland Trail? Faith. That was left behind long ago. But, I realize, so was sin, or rather, the sense of sin. Though it seems I spent most of my childhood feeling guilty, there was no sin there — not on my part nor on the part of my parents. No sin, no sinners, just shadows I can’t shake.
Catherine Allgor is the author of Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. She'll be joining the faculty of the University of California at Riverside next fall.