Although my Nanny taught me to cook many things and I spent innumerable happy days with her in the kitchen, I don't recall ever watching her make a pie. This is profoundly strange to me because a pie-maker she very definitely was. My blackberry pie recipe is hers (my sister and I used to pick the blackberries from her yard), as is my lemon meringue fluff pie recipe, though that might have come through Aunt Da, Nanny's older-by-16-years sister, originally. Aunt Da is the source of my French Silk pie and was a terrific cook in her own right. At Nanny's, the pies always seemed already-made: when we arrived for lunch, they were chilling in the fridge; when she came our way or we were all to meet at Aunt Da's, the pies had long been wrapped gently in Saran. For lemon meringue pies, Nanny used toothpicks to tent the plastic wrap so as not to mar the peaks of meringue. Those hills of whipped egg whites, turned slight golden in the low oven in which they cooked, looked like snowy mounts; sometimes they wept small amber tears which escaped their zeniths but never completely descended the slopes.
I remember once riding from Nanny's house to Aunt Da's for a family lunch, probably on a Sunday. Mom must have been driving, and we must have picked Nanny up because we were all snug in Mom's gray Cutlass. Nanny gingerly placed the lemon pie on the floor of the backseat and begged me to watch my dangling feet. At some point, I don't remember when or even how, my heel must have sunk because when we arrived at Aunt Da's, one of the meringue peaks had been smashed by a crater, a rounded imprint left in the top, like a hand in wet cement. I felt terribly. Looking back, I wonder why Nanny didn't just hold the pie on her lap.
The person I most remember making pies is my mom. She's not a big sweets person, but pies are a different story, and she is an enormous fan of most. 2 cups of flour, sifted, then whisked with a teaspoon and a half of salt. Make a well and into it pour 1/4 cup of milk and a 1/2 cup of canola oil. Using a fork, mix everything until the dough comes together, shape with your hands into a ball and place that onto a sheet of waxed paper. Press it into a disk and cover that with a second sheet of waxed paper. Roll it out with a pin to your desired thickness, carefully peel off the top sheet of paper, and invert the crust over a pie plate, pressing it into the bottom and up the sides. Carefully remove the base sheet of waxed paper.
Mom had this ancient sifter, surely a wedding gift as is the rolling pin she always used and still does. That sifter creaked and groaned, and at times I considered that the slight shower of rust that came through with the flour might not be beneficial. A few years ago, I sent her a shiny new one and with no ceremony, the old tool was laid to rest. It was time. Once she'd got the crust in the pie dish, she would hold it propped atop the fingers of her right hand -as if she had a ball in her palm, fingers pointing upward- and with her left hand (she's a lefty) trim the excess crust by running a paring knife around the perimeter of the plate's edge. I loved to watch the scraps fall back to the waxed paper. If the pie was an open-faced sort, like pumpkin or coconut, those scraps would become pie crackers which were one of my favorite treats of childhood and are no more than pie dough rolled out, cut into rectangles and baked. Perfection.
This past Wednesday, as I made the blackberry and cherry pies for the 4th, I thought of Mom and Nanny as I trimmed the crust and baked pie crackers for Oliver who loves them like I did. I cut a star from another bit of extra crust to put atop Jack's birthday pie, as he was my first little beam of bright offspring light. I thought of how many pies Mom and Nanny made for all of us, how many I've already made for my sweet brood and how many more will come.