At the age of 29, my mother taught me how to bake a pie. That she was in her kitchen, proving how easy it was—how pleasurable it was to master this most domestic of tricks—was a shocker. “There’s more to life than getting married, you know!” she’d said when she caught me walking a Barbie down the aisle in a make believe game of wedding when I was young. “There’s art and work and travel,” she said slowly, clearly trying to make an impression.
But it all sounded boring, coming from her. I already knew I could become an astronaut, a lawyer, or president of the United States if I wanted to. Everyone said so. Born in the ‘80s, I took for granted the choices available to me as an American girl, who benefitted from the Women’s Lib movement, for which my own mother had fought hard. I grew up in an environment and time when it was more questionable if your mother didn’t work; a post-Home Ec, pre-foodie era.
Through my twenties, a number of the guys I dated suggested we bake pie. I didn’t like pie, especially the crust, which I often skipped in favor of the fruit filling, and which had split apart like Pangaea on the few occasions I’d tried to make one on my own. Why did these guys want to bake? What about me screamed, “This is the type of girl who will make you a piping hot pie”? More so, I was baffled that men of my generation—who were present in the classroom when we were all told we could become anything we wanted to, if we put our minds to it—were so attracted to an activity that suggested the traditional feminine ideal.
Despite my trouble with pie crust, I’m a pretty good cook. For years I worked as the publicist for New York City’s network of farmers’ markets. I’ve written for food magazines. I throw memorable dinner parties. And yet, pie started to take on a very particular meaning. It became routine for my mother to ask, as I wailed to her over the phone about the most recent dating disappointment, “But did you cook for him? You need to cook for them!” When had she changed her independent woman tune? I’d take my anger at the dude who had loused up our courtship, and redirect it at my mother, whose words seemed like an about-face on the feminist morals she’d raised me to uphold.
In retaliation, I became steadfastly self-reliant. I wiped my tears and carried on. I walked home alone along dark streets, traveled around the world solo, took my best friend instead of a plus one to others’ weddings. But as I neared the end of my twenties, no boyfriend (let alone husband) in sight, I was getting worn down. I was dreadfully embarrassed to admit—as though this desire for companionship was somehow equal to submission of some sort—that secretly, what I’d always wanted for myself, was what I’d had my dolls act out. I wanted to find lasting love. I wanted the assurance of a commitment from my other. I’d polished my craft, and I’d begun my career, and I’d filled my passport. I started to see that what my mother had been trying to tell me when I was a girl was not that marriage was insupportable; she just hadn’t wanted me to limit myself.
But I had ended up doing that anyway. I'd restricted myself off from having romantic relationships. On some instinctual level, as I pondered how to move ahead with my life, I circled back to my troubles with pie.
Last May, just as rhubarb was coming into season, I declared that it would be the summer of pie. I was going to get my head around this crust dilemma, dammit, and use my abilities to lure in a man. I practiced all butter, lard and half–butter half-lard recipes. I turned to Martha Stewart and Mark Bittman and The Joy of Cooking. I worked a crumble top, and a lattice weave. I took pies to every potluck I was invited to, brought them into my office, ate my fair share with my roommate, evaluating the results.
With each crowd, I polled my audience for guidance. One woman passed along advice from her Italian grandmother, who said you could knead the dough four times, but just. Someone else said, “Bake it until the kitchen begins to smell like jam.” But it was on a trip home that August that my own mother revealed the secret ingredient: confidence. There she was, slicing peaches grown in the orchard she and my father have planted in the front yard. She was liberal with the ice water, didn’t worry about gluten forming from kneading the dough too much. “Confidence,” she said, effortlessly flipping the perfect disk over the empty pie plate. “See? Just like that.”
Pie crust, I learned, is one of those things—maybe like relationships—where practice really does make perfect. Or at least it makes for a better result. The more you do it, the less afraid you are of messing up. Through the fall and winter, from plum tarts to apple and pumpkin pies, my confidence began to build. This spring, when it was once again rhubarb season, I brought a pie to a picnic in the park. It was the day after friends from college had wed, and the remaining guests who were still in town showed up hung over, haggard, and hungry.
I pulled the pie out of my wicker pie basket—no big deal, I thought, setting it down on the blanket. But it was. They swarmed, overcome with disbelief that I’d woken from the night before and had the energy to bake. I just shrugged my shoulders. I kind of like to bake pies now. I can whip out a crust in mere minutes. I’m no longer afraid of whether or not it’s going to work—as soon as I stopped fearing failure, my technique improved. And it just keeps getting better.
They say the stomach is the way to a man’s heart. I still don’t know about that, but it is certainly the way to mine.
Jeanne Hodesh writes from Brooklyn where she is at work on a memoir about growing up in a restaurant in Maine. She tweets at @jeannehodesh and prefers to eat outside whenever possible.
Photo via Anne Putnam/Flickr