Carmella slides an apple pie out of the oven and tells me in her thick Massachusetts accent that it’s called a “mile-high apple pie.” And sure enough, the top crust has risen up like a golden brown fedora. Not exactly a mile high, but a damned good six inches.
Carmella, my mother, was one of those traditional Italian American matriarchs who stayed home to raise her son, vacuumed incessantly, struggled with her weight and, naturally, screamed at her husband, Mike. And, boy, could she scream at Mike.
When she wasn’t “fed up with this man” or telling him to “leave her the hell alone,” she would yell at him for other things, like watching TV in his underwear, saying he was leaving “ass pan” on the couch (whatever that is), or, my personal favorite, the time she yelled at him for making dust. “Jesus Christ, Mike, quit walking around the house; you’re making dust!” I remember that he looked at me, smiled, then pretended to walk in slow motion (so as not to make dust). My dad was a funny guy.
Don’t get me wrong; he was no St. Francis of Assisi, either, but Carmella and Mike loved each other and she was an amazing cook, which, in his eyes, made up for a lot. For me, it was her pie-making that was off the charts.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m sitting at the dining room table. In front of me is a stack of my mother’s cookbooks along with a clear plexiglass box of her typewritten recipe cards. When she died in September 2013, my wife and I cleaned out her condo and brought back these items, along with the one belonging I really wanted: a baby blue pastry blender from the fifties, ergonomically awful, but it makes me think of her always.
On this day, I was in search of her elusive apple pie recipe. I started with the index cards, which turned out to be a bevy of quirky offerings like Mama Leone’s Crostola Wandi’s (an Italian version of a Polish chrusciki, I’m guessing), Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins, and St. Timothy’s Coffee Cake—alas, no pie recipe. There was some other thing called “Tuna Balls with Sauce”—yeah, I love you Ma, but no thanks.
The cookbooks were next, but the first few were the standard savory type until I came across a groovy dessert book. It was from the sixties and pictured dining room tables bountifully staged with Jell-O molds and fruit pies so saturated in color they looked like surgical procedures. Halfway through, I found some pages stuck together and when I wiggled them apart, there it was: the apple pie section. It was a mere two pages, tattered and wavy, but it was complete with Carmella’s scribblings all around the margins. I called out to Elizabeth and she rushed in to see.
I looked back at the cover of the book. You mean to tell me, my mother’s secret pie recipe was from a Betty Crocker pie and dessert book?
We had a good laugh.
Granny Smith. Golden Delicious. Macintosh.
Those were the apples my mother had written in the margin notes, so, in an effort to make this pie for the holiday, I shot over to Wegmans, grabbed what I needed, came home, and got right to work.
I was excited to get things going but, three apples into this, I wanted to take an ax to my living room. Turns out I have no patience for peeling apples. And why does every apple have a little sticker on it? Just when you get peeling momentum, you hit that friggin’ sticker. As for coring, I was terrible at that, too. My holes were always at the wrong angle, still leaving all the seeds and the little hard thing in place. (It made me realize I’d be awful at a prison break. I’d dig a tunnel and wind up the next cell over.) This pie was slowly taking the better part of my day.
Thank God the pie crust was simpler. Shortening, flour salt, water. Nothing else. And a strange thing happened. Maybe it was the magic of my mother’s diabolical pastry blender, but I could feel her movements taking over. I could feel the two of us becoming one as I dug at the flour and water, knowing exactly when the texture was perfect. I knew how to knead the dough and blend the apples and crimp the crust. I became my mother. I had a sudden urge to yell at my spouse and vacuum. For thirty glorious minutes, I teleported back to our kitchen in 1975, preparing multiple pies for Thanksgiving: apple, pecan, chocolate cream, and mincemeat. How did she do it all? As quick as I was swept away, I teleported back. My pie was complete and ready to bake.
When it came out of the oven, I remember I put my face close to it, feeling the heat, and taking in the aroma and sound of it bubbling. The crust was amber, nicely typifying that “mile-high pie” effect. I cut the first slice for Elizabeth and she examined it from different angles before giving me a thumbs up. “Watch out, Mom,” she said aloud and took a bite.
I like to think Carmella really was there, sitting across from us, hands folded in her lap, impressed that her son cracked the secret pie code, yet somewhat satisfied—by the look on my face—that it didn’t come out exactly right. Then again, maybe I’m a good actor and didn’t want her to feel too bad, because between you and me [whispering], I made a pretty damn good apple pie.