Sunday, May 29, 2011

"The Pie Maker" - a fable for writers

For the Sunday Story this week, I give you "The Pie Maker," a new fable which I have been trying to write for ages, but it keeps coming out different from my expectations....


The Pie Maker
by Camille LaGuire

ANNETTE'S GREAT GRANDMOTHER had been the greatest pie maker in the county. And her daughter, Annette's grandmother, was the second greatest. Their pies were legend, not only for their quality and tastiness, but for the sheer quantity. They had baked for lumberjack camps, and in busy restaurants, and for church events and for charities. Pie after pie, beloved of all.

Annette herself, though, was the youngest of many in her generation, and she had been raised in a modern kitchen by an in-law mother who never baked. Her great grandmother had died when she was just a baby, and though grandma also baked great pies, bad luck and poor health took her too, and Annette was left with mostly stories, and a memory of the sharp and sweet taste and the tender flake of crust.

Every year there was a charity event back in grandma's home town. It included a pie contest which was in honor of Annette's great grandmother. They always invited Annette to join the festivities, and enter a pie. They even offered her the use of the church kitchen, because she was coming from so far out of town.

Up until now, Annette had refused in embarrassment that she couldn't bake a pie.

It wasn't that she hadn't tried. Frankly, Annette was determined to recapture the glory of the family honor. She took classes, and had all sorts of baking books. Every week, she worked very hard to bake a perfect pie. She generally failed to recapture the flavor and texture she remembered of grandma's pies, but she knew she was getting better.

Then one day, going through some old letters, she found her great grandmother's recipe for pie crust. Just amounts, no instructions. It called for so little water, Annette could hardly believe it would hold together. But there is was, THE original recipe. It was like magic. It even smelled a little of coffee and lard -- the predominant aroma of grandma's kitchen.

Here it was only one week until the competition, and now she had great grandma's recipe! That was kismet. She could reclaim the family honor!

The night before the contest, she gathered her groceries -- the finest apples, and good pastry flour and real lard -- and picked up the key to the church kitchen. She brought a scale and measured the flour to the gram, and did the same with the lard. She stuck the lard in the freezer to make sure it would be good and cold and prepared ice water for mixing.

When she cut the lard into the flour, and made sure she cut it to the exact size of peas. Then she spooned in the very cold water, a teaspoon at a time.... and found it was not enough to hold the dough together. With a sigh, she added a bit more, until it was just barely enough to hold together. It was still less water than she had ever used before.

The dough broke when she rolled it out, and crumbled when she assembled the pie. She was afraid to handle it too much, because that would make it tough. Still she managed to get the pie together, and she stuck it in the oven. She set to cleaning up while it baked, and suddenly realized someone else had come into the room.

An old woman stood near the door with a basket full of flowers. Annette jumped back. Did she forget to lock the door behind her when she came in?

The woman acted like she belonged there, though. She set the basket down on a bench and fussed at it a bit. She was wearing an old-fashioned flowered dress, which was worn and a bit stained, maybe from gardening.

"Oh, hello," said Annette, feeling awkward.

The old woman just looked over and said "Hmmmf." Now Annette was sure she did belong there. Church ladies can put so much disapproval into a little sound.

"I have permission to use the kitchen tonight," said Annette firmly. She meant to claim her right to be in the kitchen alone, but somehow she felt as if she were merely excusing herself. The old woman looked critically at the scraps of dough on the counter. "I'm just cleaning up!" said Annette.

She began to gather the scraps, and the old woman came over to look at what she was doing, as though speaking were an invitation.

"You're Mina's granddaughter, aren't you?"

"You knew my grandmother?"

"I knew her very well."

The old woman stood back and waited, looking sternly as though Annette were forgetting something important. Annette looked around and wiped her hands on her apron. The old woman sighed.

"You'd better check on that pie," she finally prompted.

"Oh, I just put it in. It's got at least a half...."

The timer on the oven rang. Annette realized she must have set it wrong. Oh, no. How long had it been? How much longer should she leave it in? She hated things to be inexact. Baking pastry was soo fussy. She'd get it wrong.... She peeked in the oven, and by golly the pie was already golden brown and done!

She pulled it out, and though it was a little lumpy and lopsided, it smelled wonderful. Annette set it on the rack and the old woman scowled at it.

"Well, looks aren't everything, and it smells good. May I have a piece?"

"What?" Annette couldn't believe the old woman's gall. "It's for the contest tomorrow."

"Really," said the old woman, looking at it doubtfully. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure."

"Hmmm," said the old woman. "I'm hungry. I would like a piece, please."

Maybe this woman wasn't a church lady after all. Maybe she was just a bag lady who was good at pretending she belonged. Annette looked a little closer, and she noticed that the dress was faded, and had been neatly mended. Should she call someone? Or....

The old woman looked at her expectantly. And Annette recalled herself to the fact that it was a charity event. And her grandmother never would have turned away a hungry person. But she couldn't give away her good pie. Especially not to a woman who might be conning her.

"It's too big for one person," said Annette. "Why don't I make a smaller pie, just for you. I've got all this crust left, and some apples."

"All right," said the old woman, and she settled down to wait. on the bench by the kitchen door with her basket for flowers.

Annette found a slightly smaller pie tin and quickly rolled out the remaining crust and mixed up some apples and seasonings and popped the small pie in the oven. The old woman fiddled with her flowers and waited, and Annette started to clean up... and the timer on the oven went off. Almost instantly.

She peeked in, and the pie was golden. Was it a convection oven? She grabbed her pot holders and pulled out the pie.

When she set it on the rack, she paused to stare. It was bigger than the previous one. And it was nicer. She looked from one pie to the other, and blinked. The old woman got up and looked at the pie.

"Well, this one looks better," said the old woman, she she picked up a fork.

"No!" said Annette. "This is the pie for the contest. You can have the other. It's cool enough to eat by now anyway."

"I'm not eating that," said the old woman. "It's too big for me, you said."

"But this one's bigger."

"True," said the old woman. "I'd never be able to eat either of them. But I'm awfully hungry, so I guess I'll try."

She reached for the second pie, the nicer one, and Annette pulled it away.

"No, I've got a little more lard and more apples--"

"Good idea," said the old woman. "Why not make a little pie this time, rather than one fit for a lumberjack?"

"But I did make a little pie," Annette protested.

The old woman looked expectant, and so Annette sighed and grabbed her measuring cup and made a half batch of crust. She didn't weigh it this time, because she figured the old woman would get what she deserved for being so pushy. She just did a rough measure and cut it in fast and sloppy, and threw in enough water to hold it together. She rolled it out and threw in the filling and stuck it in the oven.

The timer bell rang almost instantly. The pie she pulled out of the oven was aromatic, golden... and bigger than either of the others.

"That's big enough for a pair of farmhands!" cried the old woman. "I thought you were going to make a small pie."

"I did!" said Annette. Something was very wrong with that oven. It was enchanted, or haunted. And the pie was beautiful. The old woman hovered over it with a fork, and Annette pulled it away. This one would definitely be better for the competition.

"I'll make you a pie for you!" she declared. And she wasn't going to be defeated by an enchanted oven either. She glared at the appliance and then threw together more crust. She found a stack of pot pie tins in the cupboard and made a pie as small as she could manage.

It came out bigger. So she tried again, and the next came out even bigger.

She kept trying until she came to the last of the pot pie tins, and that one came out huge. Enough to feed a football team.

"You'd better make another," said the old woman. "I can't possibly eat all that."

Annette let out a scream and this time she didn't even measure at all. She just scooped the lard into some flour and cut it together until it looked right, and sprinkled in the water. She pulled together the dough and rolled it out and put it in a tiny tart tin. She threw that in the oven and set the timer.

She leaned against the oven door and glared at the old woman, and as expected the timer went off quickly.

And this time she pulled out... a tart. The old woman got up and examined it.

"Now that looks tasty," she said. And she was right. The pie this time was well formed -- oh, not perfect like a pie press, but it was beautiful in an irregular hand-made way. The old woman picked it up, not waiting for it to cool. She glanced over her shoulder at the left-over crust on the counter. "You ought to make one more for the sale tomorrow. You've got all that crust."

Annette saw that she had just enough to make one more pie -- a regular sized one. There were just enough apples left in her bag, so she rolled out the crust and made yet one more pie. This time, she noticed that the pie rolled more easily, or maybe it was that she had been rolling out so much of it, that she was better at it. She found she wasn't afraid of handling it too much, either. She was used to the feel of the dough by now and she slipped the crust into the tin easily. Then she filled it, and laid on the top crust. As she fluted the edges her fingers did not fumble.

She put the pie in the oven and set the timer, and then sat down. She was so exhausted, she started to doze off.

And then the timer went off. She jumped up, not sure of how long it had been, and grabbed the oven mitts.

The pie in the oven was normal sized and beautiful. It was the best pie she'd ever seen. She pulled it out and turned to show the old woman, but the old woman was gone. She'd only left a small tart tin and a fork on the bench. Annette set the pie on the rack and looked around.

It wasn't a dream, at least not all of it. The kitchen was filled with pies, but they were all normal sized pies.

After a moment Annette heard some footsteps outside and she went to see if the old woman was there. It turned out to be three ladies from the event's organizing committee. They just stopped by to see how she was doing.

When they entered they looked around in amazement.

"Just like your grandmother!" said one.

"No, like her mother!" said another, the eldest of the three. "There must be a dozen pies here. These will auction off nicely. These are for the charity auction, aren't they?"

"Um, yes," said Annette. "I guess I got carried away making pies."

This eldest woman shook her head, and circled to look at the pies. She closed her eyes and sniffed the aroma.

"This is like the old days," she said. "You know, I used to help your great grandmother make pies for the fair. A very long time ago. But I can still see her in that old flowered work dress. Rolling and mixing and pinching that dough. Nobody ever made as many pies as she did. Seeing these here, well, it's like she's still haunting the place!"

You don't know how true that is, thought Annette.


I'll tell you more about the writing of this story tomorrow in the Monday Story Notes.

You can read more of my fantasy fiction in The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic at all Amazon Kindle Stores: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon DE. (If you hurry, you might still find it offered for free at Amazon -- though that should cange to 99 cents soon.) As well as at other ebook retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Nobel, Apple iBookstore, Nook, and Sony.


Angie said...

Okay, I liked this one. :) I've made a few pies in my time, usually apple, but the crust is a massive pain in the posterior and I usually go several years between times. It's like I have to forget what a pain it was before I can try it again. And yeah, I know doing pie crust takes practice and an experienced touch, and that I'll never get any good at it if I only make one ever few years. Somehow knowing that doesn't actually help. :P

But yeah, I know where Annette's coming from. She cheated, though, getting a ghost to help her. :D


The Daring Novelist said...

All the ghost did was push her to make more pies -- like a good mentor would. Annette made the pies herself.

Angie said...

But the intriguing weirdness of the situation, to say nothing of the helpful time compression in the baking phase, motivated her to keep going. :D It's that motivation that takes me years to save up. [wry smile]


The Daring Novelist said...

Well, yes, motivation is a very important factor. (And in many ways, that's exactly what a good mentor provides, in one way or other.)