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No Pie in the Sky Holiday: Centre County family annually celebrates goodness in a crust

by on May 31, 2019 12:47 PM

We are a family of pie people. Which isn’t to say we’d turn down a made-from-scratch yellow cake with billowy white frosting and fresh coconut flakes, but pie is what truly brings it home for us. Especially a fruit pie when cherries, peaches, or apples are in peak season.

Both of my grandmothers were legendary pie bakers. My father recalled his mother rolling out crusts several times a week, filling the pie pans with the harvest from their farm’s orchard in Centre Hall. She used lard in the crust, stored in large tin cans from the last butchering, with no thoughts of cholesterol numbers, only that her crust was bragging rights flaky.

My other grandmother, in Pine Grove Mills, had a sour cheery tree behind the garage that she fiercely guarded with help from my grandfather. He once chopped up a leaky garden hose and strung pieces through the branches to fool the cherry-stealing birds into thinking the tree was infested with snakes. It obviously worked and Grandma had overflowing buckets of all the cherries she needed for jelly, cobblers, and of course, pies.

Because we are such pie devotees, it was only natural to come up with Pie Day to celebrate goodness in a crust. While some may serve pie on the March 14 Pi Day, we would rather do the honors in the summer when the large willow tree in my parents’ side yard is welcome shade for putting out a table and chairs. Besides, you can’t get descent fruit in the middle of March.

I’ll take credit for starting our annual event, but it’s the enthusiasm of aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted other family members that has kept the tradition going for the past few years. The idea is to skip the usual trappings of a meal and just eat dessert. It’s generally scheduled for early afternoon, so if you must eat a healthy lunch, go ahead, but just know that if you do, you may not feel like sampling all the pies stretched the entire length of a long table.

Rules for Pie Day are not overly strict, not like, say, the rules for making a tender pie crust. This was something I learned from my mother who, like my grandmothers, is no slouch in the kitchen. Her advice is to bind together the flour, salt, and shortening with ice water. She also stressed that the less you work the dough, the better. Save the rough stuff for when you’re baking bread and slamming the yeasty blob onto the counter with all you’ve got.

The first order of Pie Day is to come up with a date. The aunts and uncles and some of the cousins are retired, so the middle of the week works just fine. My cousin’s husband famously took off his watch the day he retired and has never put it back on, but he does use a calendar to circle the date for Pie Day. The year my niece, her husband, and their three boys came in from Oregon, along with my brother and sister-in-law, it was a given that we would schedule Pie Day during their visit. This year, we’ll probably schedule it around July 4, when some out-of-town family is here.

Another consideration is to get a rough idea of what types of pie will show up. After all, who wants a table full of lemon meringue pies when a little advanced planning would have saved the day? Although there have been times of having two peach pies, one being your typical two-crust, nutmeg and cinnamon peach and the other a recipe I’ve used since first reading Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn. The page containing the pie recipe is stained from years of baking a pie consisting of sour cream custard with peaches in a crust reminiscent of buttery shortbread. Some of the relatives swear that it’s the same recipe used by my Aunt Mary Ellen and others argue that no, Mary Ellen got that recipe from my Aunt Patty. To my knowledge neither aunt ever met Nora Ephron.

There’s no question that my sister-in-law Karen will bring a shoo-fly pie. She and her husband live in Florida through the winter, returning in the summer to Lewistown where they live in an RV campground alongside the scenic old canal. She requires the use of her sister’s oven and usually makes more than one pie since she’s going to all that trouble. Another sister-in-law, Lisa, likes to change things up, one year doing strawberry crème in a graham cracker crust and the next blueberry. Beth, the third sister-in-law, threw out all the rules when she visited, whipping up trifle in my mother’s kitchen.

My mom is a bit of a rule-breaker herself. She has this super-simple recipe for pumpkin pie and saw no reason why pumpkin pie should be served only at Thanksgiving. My Aunt Lois makes a mean apple pie and cousin Cinda crafted two lemon sponge pies one year. Anything with lemon is a hit at Pie Day.

Uncle Ted, always proud of searching out day-old pastry bargains at Walmart, nonetheless springs the extra change for a fresh-baked pie that he tells people “came from my kitchen. Really. It was in my kitchen for at least a little while.” Even the kids get involved. The youngest of the Oregon great-nephews, 3-year-old Isaac, schooled his mother in making what he calls “Pit-Pop-Pie,” a vanilla custard and banana number with marshmallows, candy sprinkles, and who knows what thrown in. That was also the year of a rhubarb pie, an acquired taste for some uninformed people. It was straight rhubarb, no strawberries, and it was awesome.

Just as Icarus messed up by flying too close to the sun, one year we foolishly decided to add a little ice cream to Pie Day.

Even stored in a cooler, the ice cream quickly melted in the mid- to upper-80s temperature, exactly the age of many of those at Pie Day who don’t move their spoons as quickly as they once did. Still, ice cream was on the mind of Uncle Ted at the most recent Pie Day as he sat on a folding chair and forked into a second slice of blueberry pie, lamenting that it could use some ice cream.

Just as we are a family of pie people, we are also a family of storytellers, even if the stories are the same ones told time and again. Eventually, someone got around to telling the story of a memorable apple pie my grandmother made. With 10 children, Grandma didn’t always have the luxury of a lot of time, so with supper looming, she decided to forego peeling the apples for her pie. Some of my uncles strongly objected, however, wondering why she put garbage scraps in an otherwise perfect pie.

But Pie Day is a time to celebrate family and to honor the dessert, because even the worst pie is good pie.

 

Nancy Luse, a native of Pine Grove Mills and a Penn State graduate, is a freelance writer living in Frederick, Maryland, where she is assistant editor at Frederick Magazine.

 

 

 

 

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