Baking a man's first pie is no piece of cake

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I baked a pie today, oh boy.

Forgive my enthusiasm. Actually, the pie* was baked a couple of days ago, and it carries an asterisk because the crust came ready-made from Keebler. But with crabapples gathered in my side yard and a recipe snatched from the Internet, this pie is my first baked good.

This may seem mundane to you, but for me, it's a long overdue rite of passage. I was born in 1956, a member of one of the last generations for which gender roles were rigidly defined, at least in my house. My mother would call me into the kitchen only to have me dump the spaghetti into the colander (so the steam wouldn't wreck her perm), and my father's idea of preparing a meal was spreading Skippy peanut butter on Ritz crackers.

I never questioned that. When I was in high school in the early '70s, a breakthrough might have come when they began a boys' home economics course, "Bachelor Survival," but I never took it and it's not as if my peers were culinary school candidates. I heard one once asked the teacher, "Mrs. Crowley, how do you make ice?"

By the late '70s, the wooden spoon had been passed to a new generation of young men. I briefly had a roommate, a few years younger than I, who came via an ad when my first roommate got married and moved across the parking lot. One night, I arrived back at the apartment from work to find the new guy baking a cake.

I couldn't have been more surprised had I come upon a bear riding a bicycle.

"You ... bake?" I asked accusingly.

"Sure," he said. "Who doesn't?"

I fled to my room, wondering what manner of man this could be, who blithely baked and would bake again. As it happened, he did turn out to be a bag o' nuts who'd later point a gun at me for questioning his affinity for "Starsky & Hutch," but I couldn't really tie that to his cakes.

In the three decades that since have been (warning: half-baked simile ahead) laid atop one another like a layer cake, I've become friends with men who are closer to Julia Child than their wives are. They're all younger, and I'd begun to feel like a leftover.

So, a couple of weeks ago, when I was getting ready to rake up the crabapples that annually litter our side yard, I wondered why I shouldn't gather said fruit to make a pie.

I brought a bowl of apples in and explained my mission to my teenage daughters, which prompted them to scan the bowl and proclaim as one, "We're not eating that."

I grabbed the ugliest apple from the bowl and threw it back in the yard. That mollified the girls. The next day, though, my 13-year-old and I failed badly at making the dough, achieving only a softball-sized lump that had less give than Ted Cruz. A few days later, the apples began drawing flies and back to nature they went.

I might have remained pieless had I not looked up one day in the supermarket to see the Keebler elf smiling over what is literally and figuratively the hard part, the crust. I guess the product had been there forever, but I never noticed. I grabbed one, drove home and grabbed eight apples off the tree.

I skinned 'em, cut 'em up and threw them in a bowl with white sugar, brown sugar, lemon juice, flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Then I dumped the sweet glop into the graham crust and slid it into the oven.

When it was done, I took from lessons learned long ago in my black-and-white TV-watching days, and put the pie on the windowsill to cool. Then, remembering that this invariably attracted hoboes or one of the Three Stooges, I brought the pie back in and sliced it open.

Delicious. Of course, with enough sugar and cinnamon, a brick might taste pretty good, too.

Still, I'm sufficiently pie proud that I'm considering going into baking full time. My dream is be hired by UPMC and make pies for the patients, doctors and nurses.

I realize that's a long shot, but speaking of firsts, I'd be UPMC's first employee, from what I hear.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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