Eat | Read with Edward Mullany & Janice Shapiro
What we’ve been eating, Edward:
I bought this packet of potato chips a few days ago, at the grocery store across the street from the building in which I live. While I was in there, in the store, waiting at the checkout while the girl who worked the register scanned the barcodes of the items I’d placed on the belt that brought the items toward her, I saw outside, where it was snowing, a dog whose owner I knew by sight, but not by name, barking at another dog—one that, with its own owner, was passing close to the tree to which the first dog’s leash was tied. When I came out onto the sidewalk, holding my purchased items in the plastic bags that the checkout girl had put them in, I stopped to say hello to the first dog, who’d quit barking now and was merely looking around, waiting for its owner to come out from wherever he’d gone into. Further down the sidewalk, the other dog—the one that the first dog had been barking at—was waiting at the corner, for the lights to change, with the person who’d been walking it. Snowflakes fell on me and on the dog and on the cars crunching by in the street. It was seven or eight o’clock.
What we’ve been reading, Edward:
I borrowed this book from a library in Manhattan one morning last week, on my way to work, after I’d come up out of the subway but before I’d started walking toward the building that I usually walk toward. In the library, on the second floor, after I’d found the book, but before I’d made my way out of the stacks, I saw another book by the same author, and removed it from its place on the shelf, and paged through it, just out of curiosity, to see if I could get a sense of what it was about. On one of its pages about halfway through, someone (a previous reader, I guess) had underlined a sentence and penciled the word “interesting” in the margin beside it. I read the sentence, to see if I could figure out why the person had underlined it, but the sentence was out of context. I mean that I couldn’t understand its significance because I’d arrived at it out of the blue, not having read any of the pages before the page on which the sentence appeared. I returned the book to the shelf, left the stacks, and headed toward the circulation desk.
What we’ve been reading, Janice:
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain for the fifty-millionth time. (For comments, see below.)
What we’ve been eating, Janice:
Like many people of my generation, I went through a period in my twenties where I read a lot of James M. Cain. At that time, the late 1970s—and place, Los Angeles, where I was studying film and hanging out at punk clubs—there were many of us who intrinsically related to Cain’s cynical worldview. We all loved Serenade and his other hardboiled classics, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. But I have always believed that Cain’s very best novel is Mildred Pierce.
I love Mildred Pierce for many reasons, and believe me there is much to love and admire in that book, but one of the most delightful features is the food. Cain was not technically a food writer. He didn’t delve deep into lengthy descriptions of dishes (of course, he didn’t delve deep into lengthy descriptions of anything, hence, the hardboiled aesthetic), but you could always count on food having some kind of presence in his stories, often as a list of what an extremely hungry, down and out character is eating. For example, here is what Frank Chambers has for breakfast the first time he enters The Greek’s diner in The Postman Always Rings Twice: “orange juice, corn flakes, fried eggs, bacon, flapjacks and an enchilada.” It’s an excessive amount of food, but always sounds good to me, particularly the inclusion of the enchilada, which inevitably makes me stop reading and think about what an enchilada might be like for breakfast. (Probably pretty good, wouldn’t you think?)
There is more food in Mildred Pierce than any other Cain novel because food is Mildred’s game. Mildred, we are told from the beginning, is a gifted baker and her pies represent her strength, her power, her specifically feminine and somehow sexy offerings to the world. Mildred rescues her financially flailing family during the Great Depression by first building a successful pie baking business and then expanding it into a small but lucrative chain of restaurants. Fried chicken and broiled steaks, homemade soups and buttered beans, biscuits and waffles all make appearances in the book, but the refrain that plays throughout the novel is pie.
Pie is a funny thing. There are many people with fear-of-pie-making. This, I suspect, is because of the crust. Fillings are ridiculously easy. (Really, all you have to do is cut up some good, ripe fruit—peaches, cherries, apples, berries—sweeten them to taste with anything—honey, brown sugar, white sugar or any combination of the above—add a little grated lemon rind, some vanilla flavoring, cinnamon, a light sprinkling of flour and slivers of butter—and that’s it—that’s all you ever have to do!) Now, I would never say I am a particularly brave person, but I can admit with complete honesty to having no fear-of-pie-making.
In the novel, Cain never tells us how Mildred makes her crusts, but I imagine it being similar to the Mavis Moats way. Mrs. Moats was the matriarch of the family that my mother, Rhoda, and my father, Harold, boarded with in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in the 1950’s when they were first married and he was in the army stationed at Fort Campbell. My mother told me Mrs. Moats was a wonderful cook and one day, Rhoda asked Mrs. Moats to please teach her how to make pies.
“All right now, Rhoda,” Mrs. Moats told her. “You go buy a five pound can of Crisco and a ten pound sack of flour and we’re going to spend all day Saturday making crusts. By the time I’m done with you, you’re going to be able to make your crusts and never have to measure.”
So my mother bought the Crisco and the flour and they spent the whole day making crusts, throwing one after another away until my mother made a crust that Mrs. Moats deemed “correct,” meaning “it rolled out nicely and didn’t fall apart when you picked it up and put it into the pie tin.”
Mrs. Moats was clearly an excellent teacher because to this day, my mom can be counted upon to confidently, fearlessly, turn out a very good pie—but back in the 1970’s, when I came of age and wanted to make pies of my own, there was no way I was going to make my crusts the Mavis Moats way. See, the whole Crisco era was coming to an end. It was no longer looked upon as the miraculous food-stuff my mother and grandmothers thought it to be. One of my generation’s missions was to strike down all of the convenience foods our parents had so eagerly embraced. We would no longer eat fruits or vegetables that came out of cans, or whipped-cream-like-substances that came out of tubs, or cheese that came in individually plastic-wrapped slices. Something like Crisco was considered “not real,” somehow counterfeit, possibly dangerous, perhaps another brainwashing agent being foisted upon us by “The Man.”
In contrast, butter was cool. No one could quibble with butter. Besides, we knew in France all crusts were made with butter and if it was good enough for the French (who were not our parents because when I speak of we, I speak of we-American-Boomers), then it was good enough for us.
But the truth is, the French don’t make the kinds of pies my mother or Mrs. Moats or what I imagine Mildred Pierce made. Those women’s pies represent a certain specifically American ideal, a wholesome, eager-to-please, plain-speaking, without-airs dessert. There is something about their pies that connect the town with the country, the educated with the ignorant, the haves with the have-nots, the good with the bad. A really delicious pie is as close as one can come to the culinary equivalent of a Woody Guthrie song and while French pastries are certainly delicious, there is something fussy about them, elitist, something not at all Woody, something, I don’t know, French. Now, I’m not saying my pies made with all-butter crusts ever tasted particularly French. I’m just saying that recently I started wanting my pies to be something that they weren’t. Something more like the way I imagine Mildred Pierce’s to be.
Well, it just so happened that my son, Chester, and I went to visit some friends in Berkeley and for dessert Deborah made a peach and berry pie that had the kind of crust I had been dreaming about. It was flakier and somehow more toothsome than my all-butter crusts. When I took a bite, it left a lingering sensation on the tongue that cried out for more. It reminded me of the pies made at The Apple Pan in West Los Angeles, but better. I asked Deborah how she had made it, and she looked embarrassed and hesitated.
“You used Crisco, right?” I guessed.
“Yes,” she admitted guiltily. “Part butter and part Crisco.”
“I knew it! It’s fabulous!”
Deborah looked relieved, realizing I wasn’t going to go off on a tirade about trans-fats and bad cholesterol. I actually shared her priorities, believing that a toothsome but still flakey crust trumps all.
Since then, I’ve been making my pie crust with two parts butter and one part Crisco, and I have to tell you, they have been unbelievably good. I’m not going to go so far as to say they they’re as good as Mildred Pierce’s, but they definitely taste like something a down and out character in a Cain novel would be served at an old fashioned diner. They taste like a promise of another chance, a better hand of cards, an antidote to cynicism. And who doesn’t need a bite of that every now and then?
Here is a confession: I’ve never held myself to the same standards as Mrs. Moats. I don’t cared if my crusts roll out “nicely,” or “fall apart” (all you have to do is patch it back together) as long as they taste good. I mean, no one has ever noticed that my crusts aren’t always technically perfect—which, in fact, they rarely are. Perhaps it’s been my incredibly low standards when it comes to making pie crusts—once again, it’s all about taste and very little about presentation—that has given me the confidence to embark repeatedly upon the pleasurable task of baking pies, and if so, I wholeheartedly encourage you too to adopt these same fungible standards. Really, don’t be afraid. Try this. It’s easy. It’s fun. But if you are actually a bit of a perfectionist, and you don’t succeed the first time, just throw it out. Think of my Mom and Mrs. Moats, and keep trying. You’ll get it.
This makes two 9 inch crusts.
- 1 cup butter
- ½ cup Crisco or any kind of vegetable shortening
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (maybe more)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ice water
With a pastry cutter or two knives mix the butter and shortening together so that they are sort of blended, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. In another bowl combine flour, sugar, salt. Add flour mixture to butter/shortening. Mix this together with your hands until it resembles small pebbles. (It’s fun! But if you are squeamish about this, use the knives or pastry cutter). Dribble in a little ice water and keep mixing with hands and adding water until the crust comes together entirely. Gather into two balls, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Flour a flat surface and then sprinkle some flour on top of the ball of dough, flatten with your palm and then, using a rolling pin, roll it out so it is about ¼ inch thick and wide enough to cover a 10” pie dish. Trim excess and crimp edges if making a single crust, or put in filling, lay top layer of crust over it and then crimp edges and cut a couple of air holes in center.
(NOTE: You can make some very nice sugar cookies with left over uncooked crust—just gather it all together into another ball, re-roll it out, use a cookie cutter or even just a glass to cut out cookies, place on cookie sheet, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and bake in oven with pie until brown—about ten minutes.)