An old Buddhist saying goes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in spring, what appeared was a hankering for pie. And, though I did not realize it at the time, the recipe I baked to satisfy my craving would teach me so much about where I came from, and where I was headed.
To be more accurate, it was a place I was craving before a pie. Italy, specifically, and the longing to be there struck me suddenly like a pang of hunger after a long run. The day was unseasonably warm for early spring, and when I felt heat stream through my Brooklyn windows and up from the kitchen tiles beneath my feet, I thought of the old kitchens from a recent vacation I had taken to Sicily. It was different from other parts of Italy I had seen—not touristy or fashionable in the least. I had loved the quaintness of it all, the fish salesmen on the street, citruses in the trees, women in housecoats spotted through windows. I remembered the strong ties I—American-born but southern-Italian on both sides—had felt to the brown-skinned locals and the dusty brown roads. And almost immediately, as we cooks do, I sought to transport myself there by way of a meal.
I could have made a number of southern Italian dishes at that moment—a braised fennel pasta like the one we had had in Palermo, traditional whole fish stuffed with lemon, a minty spring minestrone. But, for whatever reason, I felt like baking a pie.
Pie, as you know, is not the most Italian of all foods. But it felt right in the moment—rustic, grandma-approved, an icon of simplicity and nostalgia. Since I knew of only one Italian pie off-hand, a ricotta-filled creation I had seen just a few times before, it was the thing I set out to make.
I thought first to peruse my cookbook collection for a recipe—maybe The Lost Art of Real Cooking, or the perfectly vintaged Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni I had bought on eBay. But instead I started with a call to my grandmother. Grandma Stella, a southern Italian herself, had married Grandpa Frank here in the states, but they had mentioned before some distant relatives that still might be living abroad, somewhere near the tip of Italy’s boot. I wasn’t sure either of them would have a recipe for ricotta pie: Like many older generation Italians, they tend to make the same things over and over, and I had never seen this dish in their repertoires. But sure enough, a call with grandma turned up a recipe of a pie she remembered her mother, my great grandmother Maria Catanzaro, occasionally piecing together on weekend mornings.
I propped my cell phone on my shoulder and grabbed my laptop. Here came the steps: As she spoke, I heard the shh-shh-shh of my great grandmother grating the citrus zest, the gloop gloop gloop of her gently stirring the ricotta and egg filling, and that staticky rustling of flour sprinkling between her strong fingers. The imagined sounds felt as if they were my own real memories, and I was transported to another time and place. I muted myself on the other end of the phone, and cried. I poured out hot tears to match the faux-Italian day, and from someplace I didn’t know existed. What if, I thought, what if I had never set out to make this pie? I might have never stumbled upon this family recipe, nor have heard the story of mornings at my great grandmother’s house. It all would be lost to our family forever. I couldn’t wait to make that pie.
My great grandmother’s version sounded simple (expected), but almost to a fault. Plus, I like a crust and hers was missing one. So I quietly took a few liberties in the technique. She used a skillet atop the stove; I took out my good ceramic pie dish. She let the ricotta flavor stand on its own; I added Madagascar vanilla beans, Maldon sea salt, sliced blood oranges and a delicate dusting of powdered sugar. When my pie came out of the oven lightly caramelized and sweetly perfumed, I felt like I had opened a pie-doras box to the cucina povera of my heritage (well, fancy ingredient anachronisms aside, of course).
As the pie diminished in my plate over the next few days, my longing to uncover more traditions grew stronger. After all, if I didn’t seek out and record every last remaining family recipe, what would remain of my Italian heritage as the years passed by? I needed to discover them all, and keep them alive. This wasn’t just about pastry. It was personal.
Six weeks later, I took a solo flight to Calabria to find my lost Italian relatives.
Find them I did, and was generously invited to stay for the week. I studied their cooking, an unquestioning disciple, quick to glorify the way they used the simplest of ingredients and techniques to turn out their meals. Some things were exactly the way I imagined them: One great aunt wore a faded floral apron as she baked her gargantuan almond cakes and trays of eggplant parmigiana. Another whipped together a mind-blowing minestrone straight from what she had plucked from the garden that day, no broth in sight. Meals were slow and unduly enormous. And the family’s old wooden table was as long as those in royal courts. But I was surprised to find that, as far removed as they were, this wasn’t the peasant town I had pictured. There were mega supermarkets, modern kitchen conveniences, and—say it ain’t so—cooking shows. My uncles wore suits to work, and my cousins were in college and architecture school. They didn’t churn their own butter or travel on foot. I had brought my family some Twizzlers, Cracker Jacks and Cape Cod potato chips thinking these things would be novelties. They were amused, but not surprised. Sometimes the pastries they ate at breakfast came from a package, after all.
Of course the trip was life-changing and every last one of them felt like lost family indeed. They gushed over what life must be like in New York City and all the traveling I had done. I brought out Yankee caps and they showed me local art. We are mounds of too-sweet gelato and told stories with the help of Google Translate. But I could not shake a twinge of sadness over my lost agrarian fantasies. And how had I gotten there again? A pie??
The whole thing turned my attention to the powers of pie, and the traps of nostalgia. Why did I feel disappointed in their modernity, the same way I feared my grandmother would be confused by my pie ingredient upgrades. I turned to the experts for insight.
“Pie has always had an ‘old-fashioned’ connotation,” says Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council. I had hoped she would go on to extol that quality, but she quickly changed course to point out pie’s rapid modernization. “Today’s pies are taking on new looks and concepts and are no longer necessarily unadorned or commonplace. Pies are being used for birthdays, weddings and other elegant occasions. We see so much innovation and new, great ideas!” I had heard this pie platform before, of course. Trendy pie shops were opening around me left and right in New York. And just that Thanksgiving, the Wall Street Journal had posted an article on “Baroque pies,” stating the impressive, high-designed concoctions coming out of bakeries today are “anything but humble”. I’ll admit I bookmarked the story for ideas—I like to show off with fancy baked goods like elaborate tarts, cookies, and cakes. But this time was different: When I called on that ricotta pie, it wasn’t for peacocking my dessert skills. It was to take me back to somewhere I assumed to be greater than now, and more authentic. Or so I thought.
For many of us, pie is tied to romanticization, says Christy Harrison, journalist and creator of the Food Psych podcasts. “Pie has this sort of clean/messy dichotomy that really draws me to it, at least.” When we spoke about how and why pie had been hoisted onto this nostalgia pedestal, Harrison said it had to do with hitting upon a family idealization that was instilled in her through media. “It kind of represents a childhood I never had—the type depicted in cookbooks and the old Gourmet magazines. The type with someone in the kitchen for whom cooking is a pleasure, not a chore.”
My Italian relatives flashed through my mind.
For better or for worse, pie in particular has a reputation for being difficult and fussy—a skill to bake and a gift to eat. Pies are seen as a rare and special-effort dessert, one you’ve clearly toiled over, a means of going out of your way to show you care. I could have boiled spaghetti that day, but I insisted on a prouder project, something rare, a study in process and tradition. Was pie then a momentary backstage pass into a time I assume things may have been harder and taken longer to do, but life was somehow simpler overall?
In an email exchange on the topic, Hunter Lewis, the executive editor for Southern Living magazine, spoke about the homemade properties of pies, and the boost that gives them in specialness and sentimentality.
Pies showcase a handmade quality. You know a pie is made by hand in the way the crust was rolled and crimped. You can see quality in the perfect imperfections that occur as it bakes and the way the crust and filling fuse together in the pie pan. A pie is like a piece of pottery when it comes out of the kiln. No matter how grand and baroque the pie is and no matter how skilled and agile the hands are of the cook who has baked it, there’s still an elemental and rustic quality to a pie. Every pie is different. Every pie has substance.
Lewis agreed I was right to question the fog of nostalgia surrounding hand-me-down recipes, however. “I don’t buy into the notion that heirlooms or hand-me-down recipes from former generations are the best. They’re not like an heirloom tomato or field pea. I think the best pie recipes nowadays do borrow a classic idea or archetype, but give it a new spin. That’s the best kind of recipe, one that kick starts a new family tradition.”
I started to feel better about those blood oranges and vanilla beans.
Edward Behr, founder of The Art of Eating magazine once wrote in his editor’s letter, “The reason you write[,] is to learn what you think.” Perhaps the reason we bake pie—the king of all heirlooms, the sultan of sentimentality—is to learn what others before us thought. To follow the steps and ask ourselves why they chose them just so. To relate to something long-standing, solid and foundational. And only then to insert our own ideas, bring a little taste of ourselves to the table.
During my trip, I had hopped in an old Calabrian taxi to help make my way down the region’s western coast. As the wind from the open window whipped through my hair and excitement wheeled around inside me, one unmistakable scent was wafting through the cab: the sweet smell of oranges as we drove through acres upon acres of groves. At the end of my travels, I would see oranges again, fallen from the trees around my great grandparents’ vacant, dilapidated house in the hills of Reggio.
I breathed the aroma in deeply, and it all felt like a message—that I should take where I came from, and run with it.