In the great debate of cake vs. pie, I am on team cake. This is partly because making pie has always been a confusing bother to me. My mom taught me basic from-scratch baking, like cookies and cakes, and raised me to believe that box mixes are inferior, never to be relied on. But she has no such problem with store-bought frozen pie crust, and really, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving is my only childhood experience with the stuff. I've tried a couple times to make my own pie crust, and turned out lumpy, tough disasters. So I have a ton of respect for dedicated pie bakers and those who are unafraid of pastry.
Few bakers are as thoughtful and dedicated to the pie—as an artistic medium and a subject of contemplation—as Seattle author Kate Lebo. Lebo is author of A Pie Lady's Manifesto zine and hosts pie-making classes, plus she teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and writes for publications like Poetry Northwest and Gastronomica.
Lebo's new work, A Commonplace Book of Pie, is a small collection of short stories, musings and recipes. It's charming and sweet, with a light-hearted spirit that reminds me of the 2007 Keri Russell movie Waitress, which also centers its plot on pies. I managed to read about three pages of Lebo's book before I decided I'd better run to the store for apples to make my own pie—with somewhat mixed results. (But more about that later.)
Commonplace Book's illustrations, by Washington-based artist Jessica Bonin, are some of my favorite watercolor paintings of all time. I've never seen something like a measuring cup or bag of flour depicted with such grace and fluidity. The illustrations accompany equally graceful, brief tales that are well suited for reading before bedtime. Lebo tells "Facts about Pie," sorted according to type of pie. The pumpkin pie lover, for instance, is "adventurous, good in bed and voluminously communicative." Strawberry-rhubarb is a "marriage of convenience that lucked into love." And coconut cream pie, she writes, is what they serve in heaven. Heaven being an "all-night diner next door to the realm's best booze hall and pulltab lounge."
It's easy to pick up Lebo's love of pie baking while reading this book, but not so much her skills. I did love her recipe directions. When cutting butter into flour, she says, "position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep. Scoop up flour and fat and rub it between your thumb and fingers, letting it fall back into the bowl after rubbing it." I'd like to see Cook's Illustrated try such poetry.
I sweated over my apple pie for the better part of a Sunday, grumbling about the decidedly not lovely amount of dirty dishes generated and the tools I don't have, like a pie server and pastry brush. (Fingers are not a good substitute for a pastry brush, it turns out.) In the end, I was pretty happy with the hot, cinnamon-and-nutmeg-scented result that emerged from my oven, even though the warped top crust came out looking like the Monster from Apple Pie Lagoon. It still tasted more real and buttery than any frozen pre-made crust could ever be, and made the perfect platform for the tangy, lemony Granny Smith apple filling. I left a big slice in my best friend's fridge as a surprise, because Lebo's first rule of pie is "share your pie."
Pie is still a pain in the ass, and I don't think I'll ever bring one to a birthday party over a cake. But the meaning behind Lebo's work—that perfecting a craft, in defiance of rapid consumer culture, has immeasurable worth—is something I can get behind. We should all be so lucky as to find something to dedicate ourselves to being good at, the way Lebo is good with words and baking. My only complaint with A Commonplace Book of Pie is that it's over all too soon, and like a piece of pie, I wish there were more of it.
Kate Lebo teaches a Cookbook Club pie-making class at Good Food Store on Thu., April 17, at 6:30 PM. $40, includes copy of book. She also reads at Shakespeare & Co. Fri., April 18, at 7 PM. Free.