Tracy Lee Karner

While they’re not (yet) begging for your book, perfect your pie crust

Tracy Lee Karner
To get the medal, supply the passion.

Don’t give up. Keep writing and revising. Keep knocking on doors and learning. Keep thinking about exactly who your audience is and what they care about. And keep connecting with peers and mentors who can help you improve your writing (because growing as a writer is like growing in compassion, it’s a never-ending process).
Published Author Rachael Hanel suggested to me that I might want to blog about the process that took me to publication. My memoir is coming out this fall, and yes, my chef and I are working on a cookbook, too. That looks likely to happen for a 2014 release.
I thought about Rachael’s suggestion, but mine is the same old prosaic story.
So, I’ll use an allegory. Let’s say the story of becoming a published writer is like the story of learning to bake a really good pie crust. It takes practice. It seems simple at first glance–flour, fat, some liquid. How hard could it be?
It ends up being a lot of persnickety hard work. And there’s so much pie available in the world, when people sample it and find it average and blasé, they pass on it. “No thanks, I’m stuffed.”
Hmmm….I guess I had better make sure mine is some mighty fine pie.
But I’m just making this pie for myself. Yeah, right! I make a peanut butter sandwich for myself. I open a can of tuna for myself. But pies are showcase food. They’re for sharing. People evaluate them. Pies are about making the best pie I can make.
Be honest. You really want people to say that you make good pie. And if you’re going to be really, really honest, you’d like people to be willing to pay for your pie.
Speaking of good pie, don’t kid yourself. Just because not everyone can bake a good pie, don’t pretend to yourself that everyone can’t recognize the difference between good pie and bad pie. They might not be able to tell you exactly what went wrong in the process (you used too much water, or you handled the dough until it was tough). But any old pie eater can, and will say, “It’s not as good as my grandmother’s.” Or, “I just don’t like raisins.”
There is decent enough pie to be gotten at any coffee shop or diner, and even in the grocery store freezer. If yours isn’t extraordinarily special, it might be a tad difficult to get people to buy it.
But if making pie crust is really, really important to you (like it is to me), you’ll apprentice. You’ll approach the best bakers in town and say, “Teach me how. Tell me what you’re doing when you make your piecrust and why. And please, please help me figure out what I’m doing wrong with my pie. Am I baking it at the wrong temperature, or what?”
I’ve spent whole days baking pies with my grandmother (who made the best pie ever). I’ve spent many days with other people’s grandmothers because my grandma died when I was nine. It was in my heart and soul then to bake pies, but she left too soon, when I didn’t really understand how to do anything except be her little helper. Each new baking-teacher taught me some little trick, and knowing a lot of tricks, when it comes to turning out a truly excellent pie crust, is always good. But even with all that coaching, for a long time, I was just a fairly decent home baker.
Then I spent twenty years living with a picky and honest chef, who had worked in fancy kitchens under famous European pastry chefs. Those guys made world-class pastry. My first efforts at making the best pie crust in the world didn’t impress my husband-with-the-educated-palate, so I fiddled with my recipe and my technique (oh, for about ten years) until the day came when I baked a truly fine pie. And then I kept practicing to make sure I could do it whenever I was called on to bake a pie.
Now I understand the chemistry of pastry, the feel of the crumb, the consistency of the dough, how to roll it out, and why crimping really is important (saying it’s just decoration is like saying poetry is just purple prose). I know how to adjust baking times and when to use foil so the crust doesn’t get too brown. I also know when not to use foil. This is not something I was born knowing how to do, no matter how much everyone says I have a natural talent for it.
And I really appreciate that my critic-husband didn’t lie to me just because he loves me, because otherwise, to this day, I’d be presenting mediocre pies to the world and then I’d be wondering why no one was eating them.
I would be thinking, “But my husband said he likes my pie!”
I’ve baked probably a hundred pies or more. I inherently, always possessed something that got me through the tedium of all that practice baking pies–call it a gift, an aptitude or an inclination. I had a never-ending desire to bake a pie that would transport me back to the taste of my grandmother’s pie, and the cherry-tobacco smell of her sofa and the sea-shell night light she left on when she tucked me in bed, and the pillowy feel of her plump arms around me.
And now I know it hasn’t been winning the ribbon that matters to me at all (I’ve never even entered a contest). It was the quality of the pie crust that mattered most.
If I didn’t absolutely love making pie crust–the process of doing it and re-doing it–I don’t think I would bother doing it. Because it takes time, patience and dogged determination, as well as the ability to listen to and grow from criticism, to learn to bake a really good pie.
Learning to write and learning to bake are best learned in a supportive community, I think. Who have been your mentors?

4 thoughts on “While they’re not (yet) begging for your book, perfect your pie crust”

  1. The pie crust is our favorite part of the pie! Congratulations on the completion of your memoir!!!! We have strong suspicions it will be a fantastic book to read and we definitely want to read it – and eat one … or several of your pies!

    1. Thank you. I’ll keep you posted. In fact, this week’s next post is sort of about that–where I’m going; what I’m doing, and why. Its simple enough but kind of “deep” so I’m working through how to make it come out right.

  2. I love, love, love the baking/writing comparison! I’m looking forward to next week’s post about where your going and the why of it. And I can’t wait to read your memoir – I think it must be a great read!

    1. Interesting, Stephanie–that you’re wondering where I’m going and why (that’s the post I was composing today, to be published next week, but I don’t think I actually told anyone that!). I’m taking a slightly unexpected turn (again), and by asking the question, you’ve helped me to focus my post.

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