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She was the type of woman who liked to ferret out information, then augment it and pass it on. It was a kind of hobby that did not do any harm, insofar as she knew. The absence of information on other people’s lives made it difficult to know where you stood. Like on politics and fashion, or music and the arts. She had opinions about all of these and she wanted to share her thoughts, which meant listening to other people’s problems and preoccupations.

It was easy to do. In fact, it seemed to be her art. It began when she was helping her mother deliver pies. It was a job she began to do in fourth grade after school. Her mother would send her to check with church members and neighbors about their order for the weekend on a Tuesday.  On Wednesdays, she would help make pie crusts while her mother prepared the fillings. By Friday, her mother would have the cream pies done and she would deliver those in the early part of Saturday. By Sunday, the remaining sweet potato and pumpkin pies would be left off after church.

The secret of a good pie, her mother showed her over time, was a light flaky crust. Not so light that it would shift into powder. That just wouldn’t do. The crust needed to taste like butter, even if lard was the main part of it. The butter had to be done with the hand churn, not taken out of the freezer.  When you added in the flour, it couldn’t be all willy-nilly, she said. Measure it out by about two cups, but only add it to the lard by the tablespoon.

Janet would arrive home from school, change out of her school clothes and go to the sink to wash up, put on an apron then start the measuring out of the flour sack for sixteen crusts. Once that was done, she sliced the block of lard to go with each small mountain of flour on the long counter in the center of their kitchen. She did the same with the butter, which her father had churned earlier that day. Unless told otherwise, she did nothing else for most of the fifth grade, as far as making crusts, since her job of delivering the pies was the main one.

It was about the time she made eleven that her mother showed her how to use what seemed like a miniature potato masher to mix the flour and butter and lard until it was like a mound of floured peas. Then she was allowed to use both hands, dampen with warm water to knead the peas into a ball, pausing to daub her fingers with water and to sprinkle salt across the dough. If it was a cream pie, her mother also made her put a tablespoon of sugar into it.  She got the knack of rolling out the dough. Her mother used a large wooden spoon to beat the dough into the fine edge of the disposable pie tins she used for clients, and then created a heart shaped pattern using the backside of the spoon handle to finish up the edging. It would take Janet three years of making crusts before she could imitate her mother’s edging. By the time she was 14, Janet knew how to make a crust worthy of Lula’s hand.

Eventually, she did not care as much for crusts as she did for the fillings, mostly chocolate crème and key lime, but she also made her mother add a strawberry pie because that was the kind the women up the hill liked to brag on.  When she was almost 13, Janet knew how to fill the full range her mother did–pumpkin, sweet potato, apple, cherry, peach, pecan, strawberry, chocolate crème, lemon crème and key lime. She could do them one at a time, if she had to, though she never did. Bulk cooking was best left to her mother, who could blend enough fillings without fretting over measurements by grabbing handfuls of whatever she needed. This was her special gift, and few others possessed it.  Only when Janet was grown, with two children, a husband to feed and in-laws coming up the porch did the instinctive haste to defy measuring cups kick in. Only then did she realize her mother’s gifts had not skipped her.

On colder days, when Lula’s arthritis would start up, she let Janet do most of the mixing and measuring, and even the last pats of butter on top of the fruit pie.  Putting them in the oven, Lula would set a timer meant for poached eggs, and then tell Janet to listen for it, “and keep your nose on alert.”

It was not really clear to her what she’d said this for, until that one time, when she was outside playing with her friends she’d totally forgotten her mother’s words, while pies were cooking. They were out of schoolwork and were trying out new moves in double-dutch. Janet hopped in and did a shimmy, then a spin, which made her look like a ballerina.  She was always wondering how come some feet were heavy while others seemed light.  Turning the rope, she imagined dancing with her arms like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, when all of a sudden, she heard her mother call from the kitchen.

“So you busy out there playing, huh,” Lula said. “You notice anything?”

Janet shook her head no.

“Come in here and open your nose,” Lula said.

Janet smelled the air. It had a bitter aroma, a bit sweet but smoky. “What’s that smell,” she said, holding her nose.

“That’s burnt sugar, honey,” Lula looked at her calmly. “I caught it this time, so lucky you, no burnt pies. But now you have to go and scrape that oven. Put your jumping rope away.”

Janet waved off her friends and got the rubber gloves.

The two of them would do what they called “fruit work” with two hours to spare before dinner on Sundays. They could make short work of peeling lemons and limes with a knife, or dicing up a peck of strawberries when the season called for it. The best part for Janet was sitting on the back porch, feet on the grass patio in summer, fishing from the berry bucket, listening to her mother’s hum. Sometimes the songs would be old hymns, like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” When the work went well, her mother would break into songs from “Porgy & Bess,” or “Showboat.” She had a powerful contralto which did not always meet the notes of the song, but the way she phrased the words made it seem like they were at the show.

After fruit work, Janet could run and play for a few hours until the street lights came on. That was the signal to be back near home, maybe to read from The Daily Word, before sitting for a light supper then getting her uniform ready for school.

When she was making deliveries, Janet made a game of finding out what special occasions might be coming up that could warrant a pie. Her mother did not do cakes, but had a friend, Betty, who did. What work her mother couldn’t handle she’d toss Betty’s way and vice versa. It was silly to compete with a friend over business, her mother had said, because then you lost a friend and made a rival. Nobody needs a rival who already knows you, she’d explained.

Over the course of her last years in elementary school, Janet realized that she could easily keep track in a small notebook of the special occasions and events of life that made her mother’s clients want to order a pie. If she kept track, she would have them in mind when she made the deliveries. It could be that Mrs. Thomas’ sister was expecting a baby and Mrs. Thomas, who worked for the city and didn’t really cook too well, would want desserts for a baby shower.  Janet would tell her about a pie that someone else had ordered for a shower and hope the idea might catch, including her fishing line, “Who wants to eat cake, when there’s pie?”

As she got more confident with her pitches, she also started to juggle orders in her head. There was that one time when she went by Mrs. Johnson’s one Friday and saw she was setting up for her husband’s regular cards night. Mrs. Johnson’s husband drove a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority. That meant at least two card tables set up for bus driver friends and maybe even a third one for a few wives showing up to gossip and knit for a spell. Janet realized before Mrs. Johnson did that she needed more than one pie and offered that besides the pumpkin, she could try a key lime pie her mother had just started making. That key lime pie wasn’t meant for Mrs. Johnson, but the way Janet saw it, she would become a better customer down the road if she got a taste of something new.

Problem was Mrs. Johnson was a bit of a talker. On Saturday, after the card party, she was emptying out the trash when she ran across the alleyway to chat with Mrs. Thompson, who was expecting a key lime pie that very same day, but had been told she could only get one on Sunday.  An angry Mrs. Thompson told Janet she ought to whip her for passing the story that she would wait for her pie while Mrs. Johnson was steady eating it.

Janet made a note to herself not to ever cross Mrs. Thompson again and figured she would make it up to her some kind of way.

By the time she got home, Mrs. Thompson had already sent her son James around to tell on her about the key lime pie. Janet’s mother was none too happy to hear from a client that she had not got her order straight. When Janet got home, Lula asked if everything went OK as Janet sat down to count out the money.  At that point, Janet mentioned, as though it had just come to her, how it was that Mrs. Thompson would need an extra key lime pie.

“Why she need another pie on Sunday?” her mother asked.

“I don’t know,” Janet mused. “Guess the flavor really suited her.  Maybe it was the cinnamon you put into the graham cracker crust.”

Lula nearly dropped the pan of melted butter in hand. “Did she tell you that?”

Janet thought how to put it. “Kind of. She said she really needed it.”

“Really? She told me she needed it yesterday,” Lula paused. “Her boy James come over here looking for it just now.”

Janet paused in counting the singles, but did not look up to see her mother’s face. “She did? When did y’all talk? ’cause she seemed happy enough when I told her the pie would come to her tomorrow after service.”

Lula stopped mashing the lime pulp, leaned over, and smacked her hard across the face, so hard the bills flew off the table.

“You saying Mrs. Thompson a lie, huh, is that it? You so smart you know better than Mrs. Thompson? Or is you lying?”

Janet finally looked up. Her mother slapped her again. For a moment, Janet held her face and thought her mother really had lost her mind. She could not think of any reason for her flying so high off the handle. She had not left the door open at night, or left the gas burning in the front heater that morning. Her room was mostly clean. She had not taken any money from her purse without asking. Her uniform was already hand-washed and hanging on the line near the water heater.

Lula told her how it was. “You the helper in this pie business so don’t mess up with my clients. If you do what you say, and mean it, people will trust you with it. But me, I go and get me a daughter who thinks she knows so goddamn much, I got to hear from a boy down the street that his mama thinks her pie was ate over at Mrs. Johnson’s.

Janet was wiping the sting out of her eyes and said nothing. She waited while her mother told her again what her job was. “You s’posed to carry the pies and pick up the money. No money, no pie. Match the order to the person. Take the next one and offer the new one I’m trying, then move on and be home for supper. You get it, don’t you?”

“Yes mama.”

“Do I need to tell you again?”

“No mama.”

“Good girl. You know, you have to pay for this mistake. Two weeks’ pay should cover it.”

Wordless, Janet got up on the stool and took her savings jar down and passed three dollars to her mother.

She wanted to tell her mama that if she had let her, she could have gotten Mrs. Thompson to buy two pies out of envy for Mrs. Johnson’s Friday card party.  Her mouth was so sore, though; she kept it shut, moving on to her next task, then stopping briefly to apologize.

“Mama, I guess I didn’t think Mrs. Thompson would be upset. I didn’t think of it like that.”

“You thought, alright, but you got it wrong is all. Daughter, no woman wants to think about how another woman has something she wanted and should’ve had but didn’t get.” Lula smiled, laughing at her. “One day, when you grown, you will learn that’s true about most everything to do with men and pies. I am saving you time by keeping you from learning it the hard way.”

That Sunday, Janet did not even try to apologize to Mrs. Thompson, who took the free extra apple pie from Janet with a smug grin just after Bible school.

“I told Mrs. Johnson you a pie lie,” Mrs. Thompson told her. “Lucky for you your mama is as straight as they come.”

It might have been her calling, her job of marketing sweet treats to women who cannot bake to save their lives. Instead, she went on to university and studied psychology and sociology, and never put her advertising skill to work in the pie business, which required an appreciation for the feelings of women that she never mastered.

With some of her friends and coworkers, she found her keen memory and experience at listening carefully had helped her to save details that made her effective in using their observations in her own research. Some people said she made being a department chair look like a piece of cake, but she would jokingly explain that dealing with finicky scholars was as easy as pie, “You just have to know what flavor to bake.”

Once Lula had figured she had a head for tracking money she sent Janet to work in the barbershop with her dad.  Much later, when she met her husband there, she found out her mom was more right about pies and men than she knew. That understanding would come only with her mother’s death.

Sometimes, when she passed a bake shop, she would step inside, just to look at pies and to smell the aroma of cinnamon, lemon zest, nutmeg and sweetness of all sorts.  Although she rarely baked anymore, when she did, she would use a spoon from her mother’s things to finish the edging. When she did this, she felt safe and greatly comforted.


©Carla Williams-Namboodiri, 2012

Carla Williams-Namboodiri, BAWP Summer Institute 2010, works for Oakland schools as a humanities educator in the Home and Hospital program beginning fall 2012. After many years of writing as a journalist, then teaching English and Social Studies, it took the BAWP Summer Institute of 2010 to get her started on a fictional work set in her hometown, Chicago. This short story is a related background piece inspired by the “nurture” theme for this issue.

6 Responses to “Baking from Scratch by Carla Williams-Namboodiri”

  1. Sheri Says:

    Wonderful story, love it!

  2. Wonderful pie lesson livin’ lovin’ story!

  3. theresasanders Says:

    You have a knack for food/cooking/writing. Love it.

    1. Carla Says:

      More to come, hopefully! Thanks so much

  4. M N Namboodiri Says:

    Good story, Carla!

    Waiting for the book.

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