Culinate editor’s note: Our original Man with a Pan excerpt came from an essay by Jesse Sheidlower; the comments below were posted in response. We’ve since replaced that first excerpt with the excerpt below.
Thanks to my tenure with the Clarksville Pie Company, I discovered a strange but fairly consistent phenomenon: If a man bakes a pie, or a cake, or cupcakes, or cookies, even, he becomes a curiosity to the opposite sex. He’s something of a rare find.
This has always surprised me. Baking, even baking from scratch, is not difficult, and the amount of praise and attention gained by presenting something so basic as an apple pie or a chocolate cake borders on the astounding.
To any man who cooks but has never dabbled in baking, I highly recommend that you learn a good biscuit recipe, a good waffle recipe, and then a pie and a cake, or cupcake, recipe — something simple and good that you can turn out at a moment’s notice. It’s well worth the effort.
In my case, a girl whom I had known in high school, and whom I had loved from afar, was coming to visit me for a week in February. She lived in Milwaukee, and I had visited her for a weekend in October. Things were progressing. We had seen each other over Christmas, but only briefly, and she had not yet tasted one of my pies. I had plans to show her Boston and to woo her with pie.
Things would have gone perfectly if (a) I had known anything about Boston to show her, which, despite the seven months I’d lived there, I didn’t, and (b) I hadn’t burned the first pie I baked for her (chocolate pecan) and then, in a completely different way, ruined the second pie I baked for her (apple).
She questioned whether I had really ever owned a pie company, but she fell for me anyway. She moved to Boston and then we moved to New York, in a span of four months, and then another four months passed, but I still hadn’t baked a pie for her. Not successfully. It became an issue. Not a serious issue, but it was clear she wanted a pie, and it was clear I had no desire to make one.
I needed to stop making pies.
For the first time in what seemed like a long time, I saw a chance to define myself outside of the context of pies and the pie company. I was too caught up in graduate school and New York City and the experience of living with my girlfriend (who would soon become my fiancée, and then my wife) to think about making pies.
She joked about my reluctance with friends of ours, displaced Austinites who knew about the company, who laughed with her when she described the debacle in Boston, and who made jokes of their own when she said, “He never owned a pie company, did he? It was a line, wasn’t it?” And soon I felt pressured, as if I were being forced to perform: playing the piano for guests or singing that song I learned in school for my grandmother.
Thanksgiving was fast approaching, though. We had invited friends to our house to dinner. For dessert, she insisted, I was making pies. The pies were fine. They were good, I’m sure, though honestly, I don’t remember them. I can guarantee they weren’t nearly as good as my pies are now. I can guarantee they weren’t as good as the pies I made that very next Thanksgiving, because even after just one year living with the woman who would become my wife, something changed.
I stopped making pies, and I started baking.
What had started out as a lark, a means to escape the daily grind of office work, and a way to meet people (and girls), has since become something personal and particular. I realized that my ability to bake, and not the fact that I had owned a pie company, was what mattered.
In Austin, I rode the coattails of owning the Clarksville Pie Company, and not until I left the company did I begin to focus more energy on the pies themselves. (Not that I don’t ride those pie-company coattails still. Even now, that I owned a pie company makes its way onto my CV for every job I apply for. The novelist Ben Marcus, another baker and a professor at Columbia, once remarked that my having owned a pie company was the main reason I was admitted into graduate school. He said it jokingly, but I don’t doubt that it is at least half true.)
What’s more, the December after that first Thanksgiving, I proposed to my girlfriend, and a year and a half later, we were married. Maybe it’s a cliché, but the love of a good woman is no joke. It frees a man up. All the creative energy once expended in the pursuit of love was diverted into writing and baking. And so I wrote and baked and cooked more, not to impress my wife, whom I had already impressed enough to marry me, but because I had time and energy and I had her; without her, none of it would have been as important, as vital.
Now I’m uncommonly protective and critical of the pies I bake. I pay particular attention to who slices them (I do) and who lifts the slices out of the pie pan (this is also me, if possible, though at times overeager relatives will dive in even as I’m not halfway through slicing the pie), in part because no one else seems able to cut a piece of pie without screwing up the rest of the pieces, or to divide a pie into equal portions, but mostly because I want to witness the slice’s release. I want to see how well the pie, particularly if it’s a fruit or custard pie, holds together when the first slice is separated from its companions. I want to check the bottom crust, to see if it browned and became crisp as it should.
And the first piece of pie I eat I poke and prod, taking small, sampling bites, first the filling, then the crust, then the two together, and even now, I’m fully satisfied only half the time. I’ve settled on a crust recipe, finally: all butter, no water, but cream as the liquid. I can make it in my sleep, and it is the flakiest, tenderest, most flavorful crust I’ve tasted, and it bakes up brown and beautiful.
What’s more, pies led to other desserts: cakes, cupcakes, pots de crème, crème brûlée, ice cream, homemade ice-cream sandwiches, s’mores made with homemade marshmallows and graham crackers, and soufflés, and any number of other sweet confections. And then beyond desserts, pies led to good food in general. In my family, I am the go-to guy for sustenance and the pleasure of eating. I am the one in the kitchen, and again, I can count on one or two hands the meals from our kitchen that weren’t made by me.
To be fair to my wife, she has tossed her hat into the ring, most notably when we thought we were going to bake our own wedding cake (an idea that lasted all of one four-layer cake) and again after our daughter was born, when becoming a mother awoke her inner Betty Crocker (though a Betty who liked to decorate confections rather than bake them). These were good, solid efforts, but in the end, an existence in the kitchen feels natural to me, not her.
Of course, nobody at home calls me the Pie Guy. I do so many other things: I shop, make dinner, put together lunches, wash clothes, play dress-up. But I still bake pies often enough that I wade into them recipeless and fearless. They’re the best pies my wife or I have tasted, and more times than not, it seems to me that baking a pie is the best thing I can do.
When faced with the prospect of daily life — deadlines to meet, 10th graders to teach, that flat tire, the one that’s been in my trunk since August 2009, to fix — baking a pie is sometimes the only thing I want to do. I bake pies for my wife’s students and for holidays and for dinner parties and for my parents to take with them when they visit my sister in North Carolina, and sometimes for no reason at all except that it is always a good idea to have a pie on the counter.
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Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better