Celia Moore and husband Hershel
Photo: Courtesy of M.A. Pember
I know now for certain that piecrust runs in my veins, passed down to me by my mother Bernice Rabideaux and my grandmother Celia Moore. I want to be clear, however, that these women were by no means the “Betty Crocker” types. They were often bitter, quick tempered creatures who could unleash an acid tongue or a crack upside the head if you got too close at the wrong time. They survived poverty, brutal men, Indian boarding schools and everything else the world had to dish out to Indian women in the 20th century. Those large chips they carried firmly on their shoulders kept most folks away, sending a clear message that these women were ready for a fight. Those prickly exteriors, however, camouflaged a capacity for deep, deep love. It was a dangerous love that could only be shown by veiled action. Some of that action was pie. Their pies had the power to make the meanest man swoon and have to sit down.
Beware the power of pie.
My mother’s mother, Celia Moore, abandoned several of her children who were fathered by an abusive husband. My mother, Bernice, never forgave her mother for leaving her at the “Sister School” where she was neglected and brutalized. As a teenager, my mother spent a few months with Celia who worked as a cook at a lumberjack boarding house. My mother remembers the time with bitterness, still stinging at the “too little, too late” parenting efforts by Celia.
During those months, however, Celia passed along her pie making skills. Celia was seldom spoken of in our house. Until this summer, I had never seen her picture. I was told only that she made good pies and had a foul mouth. My uncle Russell, who I met for the first time this summer, confirmed this information. He recalled sitting at the table with Celia and his father when his father began choking on one of her pies. Still angry at his previous nights drunkenness, Celia shrieked at him, “Choke then, you sonovabitch!”
He survived but was properly chastened.
The most powerful pies are fruit pies. Thick with summer fruit, they melt in the mouth. Each early summer, my dad used to beseech my mom to make a strawberry rhubarb pie. “And don’t make it no jam pie either,” he would say with a teasing smile. My mom would snort and scoff at the very notion of her making such a creation. Jam pies referred to an especially thrifty woman from my father’s childhood who made pies so thin that the crusts were fairly jammed together.
Somewhere along the line, she taught me to make pie. There were never official lessons; I just absorbed the information as I watched her. I learned never to scrimp or over measure but to ensure that the pies were thick and guileless. They were the one thing that wasn’t allowed to disappoint.
This past May, my nephew found my mother on the floor of her apartment where she lived alone, despite our oft-stated misgivings. She had lain there for at least two days in a stroke-induced fog before he found her. Still stubborn and haughty, she had to admit she could no longer live alone and allowed herself to be placed in a nursing home. I knew this was a terrible indignity for her, one she would not care to acknowledge or discuss. The situation called for serious pie.
Photo (and pie): Mary Annette Pember
I brought her strawberry rhubarb pie, one of my father’s favorites. Made from those ugly, fibrous, bitter stalks, they are transformed by the addition of sugar and strawberries into a custardy tartness that melts in the mouth. My pie was not no jam pie either — it was thick and rich with a tart bite that carried our story. The first bite made her let out a tiny laugh of relief as she looked at me deeply. The pie said what was too much for words between us. With a bittersweet tinge of pain, I realize this may be the last pie I make for her. With pride, however, I realize, she has taught me well. My pies have power.
No Jam Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
2 cups cut up strawberries
2 cups cut up rhubarb
1 to 1/2 c. sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
preheat oven to 450
Line pie pan with crust, mix fruit, flour and sugar well, put in pie shell. Dot w/pieces of butter. Put top crust on pie (I like to make a lattice top). Put pie in oven for 10 minutes at 450, lower heat to 350 and bake for 30-40 minutes.