Why The Secret To Grandma's Apple Pie Isn't About The Recipe

Photos: Rex USA; Designed by Ly Ngo.
Every time I eat a slice of apple pie, I think about my grandma. I think about her penchant for sometimes too-hard bear hugs, and her hilarious Yiddish-Polish-German reinterpretation of the English language (“dinx” became any word she didn’t know). But mostly, I think about how our experiences baking together shaped my relationship with food.

For my grandma, food was all about control. As a concentration camp survivor, she spent years unsure of when or where her next meal was coming from. After the war, when it was safe, and she was free to cook and eat as she pleased, Grandma Mania took it upon herself to make sure that everyone around her, and everyone she loved, was always full. She may not have been the best at expressing emotion or saying "I love you", but, the endless chicken cutlets, bowls of soup, and pieces of pie spoke for themselves. She took great joy in the act of feeding people. And she would only eat herself after she was absolutely certain that everyone else had enough. “Enough” often meant several servings and unbuttoned pants.

I don’t remember the first time I tried my grandmother’s apple pie, but I do have a distinct memory of sitting on the kitchen counter (way past my bedtime) watching her work. I must have been around three, but even then I knew two inexorable truths about my grandma’s visits to Los Angeles: She would show up with enough leftover sandwiches to feed a small army, “Just in case I got hungry on the plane,” and, no matter what time her flight got in, she would need to make an apple pie.

My mom always bought the apples earlier that day, and left everything my grandma would need in the kitchen: flour, sugar, butter, cinnamon, and oh, orange juice. In my grandma’s book, an apple pie wasn’t apple pie without her secret ingredient.

We’d meet her at the gate for one of those loving bear hugs, get her luggage from baggage claim, and drive home. Then, finally, it was time to bake.

Grandma Mania or Maria or Marie (she never quite got the hang of what her English name should be after she moved from Germany to America in 1951) hated to fly. But, she wasn’t the type of person to let a little (or a lot of) fear stand in her way. Her solution was simple: Get on the plane, get off the plane, bake an apple pie, and move on.

It was only later that I realized she was using the act of making apple pie to calm herself down. Even then, I could see the transformation in her face and in her body as she expertly removed apple peels in one, perfectly unbroken piece with a knife (“No peelers!"), and kneaded dough with the palms of her hands. Somehow, she left those five uncomfortable hours on the plane behind, and transferred her anxiety into creating something absolutely delicious.
I haven't been able to perfectly recreate my grandma’s apple pie. She never measured (other than using her hands to scoop ingredients), never wrote down any recipes, and never slowed down enough for me to get it right on paper.

One of my attempts went something like this: “Three big handfuls plus one small handful, plus an extra big pinch of flour," I wrote. “Wait, stop adding more ingredients when I’m not looking! How much more flour did you add?" I said. “Don’t worry, it’s not important, just a little more flour,” she’d respond in her thick accent, amused by my desire to replicate the pie.

In her world, it would always be her job to supply me with dessert.

Years of scooping handfuls of flour, adding extra pinches of cinnamon, and mixing in splashes of orange juice have gotten me close, but it’s not the same. I could be remembering wrong. I may never get it right. And at this point, there’s no way to know.

After she died, I agonized over the fact that I wouldn’t be able to pass on the recipe to my own children and grandchildren. But one year later, when I had my very first kitchen, shared with five other girls, I survived a particularly rough year of college by baking countless batches of cupcakes. (I was miserable in chemistry and, like many sophomores, completely overwhelmed by the devastating realization that my dream of becoming a doctor might not be what I actually wanted.) I hardly ever ate the cupcakes, yet the act of making them propelled me through both semesters, and unknowingly sent me down the road to my current career path.

In the end, it wasn’t the recipe she was giving me to pass on to my children. It was something much more valuable — a deliciously productive way to ease my anxiety.

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