The running border through the pages of “Crumbs From Everybody’s Table” reads “Send Your Newly Married Friend a Copy of ‘Crumbs From Everybody’s Table.’” Clearly someone followed this advice, because it was my grandmother’s first cookbook when she became Mrs. Frank Stewart in 1909.
“Crumbs” is a turn-of-the-century collection of recipes gathered from women around the Salinas Valley--women like my grandmother Alice, who had been born and raised just over the Coast Range in Selma in the Great Valley. The easy availability of ingredients was taken for granted--almost every fruit and vegetable grown in California was farmed nearby--as was an abundance of oysters, wild birds and game, to say nothing of the usual fish, poultry and meat.
After she moved to Ocean Park (now a neighborhood of Santa Monica), where her young husband was a postal inspector by day and a law student by night, the food was not as varied and, of course, it was more expensive. Still my mother--Alice’s and Frank’s firstborn--remembers her childhood as a blur of glorious meals at her mother’s table. No crumbs left on it, ever.
Like most community cookbooks from any time or place, half of “Crumbs” is devoted to sweet things. “Puddings and Their Sauces” get 23 pages. “Fancy Desserts” get 16 pages. “Frozen Dainties,” 11 pages. There are, sigh, 55 pages of “Cakes and Cake Fillings.” Other days, perhaps we can look into each of them. But right now the pie chapter is on my mind.
That’s because recently I happened to serve a friend Mrs. E. Williams’ Transparent Pie. Now transparent pie is not truly transparent, though its filling is a custard that’s at least translucent (perhaps even that is stretching it). Nor, some would argue, is it truly a pie--having just one crust makes it a tart. Perhaps Mrs. Williams was a Southern girl, since the pie is an heirloom from the South. (Funny thing; I’ve seen a dozen recipes for transparent pie, and all they have in common is the title.)
For flavoring, Mrs. Williams calls for “white jelly [tart].” The first time I made the pie, I used quince jelly because I had some I’d just put up from our pineapple quince tree. It was a felicitous choice, because the quince’s floral flavor and perfume--quinces are cousins of roses, remember?--were heavenly. If you don’t happen to have quince jelly on your shelf, look for it in ultra-fancy groceries (yes, it will be expensive). Then make the tart for someone special.
My friend pronounced it one of his all-time favorite desserts and ate two helpings. So when I had another menu to plan, I went back to “Crumbs” and the pie chapter. Turning the 15 pages gently (I lose flakes of pages every time I open the book, alas), I noticed a surprising number had custard fillings. When I came across Mrs. J.W. Stirling’s Squash Pie, I remembered it was the one I’d baked for Thanksgiving, which had been declared the best “pumpkin” pie any of us had ever eaten.
Part of what enchants me about these old-fashioned recipes is that after the list of ingredients, the directions range from none to terse. In her transparent pie recipe, Mrs. Williams goes so far as to say, “Bake with under crust only.” In those days, every girl helped her mother or whoever was in the kitchen, and she breathed in cookery knowledge with the aromas from simmering pots and roasting pans.
This time I decided to make a plain custard pie, largely because I was enchanted by the directions for the nutmeg:
“CUSTARD PIE: Line a pie plate with good crust, pinching an extra brim around the top that the custard may be the depth of the plate. Grate nutmeg over bottom until well sprinkled with it. Beat four eggs well with three-fourths cupful of sugar, then add little over a pt. of milk. Bake in moderate oven. Sufficient for large sized pie.
“Mrs. E. F. Hawkins.”
This also proved to be perfection. Three in a row.
What these pies have in common is their simplicity, their purity. They are easy as pie to make. You’ll find the filling goes together one-two-three: Measure, whisk and pour into the shell. Only the Transparent Pie filling wants anything so fussy as creaming.
An enormous part of what makes these recipes so splendid is the flaky pastry dough I use. It comes from Jim Dodge, formerly the pastry chef at the Stanford Court hotel in San Francisco and now in charge of food service at the Getty Center. He is a brilliant, original thinker, constantly simplifying and elevating his art, and this pastry dough is remarkable.
Custard pies are a fascinating genre, particularly the simple, old-fashioned ones, because there are no hiding places for sloppiness or flaws. I’ve learned a lot about their ins and outs and, while there will always be more to learn, what I know now I’m handing on to you. Just as Mrs. Hawkins, Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Stirling and Mrs. Williams--and Mr. Dodge--have handed on what they loved creating to me.
Under the chapter “Pies” is written a quote from Longfellow: “Who’ll dare deny the truth, there’s poetry in pie?”