Tradition is one of my favorite words because it doesn’t have to imply a static, historical thing or situation – even when a tradition comes with a set of “rules,” it can still be dynamic, alive, exciting, evolving, honored, and embraced in the present.
Take, for example, the apple pie that I made today for Thanksgiving (AKA The Big Meal) with those 4 apples you see above. I come from a long line of seriously good piemakers and I’m still trying to earn my wings. My mom, her Aunt Beulah, my grandmother – all of these women made and still make pies to write home about (and that’s not just because I’m clearly biased). Where I grew up, the best apples for apple pie, like Northern Spys and 20-ounce apples with their tart, dry and crisp flesh, are ready in mid to late October, so that’s often when the pies get made. Pick your fresh apples, make your pie, and put it in the freezer either before or after baking it. (Have you never done this? You totally should. The pie doesn’t suffer a bit for being frozen. And hey, one less thing on the Thanksgiving dinner checklist is one more-sanity saving measure that we can all appreciate.)
So when I decided this year to carry on the tradition of making an apple pie for The Big Meal, tradition also dictated that I try and get my hands on some Northern Spy or 20-ounce apples. Luckily for me, my mom was able to snag some late-season Spys and ship them to me. They’re not particularly good looking, but don’t judge an apple by its skin.
Making an apple pie is not a speedy task, at least not for me. Cutting, peeling, and slicing the apples is a slow but rhythmic process, one that gives me enough time to appreciate the comfort that comes with the routine. I use a mandolin slicer like my mom and grandma to get uniformly thick slices.
And while the finished apples sit in their sugary-cinnamony bath, the process of making the traditional crusts can begin. I’m barely a beginner, but I learned how to make these crusts from my mom, who learned the recipe in turn from her Aunt Beulah. Here is where your faith in tradition has to kick in because you create the crusts based more on how they look and feel that day than on what a rote recipe might say.
By nature, I’m a Type-A, list-making, plan-in-advance, get-all-the-details-up-front kind of girl. So what ended up being so great was that as I was making the crusts, it was my memories of watching my mom make countless pies in my past, and not my memorization of the recipe and its edicts, that were able to guide my hands. And that’s what makes tradition exciting for me – experiencing it firsthand and becoming a part-owner in keeping it alive. So with the crusts in place (albeit a little torn and a little overzealously trimmed and not perfectly crimped, but in place nevertheless) and steam slits created, it was time for the oven.
It may not be perfect and it might not win any beauty prizes or make any magazine covers, but it does have a long cinnamon-scented tradition on its side and that’s good enough for me. Bring on The Big Meal!