There are many lovely things about living in my small New England Village. For me, one of the loveliest is hosting the longest running agricultural fair in the country. It’s very much an old-fashioned fair. There is standing room only when the 4-H sheep and cows are judged. An antique car parade honors all the couples married more than 50 years. Hay is judged as are mountains of vegetables, shelves of jewel-toned canned fruits and piles of quilts. But the stiffest completion of all is the pie contest.
I entered for years with nary an honorable mention for the first two decades. Finally, after lots of practice and dozens of failures, I made it into the top five. I cherished that white ribbon. Then for several years I quit competing. Kids and obligations, time and energy seemed to be lacking until a few years ago when my youngest daughter became interested. She wanted to enter something in the 4-H building. So, we started to bake.
A lot goes into a prize-winning pie. The fruit must be perfectly ripe and juicy. The pie crust demands a mixture of butter and lard. You are judged on appearance as well as taste, so coming up with a creative crust design is important. Phoebe and I pored over Pinterest pie sites. We scoured old cookbooks for techniques and recipes. We carefully set aside a jar of leaf lard for the crust and froze a small block of local butter. The blueberries came from our own bushes. I don’t make my pies with flour thickener. I use Clear-Jel and that must be ordered. My mother’s pie plate was the only one that would do.
Entries for the fair are dropped off on Thursday morning, so we set aside Wednesday night for pie baking. In the unlikely event of a pie disaster there would be time to make another. I know it sounds obsessive, but we were having so much fun that we were getting crazy. The big day came and we set to work making Phoebe’s pie. I remember playing Vivaldi in the background. We measured and laughed and got flour all over everything. It was so hard to wait for the oven time to ding but we waited without peeking, afraid to risk lowering the oven temperature and having a soggy crust.
Finally, after what seemed like hours we
pulled out her pie and it was….not perfect. The crust was a bit too brown, the lattice rather crooked. But we ohhed and ahhed over it and took pictures and set it to cool.
Phoebe and I were first in line to drop off her pie the next morning. We carefully filled out her little tab and folded it over so her information was hidden from the eyes of the judges. If waiting for pie to come out of the oven was hard, waiting for the fair to open Thursday afternoon so we could see the results was even harder. We raced to the 4-H building and there it was. Second place. I waited for Phoebe to show some disappointment but there was none at all! She
was delighted to get any ribbon. I don’t think I ever saw a little girl quite so excited. But it turns out that it wasn’t the ribbon she really cared about. She told everybody who would listen how much fun we had and what a good baker she was. Her joy was for the memory of time spent with me.
So here is what you don’t know about Phoebe. She has some special needs and school is very, very hard for her. It’s so hard in fact, that we no longer send her to public school. We home-school her so we can concentrate on teaching her real skills and giving her islands of competency. Pie making, winning, losing – at the end of the day Phoebe learned a lot. Mostly she learned that pleasure comes from spending time together and pride from mastering a skill. That’s a lot of learning to come from some fruit and flour.
Here is our blueberry pie recipe:
- 4 cups blueberries
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Clear-Jel (how much)
- 2 cups flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/3 cup cold butter
- 1/3 cup cold lard
- ice water, one tablespoon at a time
- To make the filling, mix fruit with cups sugar and set it aside for an hour. This pulls the juice from the fruit.
- Set the fruit in a colander over a bowl and drain the juice.
- Then add the Clear-Jel to the juice, whisking it well so there are no lumps.
- To make the crust, mix flour and salt together.
- Cut in cold butter and cold lard.
- Add ice water, a tablespoon at a time until you form a soft ball.
- Divide this into two disks, wrap in brown paper and set it to chill.
- At the same time, chill your rolling pin (mine is marble). Cold is the secret to good crust.
- Roll out the first disk and set it in a 9 inch pie plate.
- Roll the second disk into a rectangle and cut that into strips to form the lattice top.
- Pour fruit filling into bottom pie crust and arrange strips of second crust on top to form lattice.
- Bake at 450 degrees until the top is golden and the blueberries bubble.
- Cold is the secret to a good crust. If possible, use a marble rolling pin that can be well-chilled in advance. Also make sure butter and lard are cold.