Oh hell, I hate making pastry.
What will motivate me to make piecrust is a request from my family for tourtiere, a savory mixture of ground beef and pork with onions and sage and just a sprinkling of nutmeg for sweetness, tucked inside a flaky, tender crust. My mother's recipe, it's often the centerpiece at special dinners like Christmas Eve and is somewhat bomb-proof in that the juicy meat pretty much guarantees that no matter how badly I screw up the pastry, it will still be delicious.
When my grandmother showed me how to mix and roll and assemble pies, she also passed along the family tradition of marking the top crust with the image of a sheaf of wheat. While I learned that it’s important to slice holes in the pastry to allow the steam to escape during baking, the scribing of the dough carried with it more significance than a simple decorative venting system for a bubbling concoction of apples, brown sugar and cinnamon. The sheaf of wheat was about gratitude. As I watched her dust flour on the countertop and wield her rolling pin quickly and efficiently over perfect balls of dough (that never crumbled and cracked like mine do), she told me that she adopted the wheat design after she was married. Her mother-in-law passed it along to her. The Oberghs were so grateful, she said, for the abundance of food they found in their newly adopted country, for the availability of grains, for the basic sustenance of bread, that she rendered wheat onto the top of every pie as a reminder of how blessed they were to be Canadian.
My grandmother was proud of her pastry. I heard that for years, she brought a freshly baked batch of rich butter tarts, with the golden pastry shell cradling plump raisins and melted brown sugar, baked to gooey perfection, to her sister’s house on New Year’s Eve. And every year, her sister Vi would also have a freshly baked batch of butter tarts laid out on a crystal plate on her buffet. Each would claim their tart superior to the other’s. This went on, apparently, for decades. There was never a clear winner, but I understand the family suffered little hardship in the annual sampling of tarts and the ongoing debate over whose was better.
Gram was a character who came of age during the depression, who used an eyebrow pencil to draw a line up the back of her leg so it looked like she was wearing silk stockings, whose mother died of alcoholism at a young age, whose husband was wounded in the war. She loved a good party, good scotch, a good hockey game, and had mastered the art of playing “Sugar Blues” on her nose. She used to joke with her sisters that after they died, they were all going to come back as seagulls and shit on everyone who had ever done them wrong. As her siblings passed away, one by one, she’d always keep one eye on the sky when we visited the waterfront, just in case.
When my grandmother was hospitalized before she died, I baked a batch of butter tarts and brought one up for her. She took a bite of it and told me that it was good... but not as good as hers. There was a twinkle in her eye.
My daughter is coming for a visit this weekend. Among requests for food like homemade bread and prosciutto arugula pizza, she asked for tourtiere. When I made the pastry, I scored the top with three stalks of wheat, using the tip of the knife to mark the heads of grain and added a few blades of grass at the base of the sheaf. Because I remember. Because I’m grateful.
And then I added a couple of extra marks that look just a little bit like a seagull.