Farewell to the Big Apple Pie

From the Jersey Turnpike

CurvyMama’s on her way home to D.C., watching the New York City skyline fade from view in the bus window. We’ve still got traces of pie dough under our fingernails from our morning’s work at Bubby’s. We can hang onto it for just a few more hours, to stretch out the experience of pie immersion we’ve had here for the past week. But then the bus will drop us off in reality, and we’ll have to scrub it all away and return to our regular Place of Employment, where the closest we get to pie is when CurvyMama bakes one at home and brings it into the office. O Great Pie Gods, make my return as painless as possible!

I slipped out of my little room in the West Village early this morning, with only minimal disruption to the animal kingdom I’ve been cohabitating with (did I mention them? The Norfolk terrier who peed on my shoes, the big red cat Eddie, the striped tabby Pistachio, the two huge turtles and the parrot Bart, who does a frequent, uncanny and piercing imitation of a car alarm? A story for another day…). Caught the subway for the last time to Tribeca, and stashed my suitcase by the bar. Grabbed my last white industrial apron, tied on my headscarf, and went to work rolling out piecrusts. Once I’d stacked up about a dozen in the freezer, Ricardo and Silvia arrived and dashed into a whirlwind of activity to keep up with the Sunday brunch demands upstairs.

On such a day, it’s best for an inept volunteer to stay the hell outta the way and shut up, so that’s what I tried to do a lot of the morning, pressing myself into various spaces to avoid blocking traffic. I did get to mix the fillings for six pecan pies. This involves one of my least favorite tasks: zesting oranges. Using graters tends to get the best of me; inevitably I end up grating a part of myself. And when you have to use a microplane on 10 oranges to get enough zest for 8 tablespoons full, it’s bound to happen a few times. Yesterday, I learned the hard way–after zesting six or seven oranges and scraping the exact same place on my left thumb knuckle several times–that plastic kitchen gloves can be not only a diner’s best friend, but a cook’s. Putting one on my left hand afforded me some protection from the microplane. So today, after measuring out the brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, eggs, etc., I slipped one of those babies on my hand before I started zesting. I was gratified to see, too, that after a few days of wrestling with huge whisks and insufficient arm strength, it seemed a tad easier today to whisk that big mixture into shape before pouring it over the pecans that were waiting in the prebaked pie crusts.

I also made nine graham cracker crumb pie crusts, using the technique Silvia taught me a couple of days ago. It took some getting back into the gestalt of it, so the going was awkward at first. But eventually I got back into rhythm. Like earlier this week, I also got a prequel to my crumb-crust-making. I got to watch Silvia actually make the crumbs into “crumb dough,” if that’s even the right name. (Remember that I had learned how to make the graham crackers, and learned how to do the crusts. But I hadn’t seen the steps required to get from fine piles of dry crumbs to a mixture with the right body to hang onto a pie tin and merge into one crust while baking.) I watched as Silvia combined the crumbs with butter, a little flour, and egg whites, and worked the mixture with her fingers until it was barely, but evenly, moistened.

When the clock told me it was time to get myself to Penn Station to catch my bus, I got friendly hugs from Silvia and Ricardo, returned my borrowed headscarf to Leslie’s bag, and dropped my apron in the laundry bin. I tucked my dirty chef’s jacket into my big bag, put on a clean shirt, dusted the flour off my Danskos and headed, one last time, up the back stairs from the kitchen past the line and out into the restaurant. (Cue the abrupt change of scenery from the yucky back stairs to the front-of-the-house, where cool jazz is playing for the hip brunch crowd, which is bathed in lovely midday light while it nibbles blueberry muffins, scones, and a simmered-fall-fruits combo for their ultra creamy Greek yogurt, all of which look intimately familiar.) In a second, I’m out the front door, with the window that says “Bubby’s” behind me.

I never was able to take a picture of Ron, Bubby’s owner, when I was there, but here’s a real photographer’s picture of him, so you have a face to go with the name. He was around the restaurant an awful lot, but didn’t happen to be there when I left today, so I couldn’t thank him once again in person for the crazy and big-hearted chance he gave me to work in his kitchen for a week. I will email him in a few minutes, and he will more than likely respond almost instantaneously, as he always has before, with some kind of message that hides kindness under a layer of flip sarcasm. And I will smile, because the hiding doesn’t exactly work. He’s just a good guy, and I will always appreciate the way he opened his door to a total stranger just because we share a passion for a peculiar slice of American cooking. “If you go home and bake pies the way we do here,” Ron told me the day I arrived, “then your coming here will have been a good thing.”

Well, Ron, I’ll do my best. And I’ll always be grateful to you, Ricardo, Silvia and the rest of the kitchen crew who put up with me as I tried to be half as good as you are.

Bye, Big Apple Pie.