The Beloved Book Group Gals book club of Newtown was pleased to host not only its regular membership, Tuesday, March 6, but also two special guests. Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra joined the group in learning firsthand from Beth Howard the art of pie making — and life.
Ms Howard is the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie, the story of her personal triumph over her young husband’s unexpected death in 2009 and how baking and sharing pie has led her from the depths of grief to a place where she once again experiences joy.
Ms Howard has traveled from shore to shore, and sometimes overseas, to deliver her message of hope to those in despair, slice by slice. In December, upon hearing the news of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she packed up her RV with pie supplies, and headed east from her home in Eldon, Iowa, where she teaches pie baking and runs the Pitchfork Pie Stand in summer. She met up with friend and documentary producer Janice Molinari in Flanders, N.J., who had rallied neighbors to bake more than 200 pies. They delivered the pies to Newtown midweek, handing out free slices at Newtown Youth Academy (NYA) and teaching pie baking to students and families at Edmond Town Hall.
It was at NYA that book club and NYA member Kate Lux recognized Ms Howard, and stopped to speak with her. The book club had read Making Piece in November.
“I saw the pie truck and thought, there can’t be another one. And I recognized her from the book jacket,” said Ms Lux.
The conversation led to some of the book club members joining Ms Howard at Edmond Town Hall to give away still more free slices of pie, and an invitation to Ms Howard to attend their book club.
“They kind of initiated my return to Newtown,” admitted Ms Howard, who offered to give the club members a pie class, and has set up several workshops and talks during her March visit to coincide with her book club visit. Her connection to the women in the group was instantaneous, said Ms Howard. “I feel like I’m going to a friend’s house,” she said.
Tuesday’s book club hostess, Lynn Klar, was excited that not only Ms Howard was there, but also that Mrs Llodra had taken time from her packed schedule to attend.
The evening began with socializing, as do most book club meetings, said Beloved Book Group Gals founder Barbara Cottingham. Mrs Llodra provided a very low-key question and answer component to the March 6 meeting, carried on in more the tone of friends chatting than that of the usual public meeting. Laughter punctuated the conversation frequently. Having the first selectman was a new twist on the usual meeting, said Ms Cottingham, adding to the big night of hosting author Beth Howard.
“I’m honored to be invited,” Mrs Llodra told the women. “Women are really extraordinary. We’re special in what we bring to leadership and conversation and the community,” she said. Not to disparage men, she emphasized, “But there’s something special women bring to the mix and has to be celebrated.”
“I was just new to town in 1986, when I started the group,” Ms Cottingham said. With three small children, she was hungering for intellectual stimulation, and has found it through the friends she has made and the books they have read in the club’s 26 years of existence.
The group has a solid core of about 16 members, she said, but there have been changes. “We have seen all of the babies, divorces, deaths, new careers, remarriages, and grandchildren arrive,” Ms Cottingham said, “and through it all we read and we read and we read. We read and we support each other.”
“We don’t always talk about books,” said Una Nash. “We talk about family and many other subjects.”
Mary Tomasiewicz agreed, and added, “Sometimes what we’re reading leads to talk about world affairs.” And sometimes, it leads to baking pie.
Why bake pie? Pie baking is not only a hands-on, therapeutic activity. The art of pie making shares many commonalities with life, as Beloved Book Group Gals and Mrs Llodra learned Tuesday night.
Socializing led to dinner, which led to the moment the Gals had waited for — pie class. Dinner dishes were swiftly replaced by mixing bowls and rolling pins on the long tables set up in Ms Klar’s living room and kitchen, and with a bit of arm waving and a voice raised above the merry ruckus, Ms Howard captured the attention of the book clubbers and began the lesson.
It’s Not About Perfection
Almost immediately, a metaphor of pie to life became apparent.
“Pie is not about perfection,” Ms Howard said. (Nor is life.) “I like simplicity. I go by feel,” she said, as she began demonstrating her approach to measuring flour and “smooshing” in butter, using the two best tools available for pie making: her hands. “Take it as it comes, and work with what you have,” she said, as good a bit of advice for pie baking as for getting through each day.
Lumps of butter in the flour mixture are acceptable, even desirable, she told the pie bakers, most of whom confessed the closest they had come to baking pie was sprinkling sugar on the top of a frozen store-bought version.
Following a recipe to the “T” can drive a baker crazy, particularly when determining the amount of liquid to add. “Environmental differentiation happens,” Ms Howard said, emphasizing once again the benefit of going by feel. What makes a great crust is not overworking the dough, said Ms Howard, a common novice error. Handling the dough with confidence, yet gently, yields the best result. Again, a tip that can get one through a rough patch of crust or a rough patch in life.
With each person’s dough shaped into two rough balls, the bakers approached the next step that strikes terror into the hearts of bakers — rolling out the dough. Ms Howard assured the group that approaching the task fearlessly would be the best approach. “Rolling pie dough is like horseback riding. The horse knows when you’re afraid. The pie dough does, too!” Be firm, roll from the center out, not back and forth, on a well floured surface, and a (mostly) circular crust will develop.
A gentle but confident touch is needed once again to fold the crust and lift it into the pie pan, and unfold it over the edges. Taking her messages to heart, the pie bakers did not hesitate, nor did they panic when crusts crumbled, ripped, or stuck together. Ms Howard was on hand to offer advice on fixing a problem and to reassure that “Pie is very forgiving.”
Peeling and cutting up apples for pie can be meditative. For the impatient baker, though, a special piece of equipment seemed to fit the bill. The book club members took a childlike delight in the tabletop apple corer/peeler/slicer Ms Klar had on hand, and which Ms Howard praised for its ability to create apple slices just the right thickness for pie. “If you slice the apples too thin,” she cautioned, “you’ll end up with applesauce for a filling.” Too thick, though, and the apples will never tenderize by the time the crust is done baking. Seasoning the apples was the next step, and like Ms Howard’s tack on life, it was all unmeasured.
“I usually put it all in a bowl and toss it before putting it in a crust,” said Ms Tomasiewicz, amazed to see the instructor layer half of the peeled apple slices into the pie crust then sprinkle cinnamon, salt, sugar, and flour right on top. “This is much easier,” Ms Tomasiewicz said.
Repeating the layers of apples and seasonings, Ms Howard threw on a few dots of butter and the pie was ready to receive its top crust. Excess crust can be trimmed away, then the edges pinched together between forefingers and thumb, she demonstrated. A few slashes in the top of the crust, a wash of beaten egg, and the pies were ready to go in the oven.
“I can’t believe I made this pie!” exclaimed Linda McClarey, holding out her perfectly fashioned apple pie. “I don’t think I’ve ever done this before,” she added, a sentiment echoed by many of her fellow book clubbers. Equally proud of her result was Newtown’s first selectman, a satisfied smile on her face as she displayed her pie.
“There’s something about homemade pie,” Ms Howard told The Bee. “People have an emotional attachment.” It is pie. It is life. Sometimes lumpy and messy, but not to be feared; in need of a firm hand — but always forgiving and delicious.
“By giving,” said Ms Howard, “I’ve learned that I can make other people happy. I’ve lived through the grief experience. What I want to share is the sense of hope. You can turn your life around. You can make yourself feel better, by giving to others. It’s pretty basic,” she said, “but people forget.”
What the Beloved Book Group Gals will not forget, is that while life may not be a piece of cake, it just might be a piece of pie.
To view a slide show of the evening’s fun, go to www.newtownbee.com.