On Wednesday, for no particular reason other than it was officially October, I rolled out the very first pumpkin pies of the season. Pumpkin is the pie that keeps me up at night. It is a needy pie, requiring enough oven time but not too much. Over baking and over mixing are among the culprits causing the cracks to form, first around the edges, then smack dab down the middle. Just the right amount of oven time allows the spicy cream filling to set properly, avoiding the dreaded Frankenstein line. Wednesday’s efforts enjoyed a 50% success rate. I was unhappy in an early-October kind of way.
By Thursday, pumpkin was no longer on my radar, focusing instead on wooden crates over-spilling with apples. Stacked beneath the Rome, Empire and Crispin Crisp were a few cases of muted yellow-skinned pears. In most instances, it’s just a matter of time before the fruit being sealed between two circles of pâte brisée is going to displease someone. Case in point: Team Mother/Daughter Birthday.
What began as a seemingly harmless pie order began to unravel at approximately 2 pm on Thursday. Until then, other than a cake inscription needing to be penned in Hebrew lettering, there was nothing remarkable about the day. Thursday is the day wedged between mid-week and weekend. It is the day that transitions from calm to chaos with no turning back. It is the tipping point when surprise cake orders rear their ugly buttercream heads and rogue pie orders tend to surface. The air is painfully thick with butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla punctuated by the sound of the paddle attachment beating the buttercream into submission.
I had just finished measuring out ingredients for a random pie order when Manager Margaret approached the bench. Looking up from my egg-wash spattered work surface, I caught a glimpse of Margaret’s expression. She was holding the phone, listening, nodding, tilting her head, closing her eyes, nodding once more before rolling her eyes and mouthing something unintelligible.
It was unclear to me whether Margaret was speaking to a birthday celebrant or the mother of a celebrant or the daughter who had placed the order for the mother or both. Equally unclear was whether the birthday celebrant was partially pro pear or totally pear contraire.
Suffice to say that the original order for this particular pie was a medley of autumn fruit; sweet pears, tart plums, and a splash of end-of-season blueberries. I had been consulted about said pie and following a brief stroll through the walk-in, confirmed the fruit selection. In an attempt to cross the order off my list, I had everything assembled; spices, sweeteners, and thickener. The medley of fruit rested
comfortably in a bowl, comingling before being turned into a pie shell. For a brief moment, there was order in the chaotic pie world. Until there wasn’t.
I heard Margaret responding to a question with a vague answer. “I can ask the kitchen how many pears…”
“How many what?” I jumped in, looking up from my sea of tranquility.
Margaret held the phone away, protecting the caller from my reaction. Whispering more than speaking, Margaret took a breath. “She wants to know the percentage of pears to blueberries to plums… I’ll tell her we’ll call her back… We’ll call you back…”
“WHAT???!!!” I responded, unable to contain an involuntary seething reaction. “The percentage of pears to blueberries to plums?!” I hissed. In my head, a voice was screaming, “Gimme the phone, GIMME THE PHONE, let me talk to her!” My hands paused mid-pear, foodservice gloves just the slightest bit cinnamon sugared. I took a moment to collect myself and said, “I’m happy to talk to her if you get her on the line.” Acting 101.
Margaret dialed the number, handed the phone to me before mentioning something about taking her lunch break. I stepped away from the bench. It was difficult to determine who was celebrating what and who had ordered the pie and who was conflicted with pears touching blueberries touching plums.
I listened because it was hard to interject a word, and I listened because it sounded like I was about to ruin someone’s birthday. I tried to explain that it was no longer blueberry season and I was cordial and suggested as an alternative either a pear pie or an apple pie. Team Mother/Daughter Birthday were busy talking over each other until they were talking to me.
“We have an apple pie. We just bought an apple pie. We don’t need an apple pie.”
“That’s great! “ I said. “Then you’re all set. Let me go ahead and cancel the other pie.”
Silence. “Yes,” they agreed. “We’ll eat the apple.”
“Happy, Happy, Birthday to you.” I returned the phone to the charger while simultaneously tearing up the ticket. “I think I’ll make some buttermilk pies,” I said to everyone and no one in particular.
As I zested a few lemons into a cavernous bowl of buttermilk, sugar, and eggs, I was thinking back to just one day prior and my unhappiness over the pumpkin pies. Then Sharon came back to let me know that someone came in just after the pies were out of the oven and was surprised and delighted to see pumpkin cooling on the rack. Apparently the pie was boxed up and delivered to an elderly gentleman who was in failing health and simply wanted a pumpkin pie. Not because it was a birthday or a holiday, but just because. Just because he was given the gift of a day and the chance to indulge in a slice or two of pumpkin pie. Thinking about that made me incredibly happy. You might even say, 100% happy.