One of our tasks in the Galley kitchen is perfecting our pie making. The primary inspiration to that was Betty Lessard and the business she built up the road a little bit past Two Harbors near the Stewart River. While I never partook in an authentic Betty Lessard pie, I do own her second edition cookbook which was purchased in the gift shop of the museum boat the William A. Irvin that is docked out in Duluth Harbor right next to the Amzoil Arena.
Once I started reading the history of Betty’s Pies, it took me back to my childhood in early Duluth. Around the time Betty was defining her business and building her skill at pie making, my grandfather was working on the docks in the 60s and 70s loading ships, like the Irvin. Duluth was a blue collar town with plenty of heavy industry by which many Duluthians were employed and putting food on the tables. I was a blue collar kid. In the summer, I biked to little league practice with my brother at Wheeler Field to hopefully finally connect with one to send it over the fence that looked a mile away.
The team I played for had powder blue uniforms and was sponsored by “Coin City.” I still don’t know what Coin City was. I think someone said it was a laundromat. There were plenty of other “cooler” teams I would have rather played for like Mack Truck, Gopher Lounge or the Jade Fountain, but those would ultimately be teams on the schedule that would beat us. Coin City seemingly was a team made up of all the leftovers, castoffs, and characters that none of the other teams wanted. If it weren’t for the three run rule limit per inning, we would have never gotten off the field. The minor league field at Wheeler still had a green painted wooden fence back in those days. I never came close to “parking one”, by the way, and never saw anyone else do it either. A right of passage in the spring was selling popcorn door to door to earn money for baseball.
My brother and I had plenty to keep us busy as we filled our summer days collecting cans or beer bottles. Still remember the Northern Beer cone tops which were a major collector find, especially if the label wasn’t completely rusted off. The big thing was the 7-Up cans that came out in ‘76 that had the states on them which my brother I always looked for on our excursions up West 57th Street. The corner store was always a great place to spend our paper route profits on critical items, like banana flips, Wacky Package stickers, and of course those coveted 7-Ups that had the state pictures on the can. The packaged angel food cake slabs with pink frosting was always a winner too.
Back on the Irvin while browsing in the gift shop, I was paging through the Betty’s Pies cookbook on their bookrack. Having never made a pie before and looking at the $18.95 price tag, I set it down and wandered around to the other side of the gift shop in search of other collectables. I wasn’t convinced. Pies could wait. My tour wasn’t set to begin for another 35 minutes. I arrived from the cemetery the day after my grandmother’s funeral.
Grandpa liked loading ships on the ore docks. But, I only caught glimpses of him coming and going to work. I remember the days my family would visit and he would be off to bed by 10:00 p.m. because he had to get up at some unruly hour to go to work. It was usually around 5 a.m. His hard hat still sits in the basement idle for the past 38 years or so with his name on it. It has collected its share of dust and dirt from the basement air. I kind of wish I would have asked him more about the work he did. I knew he loaded ships and worked with heavy industrial equipment, but I would have liked to know more about what he actually did. What was the typical day like? What were the challenges? How did you go about loading a ship anyway? Did you have favorite vessels to load or were they all the same?
When the Irvin was purchased to be made into a floating museum, grandpa said he had coffee on that ship when he loaded those freighters back in the 1970s and “he had no need to see it again.” The family asked if he wanted to take the tour with us shortly after it opened and he declined. I could just envision him having filled all the cargo holds with taconite and while on the Irvin. The deckhands would be putting on and securing the hatch covers as well as hosing down the deck getting rid of all the loose taconite that spilled during the loading procedure. Grandpa, with perhaps a buddy or two, would make their way onto the ship and head up to the galley, fill up their coffee cups, maybe get offered a donut or cinnamon roll and stay for a bit shooting the breeze with the galley crew of the Irvin.
Summer days in Duluth always seemed to have eternal blue skies and calm water in the bay. It was on this day. I eventually wandered back to the book rack and again picked up the second edition cookbook. I paged though it again looking more closely at some of my favorite types of pies. Instead of putting it back this time, sort of on a whim, I made a decision to buy it. For a twenty, it would be a good piece of history and decided it would make a good souvenir. It was only later, after reading through it, and being inspired by the history of Betty’s Pies, that the idea was hatched to make pie making a regular feature on the Galley podcast.
When you have never made a pie before in your life, the process can be a bit intimidating starting with the crust. We made all the mistakes and then some. Once you are able to make a decent crust, then come the challenges of the filling. All too often, we have struggled with berry pies, particularly blueberry that seemed to be blueberry soup by the time we pull it out of the oven. Don’t even get me started on strawberry rhubarb pie. That one we still have not unlocked its mysteries. We have had some nice strawberry rhubarb jam we have made from failed attempts. It goes great on toast. When life deals you botched strawberry rhubarb pie. Scoop the filling out and make jam! Toss the rest down the disposal.
Through the process of trial an error…many errors, we have made some very good pies. It has taken practice, practice and more practice. We are…I am sure you know where this is going, taking courses on pie making. While most of our focus has been centered on Italian cuisine, we have our pie classes waiting in the wings. In those classes, are a lot of demonstrated techniques and interesting combinations of ingredients for a number of pies that we plan to prepare in the coming months.
We have referenced many online and hardcover resources to find the secrets to great pie. Some have been very good and others have led us astray. The Betty’s Pies Cookbook is sort of in the middle. There are a myriad of different crust ingredient combinations as well as a number of techniques to perfect crust. All butter crust? Part butter, part shortening? How about lard? What is the best thickener to use? How much sugar to add? Those are the questions we are going to enhance our knowledge in some of these courses. One course that I am taking “Pies & Tarts for Every Season” is taught by Gesine Bullock-Prado. I feel this is a fabulous course for showing you the step by step methods in preparing pies and tarts.
Many of you are probably wondering, “Why didn’t you just take the courses to begin with?” Actually, before I get around to answering that, or purposefully avoiding the question, there is some satisfaction to see if you can do it yourself. You know the do-it-yourselfers. Part of the process is getting the process started. That may mean picking up a cookbook and giving a recipe a shot. You discover pies or tarts may not be your thing and you reach your “end” process sooner rather than later. For us, we have enjoyed the experience of trying and failing. Trying…almost there. Try again.
Finally, through all the research and searching, we sort of stumbled upon Craftsy which has a number of authorities in the industry shooting online classes. Seeing professional bakers explaining and demonstrating their processes so far outweighs the marginal cost for each class. As far as the build-up of our previous experience pre-class, I would say it was well worth the effort, if only to see where we may have deviated or being completely exposed to alternate methods of preparing pies. If fact, the two classes we signed up for go in two entirely different directions in terms of how they demonstrate the pie making process.
Even though we have not had a pie series podcast in some time, we are excited to try these new techniques and report to you how the recipes had turned out. One of the selling points of Gesine’s course was that one of her pies she makes is the strawberry rhubarb pie. True passion of the heart will find the gold. Have we found the key to the perfect pie? Like any course or area of study, theory must be put into practice before it can be mastered. Mastery only comes from repeating the process over and over again, but I feel like we are finally on the right track.