Saturday, March 18, 2017
I have witnessed Muddy Waters sing the blues and Arnold Palmer nail a putt and Michael Jordan dunk a basketball and Paula Haney make pie crust. Though I was almost as surprised to see her at the back of her capacious pie emporium in Evanston late Thursday as I would have been to have been to spy any of those gentlemen, there among the mixers.
She was flour-dusted and a bit bedraggled—it was about 8 p.m.—hauling crates of eggs from one place to another. The decent thing would have been for me to order my pie and let her be.
But I like connection. And even though it was quite a number of years ago that we spent some time talking, in her Chicago Avenue kitchen, about her mother, and Indiana—"Hoosier Mama Pie," is both a pun and a biographical detail— while she rolled crust, and I felt I knew her, a little. And of course I've been eating her pie with both hands for years. So I waited until she looked up, and I did a small salaaming gesture, both palms outward at forehead level, then lowered with a deep nod. Respect to the master.
She came over, wiping her hands on her apron. I said I was surprised to see her here late, doing back kitchen stuff, and she said, "This is fun. Yesterday I had to do insurance," and we talked a bit about work and careers. My younger boy was sitting at a table, with my wife and the out-of-town relations we had brought to show off the place. I told Paula that my advice to him is to do whatever he loves, because you end up working an awful lot, and it's hard enough when you love it, and she agreed. I asked if she had plans to open another place, and she startled a bit, it seemed to me, in a kind of horror at just the idea. Oh no, the two shops are plenty, though the original Chicago storefront is going to be expanded.
I ordered the "pie flight," three half pieces to share with my wife. The chess pie, which I adore, and the pear and fig, my wife's choice, and the Earl Grey custard pie, which is sublime. They were out of Earl Grey—a bitter disappointment, but I forgave them, it was late after all—and the clerk suggested I try grapenut custard instead. I was dubious, but he assured me it was incredible and of course it was.
The flight was finished far too quickly, my wife gallantly allowing me to scrape up the final crumbs of crust—think Tony Bennet singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" which I once heard him perform, standing directly in front of me at a party.
When we were done, I looked down at the bare plate and had a thought ... I'm a little ashamed to admit what that thought was, but I will: "Let's order another flight." Shocking, I know. I did not, I rush to say, act on that very decadent thought. One pie flight is enough, thank you, and part of the allure of pie is you can never get as much as you'd like.