There is one culinary thing at which I’m an expert: pie baking, specifically berry pie baking, and every summer I go on a mad-pie baking binge. I bake berry pies until friends see me coming and run the other way, convinced I’m hiding another berry pie for them, somewhere on my person.
My preferred pie berry is the marionberry.
Not to be confused with cocaine devotee and former mayor of Washington D.C. , Marion Barry.
Marionberries are named after the Oregon county in which they were first cultivated fiftyish years ago, at Oregon State University. Someone there crossed a Chehalem blackberry with an Olallie blackberry and the result was the beautiful marion, black and shiny on the vine, both tart and sweet to eat, a big brute of a berry. They come into their short season the first week in July, and are gone by the dog days of August, at which point lovers of the marion are forced to settle for the down market Evergreen blackberry, which is smaller, tarter and grows by the side of the road. Evergreens have a certain you-pick, back-to-the-land charm, but they are in every way inferior to the aristocratic marion.
This year I couldn’t wait for the marions. I suspect it’s because I’ve been trying to scrap off the seven pounds I gained doing “research” for Julia Child Rules, and have been on a fairly strict regime of green smoothies for lunch and no dessert. But I was itching to get back to pie baking, so I thought, why not raspberries? I could have opted for strawberries, but for me strawberry pie is a non-starter. For one thing, strawberries are not a true botanical berry but something called an “accessory fruit.” An accessory to what is best left to the botanists, but bottom line: strawberry shortcake, yes! Strawberry compote over a basic New York cheesecake, yes! But strawberry pie? Not interested.
I’m not that interested in raspberries, either, if I’m being honest. As beautiful as they are, they are the limp-handshake of the berry family. They possess that weird flannel texture when you put one on your tongue. But at least they’re in the same family as the sexy, snazzy Marion (the Rubus genus of the rose family) so I thought, why not?
Like the marionberry, my basic, perfect berry pie recipe is also a hybrid cultivar — the fresh berry pie recipe in “The Joy of Cooking” crossed with a crust recipe I read in a magazine at my OB’s office when I was pregnant with my daughter 20 years ago. It is my most reliable, trustworthy recipe. Still, the notion of using raspberries threw me off my game. The traditional fruit pies are peach, berry, apple, and strawberry rhubarb. Blueberry, probably. You don’t hear a lot about raspberry pies, and there must be a reason.
I decided to try a specific raspberry pie recipe. This is straight out of the Julia Child playbook — don’t be afraid to experiment! This recipe called for a crust that uses only shortening, rather than the 50/50 split I swear by (half butter, half shortening) — the reason being that raspberries are so delicate they are “easily overwhelmed” by the butter flavor in the crust. Already I hate them for being so high maintenance.
My first roll out of the summer is always a little funky, but the great thing about pie crust is that you can cut and paste, using ice water.
Things started going downhill when I mixed up the fruit filling and saw that the recipe required the juice of an entire lemon. My normal amount: 2 tablespoons. This produced raspberry soup. I use tapioca to thicken; and tossed in twice the amount. Still soupy. After I poured the berries into the shell I siphoned some of the juice off with a turkey baster. I baked it according to the instructions in this new, unreliable recipe — in general, I like this pie baking book, and will spare the author humiliation by citing it here — and managed to burn the edges, which never happens when I stick to my own method.
I wish I could say that despite the charred edges and gloppy filling, the pie tasted great, but the fact is, it was a subpar pie in every way. That shortening crust was cardboard and the berries weren’t lemony but, well, sour. It was hard to cut and once the slice hit your plate the innards spilled out like a crime scene.
The greatest lesson Julia taught us is that failure doesn’t really matter. She failed a lot. She cooked dishes six, ten, twelve times before they were even edible. Even after she became The French Chef she made bad food. Long after she was considered an expert she served her friend James Beard the worst meal of his life. For which she didn’t apologize, because that’s the other thing she stressed: never apologizing for your cooking. Cooking is a process, and sometimes you mess up.
But the thing about pie? Someone will always eat it.