Lili Furukawa and the Perfect Apple Pie

Do they even teach home economics in junior high school anymore?  I mean, it’s such a politically charged topic that, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got tossed out with cheerleading squads.  Oh – they still have those?  Well, I’ve been out of school a long time.  Maybe they offer it as an elective for boys now.  To tell the truth, I always wanted to take auto shop but in those days it just wasn’t done.  Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, most of us girls suffered through ‘home ec’ – at least the cooking portion of it – as a sort of rite of passage.  It was universally agreed upon that fruit ‘ambrosia’ was a hit (everyone liked miniature marshmallows and those precious little mandarin oranges) but there was always a covert line to the garbage disposal when we had to make – and then eat – tomato aspic.

On the fateful day in question, our home economics teacher, Mrs. Warren, announced in her southern drawl,  “Mah husband loves me because ah make a perfect apple pah,” and then shot me a blistering look of condescension.  Even as an unsophisticated teenager, I thought this proclamation seemed like a pretty shaky basis for marital bliss.  My mom’s assessment of Mrs. Warren’s comment was simply “she’s anti-Semitic”, which was her frequent response to a variety of complicated human interactions. (Calvin Trillin’s father tells the story of a guy who fails an audition as a radio announcer.  His father asks him, “why?” to which he responds “an-t-t-t-ti s-s-semi-ti-ti-ti-tism”.)

Nonetheless, Mrs. Warren was hardly my favorite teacher.  She was too perfect:  the unspoiled, coifed and well-sprayed hair, the starched white blouse and cardigan sweater, and the not-an-ounce-too-much figure that told me she tried too hard.  Unlike her carefully controlled persona, I identified with my wayward hair.  From my Dad I inherited very fine, wavy locks, with bangs that never went the same way twice, or stayed one way for an entire day.  My ponytail was so meager, that it consistently slipped out of my hairbands.  (My mom’s hair was thick, jet-black and was crowned by a dramatic widow’s peak. I think it’s easier for people who look like that to have fast opinions).  Also, I was skinny until I developed rather ample breasts – the one thing I did get from my mother - and thereafter my blouses never quite stayed tucked inside my skirts. So, in every way, Mrs. Warren and I had nothing in common.

Now, although my mother was a great cook she had long since given up on any pretense of homemaking.  By the time I was in junior high, Mom had been raising children for nearly 30 years and had had enough of it.  At the age of 50 she went back to school for undergraduate and then graduate degrees to become a child welfare worker.  So, we ate a lot of frozen dinners and I never learned how to cook.  And, I especially never learned how to bake.  In fact, I can’t remember my mother ever making a pie in her entire life.  Occasionally she would buy a cake mix, but the idea of her rolling out a piecrust was ludicrous.

Needless to say, when we launched into pie dough in home ec I came face-to-face with a whole body of knowledge for which I was entirely ill prepared.  I don’t remember what the distraction was that day. I was often distracted when it came to formulas – whether in algebra class, chemistry, or home ec. But when Mrs. Warren gave us the proportions and the finer points of pie dough, I just zoned out.  Now, pie dough takes a certain amount of finesse:  you need the right temperature of water, fat and flour, and even the ambient temperature of the room is critical. So when we went to our cooking stations to create our dough balls, I froze. The next thing I knew my fingers had formed an unnatural marriage of flour, water and fat resulting in a slimy, sticky blob - something never intended to grace a pie pan or embrace an apple filling. I don’t remember how long I stood there staring at this creation. I glanced around the room to find that everyone else had got it pretty much right. So here was I – the lone holdout:  Mrs. Warren’s example of what the perfect wife was not. Suddenly, a miracle happened. With the same stealth that we all summoned to lose our aspics in the garbage, Lili Furukawa appeared at my station, plunked the exact right amount of perfect pie dough in front of my face and then quietly slipped away.

Let me explain to you about Lili Furukawa.  My school was one of the most culturally diverse in the entire U.S.  In fact, a census one year indicated that we had more races and more countries represented than any school in the entire country.  Our overall mix was about 45% Hispanic, 30% Asian, 20% African-American, and the rest Caucasian.  As with any group, there are sub-cultures within each one.  In the Asian group there were the honor students, the student government types, the artists (they were the fringe kids) and the cheerleader-athletes. Some of these groups overlapped.  But Lili was beyond any category I could think of. She was unusually tall for a Japanese girl, elegant and patrician, and she always dressed as though her dad owned Saks Fifth Avenue.  I don’t particularly remember her as being academically brilliant, or being attached to any of the very popular guys.  But there was just something about her that was above the fray.  Some people might have considered her ‘stuck up’; I simply considered her from another world, which is what made her deed that day in home ec class all the more amazing. What I later learned was that she had collected little bits of extra dough from all the other girls in the class until she had enough for mine. I don’t remember ever exchanging a word with her before or after, but at that moment she instantly earned a place in my pantheon of angels.  So I was saved. And it was upon noticing this act that Mrs. Warren was motivated to comment about her conjugal love being based on the perfection of her crust.

In spite of this inauspicious beginning, apple pie is actually my favorite dessert today.  We have three prolific apple trees in our yard and I have learned to make a killer apple pie - and a perfect piecrust.  All winter I defrost the sliced and frozen fruit I prepare in the fall to make pies, crisps, and a great Dutch apple pancake.  In fact, baking has become a kind of meditation for me.  And if my husband thinks this is a bit of over-kill, he’s not complaining – though he’s never said that he married me for my piecrust.  Actually, the secrets of baking are not all that mysterious or complex – I’m always glad to share them.  You simply need the right ingredients, a cheerful attitude, and sometimes, just a little help from your friends.

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Andrea Pflaumer - SheSavvy Expert

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