On the Importance of Pie and Living Without Regret

When I was about 20 years old, I went to the movies and watched Michael. If you don’t remember the film, it’s about the angel, Michael, who visits Earth and helps humans learn to enjoy themselves a little more—at least that’s my takeaway.

In the film, Andie MacDowell’s character is a woman who loves animals, writes music, bakes pies, and falls in love with a grumpy man and helps him not be so grumpy. I loved her character. I wanted to be her and just didn’t know how. But the one concrete thing I thought I could maybe do was learn to bake pies.

In the film, pies made people happy, and, in my 20 year-old mind, I remember thinking that I would like to be an awesome pie maker and make people happy.

It would be about 15 years before I would set out on my quest to really learn how to make pies. Prior, I had been busy with graduate school, raising a little boy, and trying to fit in and survive the tenure track at work. I also was living a life that wasn’t good for me, and the depression of my 20s and early 30s kept me from making any pies. I just kind of gave up on pie.

But by my mid 30s, I was starting to figure out what was important, and I remembered Andie MacDowell and how much I wanted to be her in that movie. I wanted to make people happy and learn how to bake pies—not just any pies, I mean really good pies.

As with everything, it seems, making really good pies was easier said than done. But I practiced every summer with the Maine raspberries and blueberries and every fall with the pumpkin and the apple.

It was rough at first. My ex-husband had always made it very clear to me and everyone else that I was a terrible cook, so I was really starting from scratch. I tried so many pie recipes, and my poor second husband (who just so happens to be my soulmate) ate every one of those terrible pies. And he did something profound for me—instead of telling me what was wrong with my pies, he told me what he liked about them.

My husband encouraged me so much and ate some terrible pies. I think the worst were the ones where I was trying to figure out a way to make the pies without too many calories. I’ve come to realize that, if you’re going to have pie, you might as well go all out and make it good.

apple pie
Photo credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

And with practice and a whole lot of praise and support from my family, I got pretty good at making pies. I got so good at making pies that I started to make them for the neighbors, and I started to share my recipe. I couldn’t make them very pretty, but they were always good.

I think one of my proudest moments was when I was visiting my neighbor one day and met her sister for the first time.

“You’re the lady who makes those awesome pies!” she exclaimed.

I was in heaven.

Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about a pie contest at a local harvest festival here in Maine. I knew my pies were ugly, and appearance was 30 percent of the judging, but I knew I had to enter.

But I didn’t. I chickened out.

Then, the festival came again last year. It was time to enter the pie contest. I signed up, practiced, got help from a decorating genius of a friend, and chickened out again.

As an aside, I don’t think the phrase “chickened out” is very inaccurate. I have some brave and bad ass chickens, but you get the idea.

Anyway, when the festival came around again this year, I knew I was going to enter. Something had changed in me, and it started with Tom Petty’s death.

I love Tom Petty, but I had never once been to a concert because I have a fear of crowds that goes back to my childhood. I couldn’t handle the mall at Christmas and had a panic attack in a crowded store on more than one occasion growing up. My fear was pretty strong, so big concerts are just impossible to me.

But, when Tom Petty died, I was filled with regret that I had never overcome my fear and went to one of his concerts. I thought about my life. For the most part, I’ve done pretty well finding ways to live my life authentically. I mean, I left a big job with good pay, so I could work part time and become a chicken farmer. I’m a very, very cautious person, so I always proceed carefully, but I usually find some way of living in a manner makes me the most happy.

And there I was, facing this big regret about never seeing Tom Petty. I didn’t like that feeling.

So there was no way I wasn’t entering that pie contest this year.

I filled out the form, read the rules, and went to work. The contest required an apple pie made with apples grown in Maine. Apple is one of my weakest pies, but I figured I could practice and just make a good showing. I figured I couldn’t win, but that wasn’t the point at all. It, somehow, was never the point.

I just wanted to be the kind of person who enters a pie contest, and that’s what I did.

I worked all week the week before the contest—researching the best apples, researching people’s preferences for apple firmness, traveling to several towns trying to find the best apples. I even honed my filling recipe I had invented.

I was sharing apple pie with everyone. I shared pie with my oldest son and his roommate, my youngest son’s cello teacher, the music store owner, my neighbor. I took feedback from everyone and tried to make the next one better.

The night before the pie contest, I scoured the internet for tricks to make pie crusts pretty and decorative. I realized I was lacking in the tool department, but I got some ideas and ran with them.

When I pulled the pie out of the oven the morning of the contest, I knew I had done the best I could do. “It’s really pretty!” my husband said. I could tell he was impressed. It was a pretty pie—at least for me. I was pretty excited and really proud.

I was so proud that I didn’t even feel sad when I saw the enormous amount of beautiful pies that were already sitting on the tables waiting to be judged when I entered the room. There were at least 50 or more. I could quickly see at least 10 or 15 pies that completely put my humble little apple pie to shame, but, somehow, I didn’t care one bit.

I had met my goal; I had entered that pie contest. I felt really good about myself, and that’s big for me. It just is.

And what really matters is that my pies make my family happy, and they sure seem to. When I take pies to my oldest son, he’s grabbing a fork before I’ve even put the pie on his table. And, when my husband says, “I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to have one more piece of that apple pie,” that’s the best stuff to me.

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On Rejecting the Food Industry: Processing Chickens and Finding Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my anxiety surrounding our first “one bad day” as farmers. We had 14 chickens to process, and I had never experienced anything like it before. For me, it was a tough day. A long day. A draining day—and my husband did most of the work.

Still, that one bad day was profound for me, but I wanted to share my husband’s perspective with my readers because he bears the brunt of our farming endeavors so much more than I do. I invited him back for a guest blog post, and he writes about why we do what we do here.

We live in a world where most of us buy our lives from one store or another—the grocery store, the big-box, the mall conglomerate—ready-made and processed by others. Our appetites and desires are crafted and subtly honed; our satiation is often artificial and, at best, temporary, at worst potentially harmful. It is perfectly acceptable to mislead, obfuscate, and flat-out lie in this world. Television commercials, product labels and politicians do it all the time. Our truths are processed for us. The effectiveness of fact-checkers, like weather-forecasters, is subject to the winds.

Truth seemed different when I was young. When I was a boy, I had a step-grandmother. She kept a hatchet; the wooden handle was smooth and polished, and the edge on the head invariably was sharp enough to slice paper. We kept chickens; she came to help butcher the cockerels and old laying hens—she was a tough old bird herself. She would catch a chicken, grab it by the legs, flip it upside down, hold it until it settled, then lay it across the chopping block and whack! Her hatchet flashed like a guillotine. Sometimes, a headless bird would spring up and run, spewing blood around the yard, seemingly unwilling to accept the hardest of truths.

My step-grandmother was not a nurturing woman, but she was particularly grim on the days she butchered. She had no time for a foolish boy, and I did not understand her shortness. It took me many years to fully comprehend.

I left that world as an adult; I became busy, like most, with modern life and all its fixtures and conveniences. I moved with the times. But gradually, persistently, I started paying attention to where exactly “the times” where taking me. Terms like pesticides, preservatives, and factory farms began picking at the margins of my attention. I began to question the costs of my convenience, and with my wife, began to examine the modern truths.

We decided we no longer wanted to support agricultural systems designed around convenience for profit, where animals are abused and foods are poisoned with pesticides. We no longer wanted to support a food industry whose colorful and elaborate claims of health and nutrition form the foundational architecture for products propped up by preservatives and additives. So, as much as we could, we deliberately and steadily began moving away from this modern version of the truth.

We started with a garden. Each year we worked it, the area we planted grew—along with our vegetables—and our reliance upon the grocery store diminished. Three years after we started gardening, we bought chicks—Rhode Island Reds (stalwart layers)—and we began to collect eggs. My wife previously had insisted on buying eggs from cage free, humanely raised chickens. Having our own was a substantial cost savings. A year into raising laying hens, and subsequently increasing our flock with the addition of ISA Browns (the little French maids of laying hens), we bought a flock of Freedom Rangers—a type of broiler chicken.

Broiler chickens are also known by the anti-euphemism “meat-birds,” which is a truth that isn’t processed.

Ironically, the first batch of broilers were the friendliest chickens to date. I initially housed them in our garage in a brood-box I had fabricated out of scrap wood and old, closet doors. They quickly outgrew this arrangement, and I extended their garage area with a pallet enclosure bedded with straw. During this time, I also built a mobile chicken coop (not out of scrap wood and closet doors). I had it finished when the broilers were almost a month old and ready to move outside.

I wanted to keep them separate from the main flock, so I fenced an area approximately 1250 square feet about 50 feet from our back door, and I moved the broilers and their coop into it. There was some initial trepidation and some awkwardness among the fourteen young birds. The contrast between blue sky and 8-foot garage ceiling must have been somewhere north of tremendous. And the coop, being two-and-a-half feet off the ground, made for some precarious, initial forays down the ramp into the new world. Still, it didn’t take long before the fourteen were scratching and pecking and having their little chest-bumping show-downs over the new territory.

first-broilers
The Rangers always lined the fence to say hello.

We had deliberately attempted to humanize the Reds and Browns. But we did not with the Rangers, for obvious reasons. Despite this, the Rangers regularly crowded the fence whenever one of us came out the back door. I could walk among them without having them shy away as the Reds and Browns tended to. They often came to me instead, and I found, I could pet many of them if I wanted. This was before the treats started pouring out the back door.

Freedom Rangers finish in about 80 days, unlike the Cornish Cross broilers, which reach maturity in six to eight weeks and do little more than eat and excrete. The Rangers lead more of a “normal” chicken life, and I have read, taste better for it. The flip-side—in 80 days, I got to know them.

They were ready in mid-September, a few days before my birthday. I decided I would take care of business the weekend after. But I didn’t. I kept finding other, more urgent things to do, and it wasn’t until the morning of the 25th that I finally settled in to the task. I thought about my step-grandmother that day.

Like her, I am now a chicken serial killer. I slaughtered the fourteen—one after another. I held them by their feet, placed them in the killing cone, cut their jugulars, and then quickly pushed a knife through their palates into their brains. Each went instantly limp. It was one bad day for those chickens and one of many bad days for me. But there is truth in it.

first-chicken-dinner
Everything we ate for this dinner came from our little farm–the chicken, the potatoes, and the beans. The food was so delicious, and we were grateful for all of it, especially the chicken.

 

It was late in the day when I asked my seven-year-old son to catch the final bird, which he did, his first involvement. He chased her around the pen then solemnly brought her to me. We talked over that final chicken, and he understood we should be grateful for, and respectful of, her sacrifice. We thanked her, as I had for each, and I explained that chickens do not have much of an opportunity to affect positive change in this world, but that he did. And she would help nourish him on his journey toward becoming a good man. There is truth in that too.