Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thoughts on Apple Pie and Tai Chi

I grew up eating apple pie made from scratch. Mom always used lard, and often used apples fresh from the backyard trees. So when I fell in love with a man who prefers pie to cake, I decided it was time to see if I inherited any talent in the area of pie-making.

The process took a week and four phone calls. First, I knew I needed Mom's recipe for crust. Phone call number one was that request. A day later, two scanned pages from a 1950s cookbook appeared in my in-box. I had to smile at the dated font and design, knowing that there are many things that used to be built to last and aren't anymore. Pie crust recipes must be one of them. Phone call number two was a lengthy conversation in which I needed clarification on the method. Mom mentioned a pastry cloth and rolling pin sleeve would be helpful (two items I learned were not to be found anywhere in the Rosedale mall area). At this point, she told me much of it is practice, and I was reminded of a saying we use in Tai Chi: "any questions practice can't answer," and completely understood why I should not expect perfection.

Phone call number three took place after my first dead-end try of cutting the lard into the flour. It felt like sugar cookie dough, too easy to handle, and I knew it was wrong. On Mom's suggestion, I cut my losses and started over, this time making sure the lard was good and cold. Another reminder from Tai Chi: sometimes you don't get it right on your first day. Like my first day learning the single-whip posture, or my first time holding a sword, my hands felt clumsy with the pastry dough. I felt assured that, because of my experience with learning Tai Chi, I needed to overcome this critical first try.

Rolling the crust was my next challenge. Luckily, I had used a rolling pin before to make cookies, so the feel of that was not as foreign as that of the pastry blender. It was like going from sword to Tai Chi knife form: both are edge weapons but the purpose and feel of each are entirely different. The crust was more delicate than cookie dough and less agreeable to being picked up and re-shaped. But I managed to get both the bottom crust fit into the pan, poured in the sliced and spiced apples, dabs of butter, then fit atop the top crust. I struggled a bit to get a perfect seal between the top and bottom crusts, but by this point I was ready to be finished and just did my best. I sprinkled it with sugar, slit it open a little, and put it in the oven.

The fourth and final call to Mom happened at this point. She cautioned me against leaving it in the oven too long, but was happy to hear I didn't have any further woes. She told me that once she really had a feel for making the crust, she found she would make silly mistakes because she would stop focusing on the process and think of something else. Similarly, once you learn the Tai Chi solo form, it's easy to let your mind wander and lose your balance or worse, your place in the form. The key is to stay focused on the present moment and take each individual piece as it comes. I realized Mom is a pie master in the sense that she understands the zen of the journey from flour and lard to golden crust. It amazed me that speaking with her about baking a pie led to lessons on mindfulness, just like how conversations about Tai Chi and martial arts are also lessons on mindfulness. Two seemingly very different activities yielding the same insight.

The pie is still cooling, and no, it doesn't look like the perfect pictures in cookbooks, or even as nice as a store-bought crust would look. And despite having a bit of frustration, I still enjoyed the process and feel proud that I made a pie from scratch. Just as my solo form lacks the smoothness of the masters, I still experience joy every time I practice, savoring every empty step of the journey.

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