The Power of Pie
Cruising around the Carolina countryside, straddling my new home state to the north and its smaller sister to the south, I’m put in mind of my quasi-native Texas (Yes, I’ve lived all over, but claim Texas as the Motherland). Driving winding roads on a fall day; the sun broadcasting warm energy through my windshield, and a whole heck of a lot to look forward to. My energy is boundless, there are no limits to my future, and because I’m writing in cliches today, the world is my oyster.
Sappy schlock aside, I have a homemade pie waiting for me, just around the bend. Past the industrial parks that make way to gravel pits that make way to family farms that have been plowed under to make way for the New Carolina. Beautiful, stately, brand-new houses in the Colonial style of architecture, with peaked roofs much, much higher than the saplings planted in their front yards.
You see, my friend Christine Priester lives here, in a recently carved out South Carolina census plot not far from the Charlotte city line called Indian Land, near the villages of Marvin and Waxhaw.
I’m much more focused on my pie pick-up, but a little history and social awareness probably is in order on this gorgeous, sun-flecked November day. It’s just 48 hours beyond the presidential election; Christine is a Black Southern woman; I’m an Anglo, which is a Texas term for we poor White mutts whose kin emigrated to the Lone Star State with not much more than a satchel-full of hope from rural Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and other backwater Southern shores more than a century-and-a-half ago. While I’m not related (that I know of) to Davy Crocket or William Travis or Stephen F. Austin, I’m a Texan, and that’s good enough.
It shouldn’t matter what color Christine is; nor my pale, freckle-faced heritage. But we, as a country, have just been through a hell of a summer. Of an insidious virus and a floundering economy, and cops killing Black folks for no reason. So our heritage should matter, if it’s something we need to negotiate in order to get to know one another better. But on this day I’m not really thinking about the hard choices one has to make in life. I’m thinking about the love Christine and I share, for a cinnamon-crusted circle of goodness, bursting with possibility and the promise of a new beginning.
Christine’s upscale suburban landscape belies its unusual designation. Her town, Indian Land, is named for the Native Americans — the Catawba Indian Nation — who still populate this part of South Carolina.
Christine and her creations remind me of my Nana, a White Texan whose kin originally hailed from Demopolis, Alabama. She was a more-than fabulous cook, and specialized in fried chicken and baked goods. Her favorite recipe was the “1–2–3–4 Cake” — one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs. Over the years, I’ve thought oabout baking such a cake myself, since I had long memorized the ingredients (a daunting challenge, I know), but maybe adding a little vanilla to the mix. I’ve been stymied, though, by the memory of the cake, which built up so much possibility when Nana described it. I have no idea how it would turn out if I tried it — fluffy and rich, or with the quality of a sickly sweet, rock-hard mess? I know that as a kid I ate more than one slice of cake baked by my Nana, though, slathered in 7-minute icing. But she never told me if it was the cake named after the consecutive numbers. And I never asked, being more focused on consuming the unbelievable goodness of her offering. All I knew is if it was Nana-approved it would probably be worth the effort, even if I baked it.
Pies, though, were Nana’s specialty. And I haven’t had a pie as heavenly since she passed 50 years ago. Until, of course, I met my friend, Christine.
Pies were Nana’s love language. Feel bad? Fill up on pie. Cat got your tongue? A slice is really nice. Pretty much everything going wrong lately? Pie, please.
Christine’s pies sing the same song, and although my memory might betray me, with a more complex vibrato. The smell of cinnamon practically jumps off the crust; and maybe some other secret ingredients, too. Because what would a Southern pie be without the perfect crust as a prelude? I must confess — I don’t know Christine’s recipe for the most pristine pie crust this side of the Promised Land, but I do know a flaky, buxom slab of goodness when it has just come out of the oven and it’s bubbling on my plate.
The apple fairly oozes out from beneath the crust; the blueberry sends a familiar sweet aroma wafting my way. And the peach? Well, I can’t say it any other way — the peach is perfection.
We moved down here a couple of months ago (the story of emigrating in the Time of Covid to come at a later date). I was looking around for a piece of home. I reckoned I was close enough to find some Southern comfort. So, of course, I went looking for the perfect pie.
I found Christine on the Interwebs. Of course I did. As a newbie to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, with a pandemic weighing heavily on my mind, I wasn’t about to go bakery-hopping. And Christine’s easy and welcoming Web site just sucked me in. I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for her online existence, and her place in real life as a pie practitioner. Christine’s origin story practically begged me to come on over. And the fact that she happily delivered my first order to our new domicile helped a whole lot, too.
“I grew up watching my Mother prepare the same baking recipes I now use,” Christine writes on her site. “It brings back great memories as I now bake for family and my customers, who quickly become friends.” I can attest to that. Because once I sampled Christine’s offerings, I could taste not only the ripe fruit and the flaky crust, but the fact that she does, indeed, “bake with LOVE!” A direct quote from the Pie Goddess herself.
My Nana always reminded us about the Power of Pie. On more than one occasion, I’ve baked for friends who were celebrating; who were anxious; who were sick; who were in need. I inherited the desire to please in this fashion from Louise Foster Greer Ramey, of Waco, Texas — aka, my Nana. When my friend Carmen was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew what I had to do. She’s been in remission for 11 years now. I didn’t heal her, of course, but I’d like to think that my bi-weekly, and at times weekly, offerings in the form of a variety of pies during the worst part of her recovery helped put her in a more relaxed frame of mind. As my Nana would often say, “What would you have if you didn’t have the Power of Pie?”
Carmen and I recently spent a week at the beach. She drove down from D.C., and I drove over from CLT. I emailed Christine to see if she could whip up some pies for our reunion. One for the two of us, and one for Carmen’s daughter, who has a now six-month-old at home, and could always use a piece of pie or two to get her through her day. I asked Christine a) If she could bake an Apple and a Peach, and b) If I could freeze her wares. The answer on both counts? Yes and yes. I took a picture of a slice of pie on the railing of our balcony overlooking the ocean. Caption: “Peach at the Beach.” Perfection. When only the best will do.
I’ve visited Christine several times since September to pick up a pie or two. On this particular morning, I’m in the neighborhood, and fantasize that I can smell one of Christine’s sweet offerings from here. Of course, I have a few blocks to go, but my taste buds are getting anxious. I pull up and know I’m in the exact right spot, not just because the Google Machine tells me so, but because I for sure can smell cinnamon from Christine’s front stoop. And even if I may be imagining this last part, it’s no joke when my good friend opens the door. She reaches around to the long table that separates her hallway from the area where the magic happens. We chat briefly, about a trip she’s embarking on today, and about the endless chore of unpacking after a major move, and the overwhelming number of Thanksgiving orders that she still has to get ready (got mine in early: Apple, Pecan and Sweet Potato, please), but the chitchat is brief. I know that she knows I’m anxious to grab my pie and hit the road. And she has more work to do. I know it’s a labor of love, but it must be exhausting fulfilling the orders from so many of her friends like me.
Although we won’t try the pie til after dinner tonight, I just like to look at it. And I’m comforted by the smell of it, when I walk by its perch in my kitchen. I think about all the love that went into this divine creation. And I won’t lie — I’ve checked the clock several times today, willing Moker to come home sooner, so we can get the ritual of the evening meal out of the way and open the pastry box with Christine’s business card attached on top. “Priester Pies: When ONLY the BEST will do!” is her slogan. And the princess-pink sticker with gold foil writing surrounded by tiny hearts in the upper left-hand corner of the box says everything: “Handmade WITH LOVE”.
With so much suffering in the world, with the country in tumult over the direction we all — deep down, I truly believe — know we need to be headed, it’s a blessing to be able to depend on the simple things. Like a young woman who is passionate about her craft, who considers me a friend, and knows exactly how to quell my inner demons and settle my restless soul.
It’s the Power of Pie. My Nana knew that. And so does my new friend, Christine.