Editor’s note: As we roll out our holiday issue, we’re sharing personal holiday essays from some of our regular contributors. We asked an international cohort of New Yorkers to share a memory of a seasonal dish from their childhood. Read more from Cathy Erway’s below and, according to her, find a comparable version of this pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds.
My parents, simply put, don’t get along well. For as long as I can remember, they would squabble about the stupidest things. She, a Taipei native from immigrants themselves of Hunan Province, and he, a WASP-y American from upstate New York, had very different opinions about cooking, too — which they both, to their credit, did. I felt like I was raised in two different households at the same time, but when it came to putting on a holiday dinner, they at least agreed on a few things: take care, enjoy the work and make good food.
They each have their own understanding of what these ideas mean, and the pinnacle of satisfaction for my father was homemade pies. He loved a good one growing up, so he learned the trade and in turn endowed his children with more than anyone could eat.
Because just having pie when I was young was enough, he didn’t care much about the ingredients. He started with canned pie fillings, but gradually refined his craft to use only fresh apples. This eventually evolved to using apples and golden raisins, or apples and fresh cranberries with a touch of orange zest. He’d usually crank out several in one big, bang-crash bake-a-thon, and we’d all join in on Thanksgiving eve. It was then when he taught me the lattice-weaving technique and crust-crimping (although my young, skinny fingers could never quite replicate his mastery of the latter).
At the same time, the nights before Thanksgiving or Christmas were devoted to another tradition: an elaborate multi-course Chinese meal. These often included a red-braised or hongshao beef stew, a whole steamed fish smothered with ginger and scallions, wintermelon soup and any number of sides like slivered pork and dry tofu, sautéed whole shrimp, baby bok choy and, of course, rice. We’d have this the night before the Thanksgiving turkey feast, or the Christmas ham or rib roast.
My mother usually wouldn’t let my father contribute to this meal, and she never touched the pies, leaving each to their own. These days, apple pie wouldn’t have quite the same sensation for me without this boundary, and although there was no mixing of the two cuisines, in my heart, it’s all a glorious mess.
Now as a grownup in Brooklyn, I have had the good fortune of befriending some excellent pie bakers. The act of making and sharing pies betrays an enormous love and pride for reasons that aren’t much different from my father’s. To me, it is an American symbol that I continue to perfect and appreciate over time and when I’m not making my own, I’m enamored by the savory-sweet, gutsy-yet-homey appeal of Emily and Melissa Elsen of Four & Twenty Blackbirds and their salty caramel apple pie. I experience it with a similar home-baked pride.