On the final day of our vacation in Massachusetts, the sun was shining, and butterflies danced outside in the garden. We were staying at the house of my fiancé James’s sister, just a ten-minute walk from the ocean. Early the next morning, we would start the long journey back to Brooklyn, but during those last blessed hours of pure country air, I chose to stay inside. We had fresh gooseberries from a nearby farm, and Roger, James’s dad, was making gooseberry pie. Being a pie novice myself, I didn’t want to miss it.
Roger is a gentle man with a twinkle in his blue eyes. He grew up in a Boston suburb in a family of thirteen brothers and sisters — just like my dad, who was born the very same year in the city of Qazvin, in Iran, and also had twelve siblings. Spending time with Roger, I see where James gets his kind-hearted nature — and goofy sense of humor (the art of making bad puns was passed down from father to son) — and I’m filled with love seeing the man he’ll become as time passes.
Roger learned about baking pies as a boy at his mother’s side, when he wasn’t out helping his dad with the family construction business, and once he had his own family he mastered bread and pizza-making as well. In the last couple of years, James has picked up his dad’s passion for baking, and it’s become a custom that every time they’re together, one night of messy, manly pizza-making ensues, much to the delight of those of us who get to eat the results. The two men are sharing more than just cooking: the pizza technique is a piece of family history that will live on with James and be passed down to the next generation.
Roger was excited to cook the red-purple gooseberries, which he remembered from childhood. Closely related to currants, gooseberries are native to both Europe and North America, and come in a range of colors; the green ones are tart, and are usually mixed with other fruits to make sweet jams and desserts, but the purple variety is sweet enough to eat raw. Gooseberries are a rare find these days, so in order to find a recipe, Roger dug out the Settlement Cookbook, written in 1901 by Mrs. Simon Kander. The subtitle of the book is, “The way to a man’s heart.” What would Mrs. Kander say if she saw Roger decked out in a pink-and-blue apron, laboring over dessert, while a young woman stood over him snapping photos? Perhaps she would have been pleased at how gender roles have evolved.
Kander’s recipe for gooseberry pie is disarmingly simple; it calls for berries, sugar, and pie dough, and has only three lines of instruction. Start by “heading and tailing” the gooseberries. Translation: pull the stem from one end of the berry, and from the other end, pull the dry, shriveled blossom. Then, cook the berries with the sugar until soft. We cooked them for ten minutes. There was a lot of water in the pot after cooking, so we strained out the berries, poured the liquid into a pan and reduced it to a syrup, then added the syrup back to the berries. The extra step helped to concentrate the fruit’s flavor and improve the consistency of the pie. Use a standard pie dough for this recipe. I recommend using a small pie dish, because the recipe calls for only a pint of berries. As an alternative, make a small free-form galette crust in a standard size baking dish. Of course, you can simply double the amount of filling and make a standard size pie.
That last night, we had a colorful dinner of everything that was in season: fried squash blossoms, heirloom tomato salad, and baked New England haddock with mashed buttercup squash. In spite of how wonderful the food was, everyone knew that this meal was simply a prelude to the gooseberry pie, which we ate on the patio in near-darkness. Each small piece was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; mine disappeared so fast that it was almost painful. Before I knew it, we were doing dishes and making preparations for the next day’s trip back home. Vaykay was officially over. I said goodnight to the guys, who were reading on the couch. As I turned to go, Roger said, “Today was a special day. I’m glad we spent it together making the pie.” I’m happy I spent that day in the kitchen. I really got to know Roger, and I’ll be using my newfound pie skills on James, cooking my way ever deeper into his heart.