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We are what we eat: Why I took the time to learn how to make pie from scratch

The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

When I mentioned this week's challenge – to learn a new skill from a parent or grandparent – to my mom, she pointed out that the most important things we learn from the people who raise us are picked up by osmosis. And she's right. I like to think I have a good grasp on right versus wrong, how to stand up for myself, how to laugh at myself and how to return clothing to a store even after you've lost the receipt – all of which I soaked up simply by spending almost two decades under my parents' supervision.

I did not, however, learn how to make a pie from scratch (or any other way, for that matter). This seemed like a good option for this challenge since pie-making is a family tradition and also because unlike, say, folding hospital corners (a skill that my mother tried and failed to impart on all three of her daughters), it sounded like fun. I requested peach pie, since "Grandma's peach pie," is the first sentence I ever uttered. This meant buying frozen fruit (an act my grandma would certainly have deemed unconscionable), but it was October in Ontario and I don't like apples, so certain sacrifices were unavoidable.

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We are what we eat

Family history and food are intertwined, but they're not always good memories – I can recall my mother forcing me to eat cooked carrots in the mid-eighties as vividly as what happened last week – but even the not-so-pleasant ones take on a rosy hue through the lens of nostalgia. In her new book Canada's Favourite Recipes, former Canadian Living editor Elizabeth Baird celebrates the connection between cooking and bonding. "Every recipe has a story," she says when I ask her why certain meals – whether it's upside-down cake or pot stickers – amount to so much more than the sum of their delicious parts. On the somewhat lost-art of pie-making, she says that there was a time when knowing how to make a good pie was a badge that meant you had become a woman. (It's an antiquated notion, sure, but unlike certain Mitt Romney misspeaks, a binder full of recipes is nothing to be ashamed of.)

Armed with a browning page of handwritten text from my mother's old recipe book, we measured out shortening and lard. I did my best not to get flour all over everything and she did her best to explain the difference between stirring and mixing – do the former, and you'll end up with a crust that tastes like rubber. I learned that baking is more of an art form than an exact science ("You just know," was my mom's response to questions like, "How can I tell if I've added enough water?")

I also learned that in my grandmother's later years, she used to bake a practice pie before our visits, sort of like Babe Ruth taking a few pre-game swings before knocking one out of the park. This anecdote says so much about the woman my grandma was and I was surprised I'd never heard it before. My mom and I spend quite a bit of time together, though normally our visits revolve around a favourite TV show or sitting down to a meal. I guess family mythology is more likely to reveal itself in life's quieter moments, whether that means tinkering with a model airplane or painstakingly connecting the top pie crust to the base.

There's no such thing as the perfect pie

While our little pie baked in the oven, I flipped through my mother's well-worn, handwritten cookbook. Each recipe has the name of the person who passed it along written in beside it. Some of the dishes – chicken pineapple casserole, brandy freeze, anything with pimento – are hilarious emblems of their era. Others include meaningful subscripts like "2nd prize at the Aylmer County Fair." When I asked why it says "Econ 20" beside a recipe for butter toffee, my mom explained that that is what she made for her roommates in university when she should have been studying for an economics final. I silently added personal recipe books to an already long list of wonderful things that have been extinguished by the Internet. It's a shame.

I wish I could say that our pie lived up to the sky-high standards set by my grandma, but I guess that would kind of miss the point, since her ability was accumulated over a lifetime of trial and error. Sort of like a golf swing or tennis serve, pie-making is about the journey toward perfection. I still have a long way to go.

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The next challenge: A new study about the dangers of frequent television watching raises the question: How attached are you to the idiot box (can it even by called that in this golden age of HBO and AMC?). Find out by putting down the remote for a full week. No computer streams or YouTube either. Share your experience at

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