According to family history, when my aunt claimed, at a picnic, that her pie crust was better than her mother’s, grandma threatened to throw the pie at her head. My mom kept quiet, just grateful that grandma had already imparted her pie crust secrets to her.
People take fierce pride in a fine, flaky pie crust, and in fact my mom’s is so good that for years, I was too intimidated to attempt it myself. Pie crust isn’t complicated, but unlike bread or cake, it is finicky and unforgiving. Handle it too much, or add too many drops of ice water, and it turns tough instead of toothsome. The best way to learn pie crust is to watch at someone’s elbow (preferably of course a mother or a grandmother, who can tell you family stories while you bake) and then practice until you get the touch of it.
Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell, expressing little of her Felicity-era perkiness) learned about pie-making from her mother, who’d bake Car Radio Pie or Jenna’s First Kiss Pie while singing to her daughter. Now Jenna, the Waitress of Adrienne Shelly’s nuanced and surprisingly funny film (2007), is stuck in a bad marriage to a childish husband and unhappily pregnant. Although she keeps baking the popular Marshmallow Mermaid and Chocolate Strawberry Oasis pies for the diner where she works, she’s hoping to bake her way out of town and into a new life. Meanwhile, she can’t stop imagining new pies, like Pregnant, Miserable, Self-pitying Loser Pie (“oatmeal and crumbled fruitcake, flambé of course”) or Baby Screaming Its Head Off In the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie (a brandy-soaked cheesecake); her pies tell stories, but right now, they aren’t such happy ones.
She relies on the supportive friendship of her fellow waitresses, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelley), women as unhappy but gutsy and optimistic as Jenna. They stand in the bathroom with her praying, “Dear lord, please protect her from the hell of unwanted pregnancy,” as she awaits the results of her pregnancy test, and later try to cheer her up with a baby journal, saying “We know you didn’t initially have a strong happiness about this baby thing…” Jenna accepts the journal, notes the blank page where she’s to write a letter to her coming child, and starts imagining what she might say:
“First letter to my baby, first letter… Dear baby. Dear baby, if I was writing you a letter it would probably sound something like an apology. I know everyone deserves a mama who would want a fine baby like yourself… You shouldn’t take it personal, baby, if I don’t seem like all the other moms to be jumping all over with joy. Frankly, I don’t know what I got to give you, baby… I wish I could feel other things, baby, like excitement that you’re with me now, or faith that I’ll be a good mama… Anyway, writing this letter to you, sounds more like a letter to me, don’t it? Love, mama.”
Despite her feelings about the baby, she continues to write letters to it–raw, honest letters that up-end the expectation that writing will bring her around to love. After her husband Earle (Jeremy Sisto, in a subtle performance that makes us almost sympathetic to his awful character) finds her hidden get-away money, she writes:
“Dear damn baby, if’n you ever want to hear the story of how we bought your crib:
Your crib was bought with the money that was supposed to buy me a new life. Every time I lay you down in that crib I’m going to think, damn baby, damn crib, and me stuck like a pin in this damn life.”
All the while, she keeps concocting pies that sum up her feelings about the life she calls a train wreck: I Don’t Want Earle’s Baby Pie. I Hate My Husband Pie. Bad Baby Pie.
Jenna makes a couple big decisions at the end of the film, spurred on by her boss, Joe (a wonderfully grumpy Andy Griffith), a man who recognizes the depth in Jenna’s baking when he compares tasting her pies to reading: “The flavors open on to each other like the chapters of a book.” He challenges Jenna to take herself seriously: “You don’t even know what you are. You’re not just some little waitress. Pie lady, listen to me: this life will kill you. I’m saying, make the right choice. Start fresh. It’s never too late. Start fresh.”
So she does. She’s still making pies at the film’s end, but she has a little helper now, the daughter whose birth transforms her. Dressed in matching sunshine bright dresses, Jenna holds Lulu and sings while stirring a chocolate pie filling; the camera glances at a miniature pie pan and bowl resting on Lulu’s high chair tray. It might all be a little too sweet and sentimental if it hadn’t been so hard-won; the closing montage of lime green, banana yellow and cotton candy-colored pies is so over-the-top as to wink at this sugary ending.
A good pie, I learned from my mother, needs a bit of salt in the crust to balance the sweet of the filling. The story Waitress tells, both in Jenna’s pies and her letters, looks headed for a bitter end, but turns out bittersweet.