Blueberry pie. Peach pie. Wild blueberry pie so good it deserved two verys: “it was very, very good.” More blueberry pie. Apple pie. More apple pie. Yet another apple pie. Pumpkin pie. Two pies. Three pies. “Baked two pies and cooked a few apples for sauce.” “Called Esther to see if she would be in her room this afternoon so I baked a pie and went to see her; I brought a pie and coffee.”
Pie came up at least a dozen times in my grandmother’s diaries in the autumn of 1997. Sprinkled in between these pie references, she was visiting a chiropractor two or three times a week to treat pain in her legs and feet. Pie makes everything better!
The following autumn, she added strawberry pies, mincemeat pies, coconut cream pies to the rotation. I know she made pecan pie on occasion, too, because she made one for my father’s birthday one year. Grandma was baking up pies, consuming them and giving them away like a pro.
Pie was such a staple in Grandma’s hospitality arsenal that it earned a chapter in my latest work, Fruitful Labor: How to Live to 104 Gracefully, Gratefully. It’s a book about my paternal grandmother and how she lived to be 104 that draws on her diaries, her letters, my memories and the memories of some of the other people in our family and community who will never forget her (or, quite probably, her pies).
I bring up Grandma’s pie, not because of their carbohydrate-filled goodness, but because of the effort they represent. If you look up a from-scratch apple pie recipe on Google, prep-and-cook time ranges from an hour to four hours and forty-five minutes (I call baloney on the hour estimate—what does Google know). To properly make a pie from scratch, you need to cook the filling, mix up and roll out the dough, assemble (and decorate the crust, if you’re fancy, and if you’re making a pie from scratch, it’s a cinch bet you’re fancy), bake and cool. Just cleaning up the kitchen after undertaking homemade pie will take you an hour.
Not only that, Grandma picked her own apples, which she grew in her back yard until she moved to a smaller apartment a few blocks away. And she rendered lard, a separate, hours-long process. My father (Grandma’s second son) believed one of her secrets was that she used home-rendered lard in the dough and mixed it by hand when she made pies. Home-rendered lard, essentially melted pork fat, was softer and soupier, not so silly and hard as purchased lard, and its use resulted in a thin yet flaky pie crust.
Pie in my Grandma’s world came to be because of a lot of labor, which some might define as love in a homemade recipe that calls for a pinch of love. Potato chips out of the bag don’t have love but homemade pie does. If a pie isn’t the result of fruitful labor, what is?
The phrase “fruitful labor” doesn’t just refer to Grandma’s pies, though. It’s also used on Philippians 1:21 in reference to life here on earth. At her request, I read a passage from Philippians at Grandma’s funeral when she died two years ago. She didn’t just fill space during her lifetime; she was a faithful servant.
Fruitful Labor describes her life, her faith, her labor and, to a lesser extent, her pies. And it’s a tribute to the twenty-five years of daily diaries she left to me, her second-oldest granddaughter—twenty-five years! Another example of her fruitful labor.
Whether or not you like pie or knew my grandmother, you might enjoy this little book (and pick up a few tips for longevity, the first being if you’re gonna eat pie, you should make it from scratch). Here’s the book synopsis:
Laura Wallgren (1915-2019) was a farmer’s wife, a devoted Christian and a talented quilter. Living a simple life among the rolling hills of New York Mills, Minnesota, Grandma Laura was plain speaking, spunky and a little bit vain. She also was one of those rare Americans who lived to 104. Can you imagine? Even she couldn’t imagine. The centenarian said more than once she didn’t know why she had lived so long. But the answer may be found among her twenty-five years of diary entries documenting family, good food, the weather and gratitude for all of it.
Revealing a retirement story that unfolds in a small town in the mid-1980s to 2009, Wallgren’s journals feel like an anthropological study of a Central Minnesota widow. The diaries are a quilt of sorts, detailing the dash between the years of birth and death. From the threads, Wallgren’s granddaughter Monica Lee coaxes stories of her grandmother’s appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables, an accident in which Wallgren breaks her neck at age 84, and a touching account of a daughter-in-law’s battle with cancer. Each day is its own unique block, yet knitted together, patterns emerge, colors coordinate and a beautiful tapestry of family love and personal perseverance emerges.
A charming tale of family ties, over-the-top gardening and persisting despite the brutal Minnesota winters and the volume of grief only a 104-year-old experiences, this heartfelt portrait of a Midwestern centenarian who carries on with grit and humor is like a Wallgren family recipe for fresh strawberry pie (recipe not included).
Fruitful Labor has been available since December, but I waited to officially launch it until I could send copies to my cousins, Grandma’s grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated. I put this book together with them in mind. Paging through Grandma’s diaries these past few months made me feel so close to her, and I wanted them to feel the same. We all are clear evidence of Grandma’s presence on earth, and now this book is another way she lives on.
Fruitful Labor is available on Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle version, and it’s priced to share: