On Pie and Happiness

1.

Open eyes. Peek outside through shutters. Squint, not because of blinding sunshine, but because you can afford to. It’s Saturday morning. Check iPhone. Look back outside through shutters. Clouds. Clouds? iPhone again.

You think pie.

You put on a soft cotton t-shirt, put the kettle on high for a morning brew, sit in front of the computer, and you think pie. You are not infatuated, crazy about pie. You do not mind it, maybe an afterthought of a good strong cup of coffee, but you are not obsessed. You say to yourself, I am more of a savory kind of guy. Pork fat, rare bone-in rib eye, chili flakes and peppers and onions and garlic type of guy. But you think pie.

Kettle klinks. Rattle and some more rattle. Grind coffee, inhale smell. Bloom the grounds, inhale smell. Finish the hand pour job, inhale smell. Just from the bloom, and smell, you think damn, that is some good coffee. And you think pie.

You go for a run on the treadmill, watching stale Sports Center, lamenting over your now-destroyed bracket going down in glorious flames. Wichita State, are you serious? Sour kimchi stir fried with spicy Italian sausage over rice with a sunny side up egg may be the most orgasmic ten-minute meal ever created (Rachel Ray are you reading this? Don’t be shy), but it sure does no wonders on a treadmill the morning after. Or does it. And you think pie.

You sit down in front of a blank Microsoft Word page, can’t seem to jot down a single word, mind wanders out of your skull, fingers tap, bloodstream screams more coffee. And you think pie.

2.

You thought pie.

As you grab your car keys and Raybans before heading out the door, your mind races, in search of a pie worthy to quench your unprovoked, unilateral desire to put in your mouth a methodically organized layer of crust, fruit and sugar. A piestorm in your brainstorm. Safeway will not suffice, too cookie-cutter, too manufactured. Could qualify on any other day, for any other desire, but no, not today, not this desire. Further up the pie chain, you think Whole Foods. Yes, more money, but pie selection is shallow, too shallow to quench the craving on the tip of your tongue. They have three rows of hot and cold food buffets, and an arguably delicious pizza selection, but a brother cannot get a decent pie. Shame.

The township of Vienna surprisingly has some good eateries, including lamb noodles at Lotus Garden, hearty Mexican breakfast platters at Anita’s, and decent gyro at Plaka Grill. Not to mention the horrific tragedy of a sushi joint named Sushi Yoshi. After countless shoutouts and endorsements of the place, I mustered the appetite to give it a try, only to be utterly disappointed after the first bite of nigiri. It is one thing to walk into a sushi establishment with absolutely no prior praise, thus no expectations. It is another thing to nudge at my taste buds for weeks with accolades not short of hikus and sonnets composed on behalf of the place.

Nonetheless, Vienna has the best pie shop in the Mid-Atlantic, hands down. Baked fresh every morning, with generous amounts of the highest quality fruit, Pie Gourmet’s creations are reminiscent of Helen’s beauty that caused thousands of Greeks to sail across the Aegean to burn down Troy – pure irresistability. This is not like the dark ages during law school where the burning need for a sugar high would push any pupil to the Super Fresh behind the school building to purchase and consume a mound of colored sugar and dough. That and the burnt liquid matter the school served on the sixth-floor cafeteria known as Starbucks Coffee, with an odd aftertaste of dish soap. Burnt acidic soap-flavored coffee water. Pie Gourmet is different. After a slice, your mind asks whether you just ate the freshest apple from the tree itself, and if the raspberries were hand-picked right before your eyes.

You can have all the Peeps you want, but a single slice of Pie Gourmet’s apple raspberry pie (and frankly, all of their other pies) has no rivals in terms of a naturally sweet flavor outburst. The crumble topping draped over the contents embodies all desirable characteristics of the top layer of a pie – crunchy yet moist, nutty, buttery and toasty. The lasting flavor of the crumble is a nutty aftertaste; sort of a Cracker Jack peanut aftertaste moment, yet much deeper and richer and nothing artificial. Nutty and crunchy always go well together, but I am often offended of rock-hard crumbles or crusts that make mining sounds in my mouth. A good crunch in a crumble should be a “thought.” I shouldn’t say, “This is crunchy,” while hearing my molars work like a construction crew. A crumble’s texture acts as the counterpart to the luscious fruit filling of the pie, and when consumed together, the crumble should provide a pleasurable contrast, as an afterthought.

When purchasing fruit pies anywhere, beware of the light pie. The round object identified as a potential supplier of sugary pleasures may be ten inches in diameter, and yet be light as a bag of Peeps. No good. Light means an overwhelming proportion of crust and other pastry parts, and an inherent lack of real fruit. Grabbing that box of pie, your wrist should be merrily shocked – heavy! Heavy is good. Dense is good. Heavy and dense means moisture, which means fresh fruit packed in layers and layers. The crumble and the crust are also important, as a half-ass crumble would inevitable take away from a filling made by Paula Dean herself (insert joke here). But the true essence of a fruit pie is, undoubtedly and so obviously, the fruit. Fresh fruit still retains its natural moisture, thus contributing to the weight of the pie. Real apples and raspberries mean HEAVY.

Pie Gourmet’s pies are dense. Yes, they are pricey, but even when you pick up the smaller of their pies, your fingers and wrist may buckle at the unexpected weight of those things. Get home, take out whatever knife you find, and cut through. Or if patience is not a virtue to be observed in front of such creations, only a fork would do; dig into the pie as a whole, as if no weight of this world is holding you back. Dig in. The layers of a good pie need to work together, meaning, even if you mushed the pie so that its original shape is no longer recognizable, you should still be able to taste and discern each layer – crumble, filling, crust. And simultaneously, the three layers should taste as one. The fresh apple’s tartness and the raspberry’s sourness mingles with the nutty butteriness of the crumble, all wrapped together by the flaky crust.

3.

“He sat by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness. Till that moment he had not known how beautiful and peaceful life could be. The green square of paper pinned round the lamp cast down a tender shade. On the dresser was a plate of sausages and white pudding and on the shelf there were eggs. They would be for the breakfast in the morning after the communion in the college chapel. White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of tea. How simple and beautiful was life after all! And life lay all before him.” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man –

4.

Happiness is simplicity.

One could write volumes of pies of all types of all regions, with dozens of types of crusts and crumbles, and of fillings beyond words. But what makes Pie Gourmet superb, and what makes pie equivalent to happiness, is this – that fleeting layer between the toasty crumble and the lava-like filling, still retaining some crunch while slightly transforming to a soggy matter, soaking up the juices of the filling. This is happiness because this state does not last, here and gone, like blooming cherry blossoms that peak for only days before being carried across the Potomac by the spring winds. In a matter of hours, the crumble will become too soggy, like lackluster cereal that has bathed a little too much on lackluster mornings.

One’s mind often travels too far in search of happiness. One’s desires are like salt-crazed, MSG saturated beings, never quenched, never satisfied, in an eternal maze in search of some greater reward. That fat paycheck at the end of the month is considered happiness, but as experience suggests, it dissipates faster than it comes in. That powerful job of yours is considered happiness – all the influence and control and head-bowing – yet what we can truly control in life never yields a solid, acceptable answer. This is why discovering happiness in the small things in life is more meaningful; they too dissipate rather quickly, but the repetitive ebb and flow of these droplets of happiness leave a more lasting mark on thirsted desires. Looking up becomes tiresome – always looking for that next raise, that next job, that next gig. Strains your neck. Look right in front of you, and easily you will find constant joys that one would have never found by squinting into the sky.

Rather than eating dinner at an ten-foot dining table in a mansion with one too many unoccupied rooms (in which one must holler through an intercom to communicate with members of the other species otherwise known as “family”), happiness is eating on the floor, around a small, crowded table, not even enough space for all the delectable dishes Mom made, knees touching.

Happiness is finding just the right amount of change in my pocket on my way home, to buy five roses in front of the subway station for my wife.

Happiness is wiping off burger grease off the sides of my hands, while my eyes are glued on the next still-hot onion ring I am about to devour.

Happiness is getting your ass out of bed, 7 am, rushing to the shower, only to realize that it’s Saturday, the sun is gorgeous outside beyond the shutters, and you have nothing planned all morning, maybe all day.

Happiness is miraculously finding an empty seat on a rush hour subway train, sitting down, opening up that travelogue you’ve been pondering about during the last four hours at work; you are now transported to Peloponnesos, while your body is rapidly leaving downtown, underground, in a pitch black tunnel heading straight towards the light at the other end.

Happiness is flying economy on an international flight (minimum of ten hours) and the seat next to you is EMPTY.

Happiness is a hot shower following a quick three-mile run, and slipping into that clean, soft, still-warm-from-the-dryer white v-neck t-shirt.

Happiness is that moment when a damn good first sip of coffee clears a writer’s block, like a clogged toilet roaring through after one too many Ben’s Chilli dogs the night before. That brilliant sentence, that word you were searching for, that phrase. Light bulb moment.

Happiness is coffee. What more to say.

Look no further. Nothing lasts, few things are eternal. Things die, rust, evaporate, disintegrate, melt. End. But the mind’s trained ability to find contentment in the small things in daily life transcends limitations of mortality. What your eyes perceive feed directly to your mind, saturating it with images and illusions of success and satisfaction. Constantly looking up, focused on that next level, you miss sight of life’s gold nuggets as they idly pass by, one by one. One’s level of happiness is correlated to one’s ability to perceive. Smell the spring rain on freshly cut grass, admire the blossoms that sway at the slightest breeze, stop for a moment to brew yourself a cup of slow coffee with bloom and all. Stop and observe. A simple thing as a slice of pie rewards one’s soul with the deepest variety of happiness. Who the hell knew of that hidden layer between the crumble and filling, which transforms a good apple and raspberry pie to a shut-up-and-shove-in-your-mouth great apple and raspberry pie?

5.

Happiness is bite-sized.

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