Whenever I have a friend who wants to read a classic but who isn’t an avid reader, I always give them John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It has all the drama of a supermarket paperback—cheating, stealing, arson, murder, prostitution, sadomasochism, incest, suicide, STD’s— so it can hold the attention of even the most easily-distracted reader, but because it has Steinbeck’s name on it there’s no shame in reading it on the subway (I see all of you trying to cover up your copies of 50 Shades of Gray on the G train). Steinbeck considered East of Eden to be his opus, and once said of it “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” One certainly does get the sense while reading it that Steinbeck poured his whole self into this work, it is an incredibly ambitious novel, absolutely full-to-the-brim not only with low-brow drama, but also with complicated biblical sub-plots.
The book is about two families—the Hamiltons and the Trasks—and their intersecting lives over multiple generations. The novel begins in the late nineteenth century with the story of Samuel Hamilton, who settles with his wife, Liza, in the Salinas Valley of Northern California. A wealthy stranger named Adam Trask moves to the most valuable plot of land in the valley with his wife, Cathy, and soon Adam and Samuel become close friends. The story becomes a flashback of Adam’s life in Connecticut, growing up on a farm with his moody and tempestuous half-brother, Charles. It is through the relationship between Adam and Charles that Steinbeck first introduces the biblical subplot of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis, 4. This subplot continues with Adam’s twin boys, Caleb and Aron. Aron inherits his father’s kind and honest nature, while Caleb exhibits signs early on that he has inherited his mother’s propensity for evil (Cathy abandons the boys when they are infants and becomes the madame of a sadomasochistic brothel in town).
The entire book hinges on the translation of a single Hebrew word–Timshel“–which appears in the Cain and Abel story, and whether it means “thou shall” or “thou mayest.” Caleb, like Cain, wrestles with the idea of original sin and wonders if he will ever be able to triumph over his evil nature or if he is doomed to sin because of the sins of his mother. The translation of “Timshel” as “thou may” rather than the traditionally accepted “thou shall” changes God’s message to Cain completely, as rather than cursing him to repeat the cycle of sin it gives him the ability to choose which path he will take.
Along with being full of drama, East of Eden is also full of food. There are picnics of “cold meats, pickles, potato salad, coconut cake, and peach pie…and gigantic stoneware pitcher[s] full of milk,” (169) dinners of “fried chicken, a bowl of smoking boiled potatoes, and a deep dish of pickled beets” (263), ” chicken soup, a string-bean salad…[with] oil and vinegar,” fresh bread “white and rising in the pans” waiting to be cooked over an oakwood fire. My favorite food scene in East of Eden though, is when Samuel Hamilton’s wife, Liza, bakes a pie for Thanksgiving.
Liza was rolling out pie crust on the floury board. She was so expert with the rolling pin that the dough seemed alive. It flattened out and then pulled back a little from the tension in itself. Liza lifted the pale sheet of it and laid it over one of the pie tins and trimmed the edges with a knife. The prepared berries lay deep in red juice in a bowl.
For something with so few ingredients, homemade pie crust can be incredibly intimidating (where did the saying “easy as pie” come from, anyway?). Once you get a knack for it though, it will never leave you. Just like Steinbeck writes in East of Eden “He discovered cooking is something you couldn’t learn. You had to feel it.” That being said, I will still attempt to give you the clearest directions possible to get you started on the path to pie crust perfection.
East of Eden Strawberry Lattice Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
- 3 ¾ cups pastry flour (AP flour will work fine too)
- 12 oz (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and frozen
- 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- A little over a ¼ cup ice water (possibly more)
- Whites of 2 eggs, beaten, for brushing
- 2 quarts ripe strawberries
- 1/3 cup sugar
- zest of ½ small orange
- 5 fresh basil leaves
- 2 fresh mint leaves
First, cube your butter and freeze it for at least 2 hours. I know this is irritating, but the colder the butter the flakier and lighter your crust is going to be. There’s a lot of butter in this recipe so it’s important that it’s almost frozen solid so that it incorporates into the flour the right way. I keep cubed butter (and shortening) wrapped in my freezer all the time so that if I ever get the urge to make a dough or crust or biscuits that require cold butter it’s not as much of a pain.
Once your butter is frozen, sift all of your dry ingredients into a food processor and pulse it a few times so everything is incorporated. Add the frozen butter and pulse until the butter is incorporated throughout the flour in dime-sized chunks—usually about 7-10 times. Continue to pulse and slowly start adding your ice water. When the mixture starts coming together the tiniest bit stop the food-processor and squeeze a small handful of the mixture—if it holds together turn it out onto a clean surface, separate it into two even piles and carefully bring each pile together into a ball of dough–being careful not to handle it too much. Wrap the two balls tightly in plastic wrap and flatten them into disks. Refrigerate them at least 2 hours (ideally overnight) before rolling them out.
While your dough is chilling cut the tops off of all your strawberries and place them in a bowl (if you’re using large strawberries you might want to cut them in half). Zest the orange over the berries and toss everything in sugar. Tear the basil and mint leaves into smallish pieces and mix everything together. Cover in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours (again, ideally overnight). Strawberries have a very high water content so it’s good to let them macerate and release a lot of their juice before baking them. Once they bake they will release a lot more liquid and you don’t want your pie to be soggy and filled with liquid. The sugar and the acid in the orange zest will help to draw lots of the liquid out.
When your dough is rested and chilled set your oven to 350 degrees and turn one round out onto a clean, floured surface. Dust the top with flour and roll into a circle about ¼ inch thick. Mold it into your pie dish, pressing your thumbs around the bottom so that the dough is flush with the pie dish. Trim the edges and brush the dough with beaten egg white (this provides a barrier to keep the dough from getting soggy). Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until crust is slightly golden and firm to the touch. While bottom crust is baking turn your second dough round onto a clean, well-floured surface and roll to ¼ inch thickness.
Using a ruler measure out lattice strips to your desired thickness (I did 1-inch), cut them into strips and set in the fridge. Strain your berries well through a fine mesh sieve, pick out the basil and mint leaves and reserve the juice. When your bottom pie-crust is ready remove it from the oven, and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Pour the berries into the shell and weave your lattice crust (Bon Appetit has a short-and-sweet video on the mechanics of weaving a lattice crust here if you’ve never done it before). Brush with egg whites and bake for about 45 minutes or until top crust is nicely golden-brown. Let cool and serve with ice cream.