Old Maine Cranberry Jailbird Pie
“See I’d come home late; after dark. After they’d gone to bed. Been down to the coast all day. Well she’d (my grandmother) would leave the pie on the (kitchen) table. In the fall and winter; up to after Christmas, it would be cranberry. After Christmas they didn’t sell cranberries any more; they run out so the pies would all be apple January on. Before cranberry were berry; mixed berry more and more later in the season. At first they’d be “Raspberry”... “Blueberry” and “BLACK berry”. As each run out they’d (my grandmother and mother) would ‘mix’. Blackberry held on the longest but gets to where they’d throw in anything (apples) to stretch. In the spring; until rhubarb (pie), things were a little desperate. They might ah made one out of raisins ONCE.
“Now the crust was my grandmother’s. Her crust was better than my mother’s. My grandmother had been woodstove oven all her life so she nuanced that without ever knowing she was at a nuance. My mother followed along but never made as many pies all the time like my grandmother did. So her crusts, even with the wood fire... never ‘burnt right’. It seems like a small thing but it's actually a big thing. Most people would never know its there to know. Hard to describe in words. It’s something in there (the woodstove oven) where it’s too hot, not hot enough, rooms too hot, rooms not hot enough and stove itself it too hot or... not hot enough. I can tell. It’s a dry flaky with wisp of burnt, wood smoke smell... and soft plain white almost touching ‘not cooked’ TOO; you know, a ‘mix’. And it’s all in the kitchen too; the old kitchen. Not your damn NEW kitchen. You ripped the old one out didn’t you.
“The berry pies. The apples. And rhubarb. All had solid top crust. Only the cranberry had a lattice crust. She (my grandmother) called that ‘jailbird’. She called the whole cranberry pie ‘jailbird’. ‘Jailbird’ means cranberry pie with a lattice crust baked in a wood kitchen stove oven in an old Maine farm kitchen ‘in season’ (Halloween to Valentines day. If ‘stretched’). So she’d say to me “a jailbird will be on the table”. Or just ‘P-Y’ meaning there would be a pie... of that season... on the kitchen table when I ‘got back’. I’d leave.... I was leaving even then at three or three-thirty in the morning to... ‘drive to the coast’. That was to do the flea market(s) ‘on the coast’ (Freeport). In the winter I’d ‘do SHOWS’ too. In the summer it was the same but with ‘stays LIGHT’ and ... ‘the summer season’ (of ‘SHOWS’). I never saw her; my grandmother on the weekends. She got up a five and went to bed by seven. Probably more like six-thirty. I always found the pie on the kitchen table. If it was short in berry season they’d be a sort of ‘more crust than berries’ turnover ‘pie’. Sort of what they call today a ‘pocket’. Only it’d be a blackberry pie.
"So she’d make that lattice crust. Without even thinking to TRY to do that. She’d be a that’d be and ‘strip, strip, strip’ of ‘CRUST’ and that would be it except for putting any ‘leftover’ strips on too. I never saw her ever hesitate or fuss with the lattice. They always looked like that; NOT FUSSED WITH. Most all lattice crust one sees has been fussed with. THAT is NOT a ‘jailbird’ lattice. That’s that.
"The cranberries were all cut in half. Each one... one by one. They were dumped out of the bag they came in into a colander, rinsed off sort of and then ‘picked over’ one by one then each berry sliced in half. The cranberries then came from the Cape and had, in the packages, ‘suffered’ getting into the stores in ‘upper Maine’. So a lot of ‘pick over’ were ‘composted’. Compost was different then: My grandmother opened the window next to the kitchen sink and chucked stuff out. That was the compost heap. Raccoons and skunks were always near by. They ‘sorted’ the ‘compost’. That; them critters ‘out there’ is important to jailbird pie in a minute here so don't loose that.
"So she (my grandmother) quickly and methodically assembled a ‘bowl’ of sliced in half cranberries. That brings us to the ‘sugar issue’. Ok... we had sugar, in a covered crock on the counter opposite the wood cook stove. It stayed there. That’s how much sugar she used. We like our cranberries what they call ‘tart’. Wicked ‘tart’. With real and only ‘cranberry flavor’. Its ok to look 'off over' at your sugar canister. But that’s all.
"The cranberries were ‘mounded’ into the crust. (A 'Twice as many' mound; they 'cook down'). The jailbird lattice was ‘put on’. The pie went in the oven... with often... a ‘second pie’ (apple). No sugar there either.
"Today I find Maine cranberries for sale and they are much better than the Cape ones. When I first saw them for sale... in... the fancy box grocery store in Portland where they tell you ... what to eat, how to eat, why to eat and some ‘that too’ ‘lecture series’... I bought a bag and ate the whole thing ‘driving along’. Crunchy, moist and ‘tart’. (THEY ARE) good for you.
"‘Good for you’ is the opposite of ‘bad for you’. What is bad for you with jailbird pie? Ice cream. NEVER eat ‘real jailbird’ with ‘ice cream’. Real jailbird is a ‘working pie’. It is eaten in Maine when ‘working’. I hold a ‘slice’ of ‘gooey’ jailbird in one hand and eat it while I’m ‘doing something else’ (working). You don’t “SIT THERE” and “EAT IT” after “Would you like to put a scoop of ice cream on it?”. OK? ‘People’ who ‘put ice cream on it’ are... the same sort of people who... are afraid to ‘go outside in the dark’ because they ‘might get sprayed by a skunk’ (hovering around the compost heap sorting project). YOU WISH you could be ‘sprayed by a SKUNK’. Eating ice cream with jailbird is “YOU WISH”. As if a skunk wants to spray YOU... you self centered self prince or princess of the Maine compost HEAP. Yes that skunk out there would just LOVE to put a scoop of his ICE CREAM on you.
"My aunt got sprayed by a skunk in the yard one night. She burned a hole in the ass of her pants from leaning on the wood stove. Too. “Stupid” my grandmother said both times. “What she BOTHER Mr. Skunk for anyway” she said. Too.
"When someone would do something stupid like put ice cream on their jailbird pie; usually a ‘left over’ ‘summer people’ who somehow managed to ‘snake a piece’ one of us would ask ‘why they did that’. My grandmother would often reply “They’re stupid. Don’t overlook the obvious”. She supplemented that by saying:
“They’re a half wit.”
“They don’t know any better.”
“Should feel sorry for ‘em I suppose.”
I had a tough growing-up. I grew up with a jailbird.