Dana Tommasino has been the Chef/Owner of Woodward’s Garden Restaurant in San Francisco for 18 years now, which has been described by food critic Patricia Unterman as “the perfect Parisian restaurant — a small, unpretentious, neighborhood place run by a couple with instinctively good taste.” I enjoyed a memorable birthday dinner there years ago and was delighted recently to stumble upon her always intriguing and fun voice on Twitter @figmentspot and her “foodish thoughts” blog, Figments.
Dana holds a BA in American Studies from UC Santa Cruz, a Masters degree in Literature from Mills College, and an AA degree from the California Culinary Academy. She lives in San Francisco with her sweetie, her daughter, and their mad Norwich Terrier, Chickpea.
Gina: Why do you love pie?
Dana: According to Janet Clarkson (Pie: A Global History), every food was once first pie, and pies can be traced back to the Neolithic Period (9500 BC!). Now that’s some history. Crust was the original Le Creuset braiser; lunch box; tupperware. Food encased made it super transportable, cookable, and a cinch to store to boot. And then there’s all that intense interior juice becoming le Zen “One” with crisp, chewy starch, and the ability of pies to embody both sweet perfume or earthy savory so beautifully. Pies are brilliant, functional, and delicious. No wonder they caught on. What’s not to love?
Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?
Dana: Tamale Pie. A woman cooked hot lunch for us daily at my tiny grade school. Her weekly pie was all peppers, beef, chilies, olives, and cheese fired under a cornmeal crust. Lord it was good. Wednesdays couldn’t whip around fast enough. And yes, the cheese was doozy-orange; the olives canned con perfect thumb holes, but it so didn’t matter. When I dug into this obsession as a trained chef, I found that tamale pie was one of the very cool original pies.
Diana Kennedy includes a recipe for a Mayan “tamale pie” called Muk-Bil Pollo in her dazzling Cusines of Mexico. It was placed in the earth and long-baked for Mukpipoyo, a day that Indians honor their dead. I, of course, had to make it on-the-spot. A stew of pork, chicken, chiles, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and garlic is encased in a masa dough brought together with water, rendered lard and its cracklings, then baked for 1 -1/2 hours.
My sweetie said she adored it except for the tough “shingle” outer layer. Yet that rough chewy crust was enigmatic to me; what I most loved about it. It is indeed SO sturdy you can turn the whole pie out of its cooking vessel intact, which is how it originally traveled, tied with banana leaf as a handle (!). Could there be anything more beautiful on earth than one of these babies approaching in a friend’s hand?
Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?
Dana: Besides Tamale? I’m generally far more savory than sweet-inclined. Chicken Pot with Béchamel, Tarragon, Spring Vegetables; Steak & Kidney; Shepherd’s; any Smoked Fish extravaganza. But don’t misunderstand: neon, viscous berry bubbles busting through a top crust will undo me every time.
Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?
Dana: The wacky early “animated” pies, used in court entertainments are pretty captivating. Bottom crusts were filled with live birds then covered only to burst out and fly away when cut open in front of astonished guests: “When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King.”
Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest? Please tell me about your experiences. Do you have any competition tips?
Dana: No. But I’m always free for that sort of thing.
Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?
Dana: Crust, crust, crust. Filling, filling, filling. And attacking said pie is appropriate, but probably not ever “proper.”
Gina: What is the secret to a perfect crust?
Dana: Lard or butter, I’m not picky. You can get lovely, crisp crusts from either. The secret is quick, cool handling. Shuna Fish Lydon (who is firmly in the butter camp) offers one of the most illuminating pie dough treatise I’ve ever encountered on her lovely blog, Eggbeater.
Gina: Do you think great bakers are born rather than made? Can anybody learn to make pie? What personality traits make for the best pie bakers?
Dana: Anything can be learned! But baking is perhaps a more exact art than other kinds of cooking, so someone naturally exacting might have an advantage here.
Gina: Why does pie matter today?
Dana: Because it is one of our original foods and it still thrives in spades.