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pie five

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

persimmon hunter

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Behold, what I have dubbed the meanest tree in New Jersey.

Look at the design of that. Sturdy, low, teasingly climbable base, but with fruit at the very ends of limbs as narrow as the tailpipe on my Honda Accord. I could get up there easily, but would fall in 37 seconds and take half the tree with me, amusing wildlife the whole countryside over. I do own a stepladder, but by ‘step,’ I mean there are two of them. No garage means no proper ladder.

The truck beeping outside my window as I write this is reminding me to back up a little. This is not a wild persimmon tree; it is a Hachiya, a Japanese variety that someone must have planted long ago. It produces somewhat oblong-shaped fruit every fall. And the tree is on park lands, so I have to visit when it’s a quiet day there. On Thanksgiving I went by and stood at the base, irked—my second year of trying to figure out a way to get these puppies down.

I saw a long stick lying on the ground nearby, and for the next 15 minutes swatted at the tree in the manner of Don Quixote or a greedy eight-year-old at a pinata at Chuck-E-Cheese. The first couple came down in a splat. The next hung on, giggling, reminding me that stick or no stick, I’m still 5’3″.

Two bicyclists rode by and one called out, ‘What are those? Oranges?’ Instant calm. Okay, so maybe I was spending part of a holiday jumping up and down and smacking a tree with a giant stick, but at least I know the orange is a tropical fruit. This was cheering.

Eventually I came away with a distinct sense of vertigo plus four fruits, including the splattered ones, which count. I sliced up the firm ones and put them in ramekins. Put the splatties in their own. Covered all of them with plain yogurt to eat as a dessert. I tasted a splatty bit and it was wonderful. Popped a little bite of the firmer kind in my mouth and got cotton mouth. Curses. I forgot about this. They have to be completely ripe to eat.

Currently all of the ramekins are in my fridge and I haven’t eaten any yet as I can’t remember which are ripe. Another few days should even the score. If not, I’ll be back in the dead of night with my stick.

two stories

A few nights ago I made an apple cake with buttermilk and a good hit of my homemade apple vodka. I would have done it anyway; I love cake…it’s Fall…I love cake (this bears repeating).

But I wanted to try making a recipe with even less sugar than I normally use. In the past 10 or so years, I’ve been typically cutting back the sugar in recipes by half or more because sometimes I’ll have the cake for breakfast. Too much sugar in the morning grosses me out, and moreover sends me into a stupor. But my doctor told me I should be moderating my sugar even more, so I added just two heaping tablespoons of organic sugar to the batter along with something like a half cup of apple vodka, which contains sugar. So the cake is somewhat bland—I might have gone overboard—but I’ve been dressing it up with a blop of plain yogurt. The sour tang is surprising against the gentle sweetness and tender texture. So I’m proud that I made it work and that it works beautifully. Every day I’m looking forward to a piece of my apple cake.

*

Tonight I worked at a soup kitchen a few blocks away. It was a Thanksgiving feast for the needy in the community, a couple of days early. When I arrived I saw a young lady wearing a cocktail dress, with her hair in an upsweep, crouching and peering into a rolling cart of canned soft drinks. She asked if there were any iced teas that weren’t diet. (Can’t blame her.) We scanned the cart and said we were sorry, but didn’t see any.

The young lady sighed and frowned, thanked us, and turned to go. Then suddenly the event organizer said, ‘Wait!’ She reached into the back and pulled out some regular iced teas that had been hidden. I started laughing as the young lady started loading them under one arm, and she turned to me with a big grin and a question in her eyes.

‘It’s just—really wanting something, and then getting it,’ I said. She laughed with me and said, ‘Yeah.’

The world is a spinning top—it always has been, if we’re going to be honest. There will always be things we want and don’t get, and we need the strength and tenacity to keep moving forward when that happens.

But I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t get tiring when, over and over, we don’t get what we want, or have it and lose it. And this year has been a doozy. I’m wishing you your regular iced tea, at the very least one, whatever that is to you…more even, as many as you can carry.

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hunger

Been a bugger of a week. I spent last Tuesday night and the following two days in what I call Election Stupor: On paper I was functional, but in true life was sleepwalking. Worse, I was oddly compelled to keep going, to keep accomplishing things, all while moving through what felt like psychic tapioca pudding.

At the election results my friends and I ranged from shocked to bereft to mad enough to spit ink. Collectively, we were Kubler-Ross’s Six Stages of Grief, whirling round and round like a roulette wheel. The silver ball could land anywhere, at any time. It still can. What a strange, strange situation.

And through it all I learned how much people want to be seen and heard. So many are starved of genuine connection. It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time, isn’t it, that technology can propel humanity’s voice almost anywhere on earth, but that so few people feel heard?

This past week my friends tried to see and hear each other, to comfort, vent, try to find the humor, howl at the moon, and mourn. It felt, for the most part, like we were trying to heal each other along with ourselves. We’re a big-hearted lot.

There are many ways to be fed. And while breakfast, lunch, and dinner fills the belly for a few hours, the human soul craves more, and finds it in connection.

Non-sequitor: I seem to be quite taken with making pie lately. This is bourbon-toasted-pecan pumpkin.

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Had a little fun with the topping. The points look like fangs. I dug it, and I dug INTO it.

the bottom of the bowl

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For those readers outside the U.S., the election season here in the colonies has been pretty rife with stress—almost tangibly stressful, as if we’re brushing away ions of hate speech and rhetoric and illogic as we walk through streets and scroll through social media. I’m grateful that my friends are the kind type, and consequently I’ve been able to hamster-ball my way through most of the nonsense. Today I took a walk on the beach as I always do in times of chaos, walking in the wind and sunshine, and I felt safe. The ocean doesn’t care about any of this mishagoss. It’s bigger than all of it, and far older, and will remain nonetheless, let’s hope.

But the negative ions are still out there, and on this, the night before the election, I’m just glad tomorrow we’ll have an answer in stone.

Last night I warmed up a bowl of my homemade chicken stock. As I moved through the kitchen, I felt compelled to move very slowly—not my usual style. I chose a footed bowl, poured the stock into my old copper-bottomed pan that I bought from a sale in a lot a half-block away, and waited to hear the soup hiss as it does when it’s just starting to think about boiling. And I felt warm honey-colored peace flow over and through me. Then I drank down the soup slowly—no seasonings, no spoon even. It was perfect.

I have only felt that kind of peace a couple of times in my life. It’s always unbidden, but it also always seems to surface when I need it most. It didn’t last. But I like that word, surface. Implies it’s always inside. It’ll be back.

E Pluribus Unum, everybody. Remember that, and drink it down to the very bottom. Out of many, ONE.

all for the taking

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I’m guessing it couldn’t be helped. When the sour hearkens, a willing heart answers.

This is Halloween. Usually on this date I’m home handing out candy, or more likely crewing a show. This year I’m living in a high-rise and am not backstage, plus I’m taking a much-needed break, so I decided to do something I haven’t done since Halloween 1984: snoop around my old neighborhood after dark.

We’re in a liminal period right now. Halloween is the middle of an ancient three-day pagan holiday, Samhain, which marks the end of their summer and the beginning of winter. And times of transition make people nervous, no matter what year we’re living in. Everything is up in the air, and we don’t know how the chips will fall, if you’ll forgive two idioms in the same sentence. We’re in between planes now, smack in the middle of the cosmic doorway. Back in the day people believed evil spirits could come and go through that doorway during times of change.

These days, I’m feeling that liminal period hard core. New place, new work, a close relative with a questionable diagnosis, a high-voltage election looming (re: that last, I feel about it the way I felt about The English Patient: I want it over and done). Waiting to see what’s on the other side is really, really tough. I’m wondering if evil spirits—be they bad news, irrational colleagues, unintelligible insurance reps, what have you—are sniffing around my threshold. But I won’t know until I know. None of us will. And no matter how you slice it, ambiguity is a bitch.

Walking through my hometown tonight helped. It was a lot quieter than the Halloweens of yore, which was bizarre. What’s more, today’s residents have an odd preoccupation with sweeping leaves off sidewalks; we used to scuff right through them on Halloween. At the end of the night they’d be clinging to the hem of whatever costume I had on.

But another thought came to mind as I was semi-scuffing down those familiar sidewalks, and that is, this was and is a safe town, with lots of houses open for candy-hawking. We didn’t go in at the end of the night because we ran out of houses to visit, or because our moms were texting us to come home (for the pre-cell phone era at Halloween, thank the Lord, Jesus, St. Peter if he’s not too busy, and every last cherubim). We went in because our candy bags had gotten too heavy. There were still plenty of houses and plenty of candy if we wanted them. As much as we wanted, enough to fill our bags to the tops…and more still.

So maybe the trick to weathering liminal periods, when we’re (okay, me) panicking about What Might Happen, is to remember that at times of change anything’s possible. Like anything. Good stuff has just as much of a chance of dropping into our clam chowder as does bad. Anything is available to us.

I’m going to try to imagine a blue-sky future, one with dozens upon dozens of housewives at the ready with orange bowls of full-size Milky Ways. Who’s to say there isn’t plenty of plenty out there waiting for us?

Just to draw a line under that, here’s a pie.

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Improved upon a local classic this week, with apples poached in apple cider and toasted walnuts. I ate this like the Kraken coming off the Atkins diet. Just one slice left. Curses.

standing by

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Last weekend: Saw a post on Freecycle offering six gallons of black walnuts from a guy’s tree, just 15 minutes away. Squealed like a birthday girl with her hands in a Rapunzel cake.

Wrote to guy asking if could possibly have three gallons; he agreed, which is good, as am strong but small, and disdainfully imagined self hauling two heaping black Hefty bags up two flights in manner of underpaid North Pole intern.

Still plenty heavy. Required walking horizontally as if through strong winds. Set bag on kitchen floor, slashed it open, and stood somewhat dumbstruck. Remembered freshly fallen black walnuts are comprised of two layers, and containing brown staining ink—the reason why the buggers are so pricey. Also remembered my tendency to jump at chances and think later. This was the later part.

Emailed loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm wife who grew up on black walnuts. Obviously was in good hands. Her advice: Let them all go dark, take them outside, put on shoes I never wanted to wear again, and stomp them silly to get the outer shells off.

Curses. Not a lawn owner. Toyed with notion of dragging heap to local park to stomp, and children’s class trips being shooed away to teachers’ warning words about liberals with free afternoons, or witnessed by local deer who would roll their eyes contemptuously at my technique. No crappy shoes, either.

Bought rubber kitchen gloves, and sat down on kitchen floor on Friday. Peeled thick, spongy outer shells off to reveal damp, coffee-ground color beneath, and hour later gloves looked as though I’d just delivered an Angus heifer. It was not the first time I marveled at how I spend my Friday nights. The right thumb ripped, too. But got the job done.

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Wait about a month and turn them every day to let them dry, says Angie. Hanging them in a grass sack is best. I have none. Drying and turning a burnished chartreuse-bronze every day. The goal: that they are not damp on the inside (useless) but light and dry (perfect). Hoping. If I don’t like the flavor, Angie generously offered to take all of them off my hands. Such a true friend.🙂

Here they are, with outer shell off. Nutwatch 2016 is underway.

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