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Sunday, April 29, 2012

My Last Word on Pies

And now, for all of you who weren't lucky enough to live in the southern United States for eight years, I will talk about chess pies. This will be my final word on pies for the foreseeable future.


There are pies, and then there are pies. You can eat a whole pumpkin pie in a matter of hours and suffer few ill effects (though it will be a while before you lust after pumpkin pie again). Even cherry or other fruit pies lend themselves to the gluttonous approach, though less so if they have a double crust.


But some pies are meant to be eaten in slivers. Maybe two slivers a day, but no more. Chess pie is one of those. Chess pie has no redeeming nutritional value.


Let's start with the name. No one knows for sure where the term comes from. Some say it's because the pie used to be stored in a "pie chest." That's one of the more stupid etymologies, to my mind. More commonly accepted is that it comes from "cheese pie" and is British in origin. The cheese pie has no cheese in it. A direct descendant of cheese pie is Canada's much-loved butter tart. I know I'm a reductionist, but let's face it: one country's cherished and distinctive special treat is just another country's forgotten familiar fare.


Back to chess pie. Forget the origin of the name. It seems to be a pie made and served only in the Southern U.S. these days. A recent cookbook called simply Southern Pies contains, among many other recipes, half a dozen versions of chess pie. The "classic" chess pie is made with half a pound of melted butter (that's one cup), two cups of white sugar, and three eggs. Perhaps a little vanilla. Now, I ask you to deconstruct this pie. Let's say you'll be sharing it eight ways. Each pie piece will contain two tablespoons of butter (that's 30 grams, not counting the crust), three-eighths of an egg, and four tablespoons of sugar. That's one-quarter cup, or 12 teaspoons, of white sugar in every serving. Are you SURE you want a piece?


Other chess pie recipes add a little lemon juice or vinegar, which I would have thought was the classic version, but not according to the author. It makes no nevermind with respect to nutrition, because the lemon and vinegar versions still have the same proportions of butter and sugar.


If you add raisins, you'll have the Canadian butter-tart. And don't try to pretend that the raisins will pump up the nutritional aspect of the pie enough to counteract that butter and sugar. The same basic recipe plus pecans (and some of the sugar converted to sorghum syrup or—god forbid—corn syrup) will give you pecan pie. And the pecans contribute a nutritional component as strikingly minuscule as the raisins in a butter tart.


These pies, in totality, are sometimes called "transparent pies." Perhaps because it is clear—i.e., transparent--from a cursory reading of the recipe that they offer nothing good for your body. Not even much pleasure, I would say, since the amount of sugar sets your teeth on edge and leaves a terrible taste in your mouth. Actually the term "transparent" refers to their almost-clear, almost-gelatinous texture: sugar suspended in a butter-and-egg mixture that solidifies slightly as it cools.


In fact, this solidifying is the only redeeming thing I can think of. I love to eat my pieces of pie out of hand, and I resent having to eat pie at a table with a fork and a plate. So I relish pies that can be picked up neatly, and the chess pie and its derivatives answer that need. Try to pick up a piece of homemade apple or cherry pie and you'll be out shopping for a new supply of stain remover.


But pumpkin pie? Now there's a pie that fills the bill. It's not only portable (you could even, if necessary, carry a piece in each hand), but also nutritious. All that beta-carotene, vitamin A, lovely fall squash-i-ness, with a little cane molasses, some milk and eggs, and those lovely eastern spices, once rare, now commonplace: ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and a pinch of black pepper. A chess pie might entice by its profligate use of sugar—but a pumpkin pie is a pie you can get your teeth into over and over and over. Never make just one pumpkin pie. It won't suffice.


But maybe I've been talking to myself about pies, which are toward the top of MY list of important subjects, but perhaps less interesting to the world at large. So no more talk of pies.



Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Holding Hands

In February I walked behind a family composed of two little brothers, five and three, and their grandparents. The boys, bundled up in winter gear, were as round as little snowmen. They held hands, while grandma and grandpa walked between the boys and the street.


The older boy had obviously learned the kids' rule about not stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. He was taking a giant step, then a tiny step, then another giant one, watching the sidewalk all the time to avoid the cracks. Through all this, he still held on to his brother's hand. It was obvious that the little one had no idea why his brother was walking so oddly, but he tried to walk the same way: big step, little step, wobbling off course occasionally, but faithfully imitating his hero. It was beautiful.


A week or so after seeing this, I picked Sam up from school and did the 25-minute walk home with him. He let me hold his hand, and I was astonished that we could still do this. He is six, after all, and subject to peer pressure. I tested it a bit. I would let his hand drop for some reason—to adjust my backpack or his hood—and I would kind of hesitate to see whether Sam would initiate the hand-holding again. He did, every time. Grace descends when you hold hands with a child. I am so happy. This hand-holding may end some day, I thought, but it's a source of joy for both of us as long as it lasts.


Well, that was then. Last week, four months later, I met Sam at school and we started up the hill toward home. I reached for his hand. He pulled away a bit. I waited a moment or two and tried again. No hand met mine.


"So," I say, "are we not holding hands today?"




"Are you too big to hold hands now?"




"Don't you hold anyone's hand?" I ask, thinking that perhaps it's just me.


"Yes, I do."


"Is it Georgia's hand that you hold?"




And there you have it. Sam has become the grown-up hand-holder to little Georgia, who is 21 months old. No longer the holdee, the one who is held, he has become the holder, the responsible, caring guide to someone younger.


Where does the time go?



Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Objects

Kitchen gadgets. What is so darned important about kitchen gadgets? You buy one, you lose it or it breaks, and then you buy a new one to replace it. Isn't that the way? Well, not at my house, it isn't.


Take spatulas, for example. To begin with, let's define our term: a spatula can be one of two things. It is either a pancake flipper or a flexible rubber rectangle on a wooden handle that is used for scraping all the good stuff out of the mixing bowl and into the pan. I already had a long talk with you about the pancake-turning kind, remember? How I broke one and thought it had been my mother's and I'd never find its equal, and then I discovered that it is a common, readily available style and was never my mother's and I now have two of them (plus two others that are bigger and are not my favourites).


Obviously, that story has been told. Today's story is about the other kind—the kind called "a rubber spatula" although it is no longer made of rubber. I have a favourite one. (What IS this business of making favourites of inanimate kitchen gadgets?) Others, which I keep in the gadget drawer, are either not very flexible or too small for general use (though perfect for getting the last of the Moutarde de Meaux out of that crockery pot it comes in).


No, my favourite is creamy-white and firm but flexible. Its handle is gently scalloped to provide a good purchase for slippery fingers. The hole at the end allows me to hang it on a little nail right beside the "appliance garage" on the countertop, ready to clean out the mixing bowl of my KitchenAid heavy-duty mixer, which can whip up a triple batch of chocolate chip cookies in no time at all, and my oversized Cuisinart food processor. What a well-equipped kitchen, to have that handy implement hanging right where it is needed.


So perhaps you can imagine how I felt when my spatula went missing. I reached for it and it wasn't there. Nor was it in the sinkful of dishes to be washed. Nor in the drawer with the other rubber spatulas. Nor in the dishwasher. I decided that my husband must have put it away in the wrong place. But when, five days later, I remembered to ask him, he denied everything. True to his legendary status as Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Objects (in this case, Lost Kitchen Gadgets), he took it upon himself to hunt for it in every possible location. Then he asked if I might have appropriated it for use in the crafts room. No. Or perhaps, he suggested, I loaned it to a friend? I didn't deign to reply.


So he conceded defeat. A quick check behind the chest freezer, under the stove, and under the sink revealed no spatula. We'd thrown it out with the garbage, obviously. Where would we find its like again? As far as I was concerned, a replacement would have to be exactly like the original, which had been part of a swag bag from an Egg Marketing Board promotion. Oh, how would I ever find a new one?


I'm sitting at the dining room table after lunch, finishing up a book review in the TLS. My husband comes to the door and says, "I've found it!" He leads me to the kitchen and there, completely hidden behind a wooden plate-holder on the drying rack suspended over the sink, is the spatula! In order to keep it from falling through the ribs of the drying rack, he had tucked it up there out of sight a week or two ago.


But he had not found it by accident. Still in search mode (I wonder if St. Anthony's mind works the same way when he finds lost objects), my husband had tried to imagine what kind of hiding place the spatula might have found. He thought of the drying rack and looked at it from a different angle, coming up to its left-hand edge rather than looking at it head-on. There was its pretty little cream-coloured handle with the scalloped edges.


Calloo, callay! The spatula came home today!


Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor

Sunday, April 8, 2012


One year I phoned our daughter in Nova Scotia on Easter morning. Burton, then 11, answered. "Oh, hi, Nana," he said. I asked what they were doing. Burton said, "Eating candy and watching TV." Now, if God ever designed a paradise just for Burton and his sister, Livvy, that would be it: eating candy and watching TV.


Turns out a big Easter brunch was scheduled at the family restaurant, so both parents had to be working, our daughter working the front of house, her chef husband in the kitchen. At times in the past when the restaurant was demanding the attention of both parents, Livvy had complained bitterly, "I wish I lived with a normal family." She had a point, of course, but I think she probably preferred her Easter morning of TV and candy to a "normal" family's Easter, where the parents made the children eat their hard-boiled eggs before they could eat the chocolate bunny. And maybe even made them dress up and go to church.


When my own children were little, they would spend all day Easter hiding eggs. Having first found the eggs that the Easter Bunny had hidden, they then re-hid the eggs themselves, taking turns. Since we lived in the South at the time, the weather on Easter was actually spring-like (heck, even Christmas was spring-like in central Alabama), so they had the whole outdoors for egg-hiding and egg-hunting. And if they hid one or two too well, at least the squirrels would end up with them (as opposed to the indoor egg hunt, whose missing eggs are discovered two years later in a state of serious decomposition). I used to hope that, if the squirrels accepted these egg-y gifts they'd leave us a few pecans on our seven huge pecan trees the following fall.


Where was I? Easter games. Our daughter-in-law says when she was little her grandmother invented the game of cracking eggs. Two people sit at opposite ends of the kitchen. Each rolls an egg toward the center, trying to hit and break the opponent's egg. This game sends shattered eggshell to all corners. My question is: does the Easter Bunny come back and clean it all up?


I used to colour, with my children, dozens of eggs on Holy Saturday. Now I do no more than six. Last year I did three normal colored eggs using up two tiny leftover bottles of food coloring. The remaining three eggs I colored with onion skins—rather skimpily, I have to admit, since I forgot to start collecting onion skins two months in advance. Easter was such a surprise last year, with all the snow we'd had, and with the early Easter date. It just sneaked up on me.


This year's Easter—that is to say, today—is totally without trappings here. For the first time I can remember, I have coloured no eggs. Nor have I lined baskets with a chiffonade of green cellophane and filled them with sugar in various forms. But that part I don't miss: the under-ten crowd on a sugar high.


New beginnings. Lettuce seeds lightly sprinkled with soil and dampened daily from now on. Garlic shoots shooting their green above the ground and promising scapes before too long. Tulips bravely daring the squirrels to chop off their heads--a foolhardy dare, for the squirrels always win. And at night, the moon just off full. Happy Easter.


Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor

Sunday, April 1, 2012


I've undertaken what is for me a huge project. When we replenish our spices, we buy them in bulk and refill the existing jars. Therefore we have on the spice shelf jars that go back thirty-odd years and that have never been cleaned. The spices are fresh, but the jars that hold them are a mess—grubby lids, faded and illegible labels. The corner where they are stored is in shadow, so when I need a jar I must lift up and peer at six or eight jars, straining my eyes to read the labels. Eventually, with loud complaints, I have to go find a flashlight to help me find the one bottle I'm looking for.


All that is now past. Each jar is being emptied, washed inside and out, its label removed after long soaking, its lid scrubbed clean. Using my phenomenal computer skills, I have typed up a list of spice names in a clear, high-contrast font, the print-out has been cut into labels, which I am applying to the fresh jars with scotch tape. They are beautiful. (Someone just informed me that scotch tape will not work for this. I don't know what she means; the new labels have lasted for two days already.)


Best of all, I am putting the new labels toward the top of the jars so they are visible above the wooden strips that guard the jars from falling off the shelves. I can find a needed spice with just one glance, no flashlight needed. It's very exciting. I've been spending just an hour or two a day and I'm nearly finished with the project. What better way to start the new year than to complete a mindless but necessary task that has been postponed for thirty-odd years?



Copyright 2012 Ann Tudor