• Pie

    I can’t very well keep a blog with a subtitle including the sacred word PIE without paying tribute and offering a secret recipe in time for Thanksgiving.  Here forthwith…

    Two quick reading suggestions, both involving road trips, and a call for others:

    Pascale Le Draoulec published a lovely, small book, American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America’s Back Roads (NY: Harper Collins, 2002).  I’ve experimented with many of her recipes and enjoyed reading her escapades on the road to find perfect home made pie.  I picked up a great bit of pie jargon from Le Draoulec: “marriage pie.”  That’s when you take two dramatically different fruits and tuck them into a pie crust.  The sum of the different parts is infinitely better than either standing alone.  A great metaphor, no? For the record, my best marriage pie is nectarine raspberry.  

    More than a decade after I read it, I still think about the late writer Michael Dorris’s essay, “The Quest for Pie,” Paper Trail (NY: Harper Collins, 1994). (Somebody at Harper Collins must have a soft spot for pie). Dorris wrote about a road trip he took with his aunts when he was a kid.  He got out a map and plotted the route.  He made sure to include stops for pie.  It’s a quiet, gently funny piece, well worth a read.

    On to the real deal, now.  My husband (Mark) publicly outs me as a pie snob.  He’s right.  I don’t eat pie in restaurants.  The last good slice I had was in the summer of 1981, when a friend and I travelled around the South, canoeing the Buffalo River in Arkansas and reading a lot of Faulkner.  We stopped in New Orleans to stay with my beloved high school history teacher, Rex Mooney, and his wife Barbara.  Rex took us to the Ponchartrain Hotel, and we ordered slices of Mile High Pie.  The meringue!  Did the hotel and its famous pie survive Katrina?  Anyway, most bought pies are just gross.  Leaden crusts.  Gloppy fillings.  No, no, no.  

    Pie needs to be made the day it is to be eaten.  The crust has to be meltingly flaky.  Fillings mustn’t be too sweet, else they overwhelm the crust.  My friend Roz is a fine pie maker.  My sister-in-law Liz is tremendous — and because she’s artistic, her pies always look beautiful. But the best pie crust hands down comes from my friend Lisa, who won’t let me use her last name. I can’t quite believe she’s agreeing to share her secret recipe.  Her daughter Sylvie still remembers her mother making 27-some-odd pies for a wedding.  Sylvie got “sent away” when Lisa got to cooking pie.  I could never figure out how she made all those pies…until she shared the crust recipe with me. 

    So, here it is.  It’s not fussy.  It always works.  And it doesn’t use standard pie fats.  

    Pie, itself, is a miracle.  Lisa’s pie crust is the Miracle of Miracles.  Happy Thanksgiving.



    Note: This recipe makes 2 crusts: top and bottom for a traditional pie, or bottom crusts for 2 pies (i.e. pumpkin).

    2 1/2 cups flour

    3T sugar

    2/3 cup vegetable oil (NOT olive)

    1/3 cup milk

    1T sugar for top of pie

    1.  Set oven to 425 F.

    2.  Whisk flour and sugar together in a med-large bowl.

    3.  With a fork, make a well in the center of the flour mixture.  Pour the milk and oil into the well.

    4.  Fork the ingredients together into a moist dough.  With your hands, form the dough into a ball.  Cut the ball in half.

    5.  Place half of the dough between sheets of waxed paper and roll out into a circle about 1 1/2″ wider than your pie plate and about 1/8″ thick.

    6. Center the dough circle into the pie plate, and add pie filling.  Roll out the other half to the same size and thickness of the first.  Drape over filling in pie, trim to fit, and seal and crimp edges.  Slice through the top crust to provide steam vents.  Sprinkle about 1T of sugar across the top crust.

    7.  Cut a square three to four inches larger than the pie out of a brown paper grocery bag.  When you put the pie into the oven, fit the paper over it.  After about 30 minutes, check the pie and turn the oven temp down to 375F.  If the crust is browning too quickly, keep the paper over it — otherwise, remove the paper.  Rotate the pie so that the edges of the crust are baking evenly.

    8.  The finished crust should be a uniformly light golden color.  If you’ve made a fruit pie, the juices should be bubbling around the edges, indicating that they are cooked through.

    N.B.: Exact cooking times vary depending on the fillings.  Typically, apples take longer than berries, for example.  Thirty to forty-five minutes should bake most any fruit or berry pie. 

    Lisa says, “Enjoy!”

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  • Parents have so many important things to teach their kids: how to scramble eggs, how to do laundry, how to ride the T.  Each lesson learned is a milestone moving them closer to independence.  It’s the best kind of planned obsolescence I know.  The milestone at my house this fall has been to teach our 16-year-old triplets Lily, Max, and Sam to use and manage their own bank accounts.

    Relatives have been giving the kids money for holidays and birthdays for years.  OK, so it’s really my dad who is the biggest culprit.  From the time the kids were in elementary school, he began sending substantial amounts of money…in ones.  The year they turned 10, for instance, he sent them each one hundred dollars, bundled, all in singles.  You can imagine their uncontainable excitement.  ALL three of them!  ALL that money!!!  

    Mark and I were were deeply suspicious of the effects of these grandfatherly gifts.  To combat the potential to spoil the kids rotten, we put into place a system that has covered gifts as well as allowance.   The kids get 1/3 of the money to spend as they choose, put 1/3 of the money in a savings account, and give 1/3 of the money to an organization or cause they think will benefit from their donations. And then they write a thank you note to Grampa Jack.  We told them they could touch their savings but once a year, at the time of their birthday.  If there was something they really really really wanted, they could take out money and spend.  Otherwise, once the birthday month had passed, the savings money stayed put for another calendar year.  

    To our surprise, the kids often saved more than they spent (and some kids saved more than others).  We were also surprised to see that there was a nutty brilliance to my father’s madness.  Handling large sums of money in ones gave the kids a concrete idea of how much money $100 (or $200 or…) was.  And we also saw a sweet bond grow between the kids and my dad, who seemed to understand something essential about a kids’ eye view of finance.

    Despite all these pluses, the system became unwieldy to manage.  Over time, Lily, Max, and Sam came to have a lot of cash lying around.  Mark was the only one who could access the savings accounts, so the kids couldn’t deposit, plus he forgot to put money in for savings and donations, and we lost track easily of what belonged where.

    My solution, given the kids’ 16th birthday this fall?  Open each of them checking and savings accounts at our bank.  Give the kids debit cards and checks to put them in charge.  Mark was initially reluctant.  What if they blew all their money?  What if they lost their cards?  What if what if what if?  He finally agreed that it was better to let the kids try to manage while they are young and at home and under our eagle eyes than to dump this on them as they are leaving for whatever comes after high school.

    I brought home bank literature describing various kinds of accounts.  There was no way they were going to read all that fine print.  So I typed up a summary and emailed it.  At the top, I wrote: PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING CAREFULLY!  THERE WILL BE A QUIZ!  I explained the following terms: minimum balance, fees, bouncing, balancing, delays, checking vs. saving, debit cards, and checks.  That seemed to cover the basics.

    Yesterday, before we all went down to the bank, I delivered the quiz.  The kids actually took it seriously. They prepped. They even sweated a little.  I asked for a banking definition of the verb “to balance” as well as the noun “a balance.”  Also questioned them about the relationship between delays and bouncing.  All were able to give correct answers, some of which were excellent.  For instance, question #1 was “What is a bank account?”  I thought I’d start pretty low to the ground.  Max had an especially strong answer:

    A bank account is a place where you can put money in a safe place.  It is a place of comfort where you no longer will lose it — that you thought was in your underwear drawer.

    As Mark and I co-signed on the accounts and watched the kids pick pin numbers and passwords, I wondered if we’d taught the kids the right lessons about bank accounts.  Given recent banking debacles, were we deceiving teenagers when we encouraged them to believe that banks are safe?  That they are better than underwear drawers? 

    I’ll keep you posted this year as Lily, Max, and Sam tote around their check registers to record expenses and deposits.  And maybe you’ll let me know through comments what your parents did with you that seemed to work — or what you, as parents, are doing with your own children to teach them smart money management.  I’d appreciate all the stories and advice you’d care to share.


  • I’m glad I haven’t figured out how to use the camera feature on this computer, because, boy, you wouldn’t want to see me.  I still haven’t showered today.  But I have a good reason.

    I went to the gym and plopped straight down at my desk.

    The desk part isn’t the good reason.  It’s the gym.

    An hour a day, each and every day, whether I want to or not.  I’ve redoubled the pledge I made earlier this fall to get myself moving.  After listening to John Ratey, M.D., speak Wednesday night, I knew I had to stick to my resolve.

    If you don’t know of John Ratey, go to http://johnratey.typepad.com/blog/.  Ratey co-wrote the best-selling book about ADD, Driven to Distraction, with Ned Hallowell in 1994.  He’s gone off on his own this time, focusing on the importance of exercise in brain function.  He’s especially interested in what happens when kids exercise in particular ways and has developed a program, SPARK, that he’s helping schools implement.

    Dr. Ratey used a PowerPoint presentation during his talk.  I can’t get one slide out of my head.  It’s a sketch of the workstation of the future.  Forget the desk and chair.  Instead, put the computer on a platform attached to the front end of treadmill.  Have workers walk slowly throughout their day as they attend to business.  A real office installed these, and its workers’ productivity skyrocketed.  Walkers/workers lost 35 pounds over the course of a year, as well.   Dr. Ratey argues that we need to move to produce all the neurotransmitters that make us smart, focused, and content.

    How to make sure my own kids get this much exercise a day?  Max’s soccer season ended Wednesday.  Lily stops bicycling next week.  Sam’s playing tennis on Sundays, but I think he’s only lifting weights twice a week.  Mark bikes to work every day, so he’s definitely in motion, but I don’t know if he’s getting the intensity he needs.  It’s not enough, is it?  It’s not enough for most of us.  How to justify setting aside so much time when everybody already feels so overloaded.

    But Ratey’s evidence is irrefutable, and I’m intrigued.  Anybody else thinking about swapping desk chairs for treadmills?

    Gotta go.  It’s almost 4:15, and I really need a shower.

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  • There are so many reasons to celebrate President-Elect Barack Obama’s victory last night: what it means for upcoming appointments to the Supreme Court, the significance to our ability to interact with the rest of the world in positive ways, exiting gracefully from Iraq and bringing home our troops, the implication that the best (not just any) person can win regardless of race or gender, the warm fuzzy feeling of the country coming together in a lovely shade of blue. Yes, all of it.  All of it.  It’s so exciting.

    And then there’s my knee.

    My right knee, specifically.  

    When I saw the knee specialist last spring, he reconfirmed that I have a growing hole about the size of a quarter in the cartilage underneath my right kneecap.  When I put pressure on the knee, bone rubs on bone.  It hurts.  At the ripe old age of 46, I don’t hike or backpack, play tennis, run, or do anything that causes impact to my right knee.  Instead, I get in the pool for my own water aerobics routine, ride a recumbent bike at the gym, and do lots of stretching.  More than you wanted to know, but there you have it.

    I asked the knee guy if I’m a good candidate for knee replacement surgery.  Or maybe a partial replacement.  Not really, he told me.  For this particular problem, doing nothing is about as effective as undergoing invasive surgery.  I told him I felt a little helpless, given the lack of options.  

    The knee guy leaned in.  “Your best bet?  A new administration.”


    Research scientists have successfully manipulated stem cells in non-human animal models to re-grow cartilage after trauma.  Whether the process will work in degenerative disease is still an open question.  And whether it works in humans is a matter of electing a presidential administration open to regulated stem cell research.  Might take three or four years of trial and error, but, he said, there’s an excellent chance that an injection of engineered stem cells would patch the cartilage hole.     

    Along with all those other people out there hoping to get fixed — those harboring identifiable genetic mutations predisposing them to disease, those hobbled or stilled from injury or deterioration — I’m nursing a bad case of hope today.  Maybe the knee guy is right.  Maybe with a new administration, there’s a chance for a fix.

    My right knee offers thanks all who voted Democratic yesterday.  It would bend deeply in gratitude if it could.  But it can’t.  And that’s the point.

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  • Bowl O’ Cherries

    The other morning I watched five game shows in a row on television. I wanted to turn them off, but I was too mesmerized by the contestants. The first one was a frail woman who said, “I am a simple, average housewife,” then proceeded to win a toaster by humming the fight song of Bangladesh High. The second one said she was a mother of seven, then spewed out the fuel formula for the Russian Soyuz XI space flight last year. The third was also a “typical, suburban homemaker,” who won a year’s supply of tulip bulbs by answering that the Sixth Crusade in Europe was led by Frederick II in 1228. (I thought it was Billy Graham in 1965.) After I flipped off the TV set, I sat there stunned for a minute. Not only could I not remember what I had for breakfast three hours before, but I realized that mentally I had let myself go to pot.

    Erma Bombeck, “Gametime”

    If Life is a Bowl of Cherries – What Am I Doing in the Pits?

    (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1978)

    Much has changed in the 30+ years since Erma Bombeck published If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, when women were starting to think about what it meant for their “personal” choices to be “political.” But one thing remains the same, for sure. Then, as now, there was no such thing as a “typical, suburban homemaker.”

    I started reading Bombeck’s column in The Dallas Morning News when I was 12 in 1974. I loved the way she deployed her wit and self-deprecating humor to chronicle the life of the mythic stay-at-home mom. I laughed with my own frustrated homemaker mom at the ways a “simple, average housewife” could be counted on to know about anthropology, engineering, and Medieval European history. I was inspired to know that she could publish a newspaper column to describe the phenomenon. And it hit me in the gut that she felt deeply insecure all the while.

    Like Bombeck, I sometimes feel that I’m letting myself go to pot. I’m a former assistant professor of history who quit “to spend more time with my family.” Really.

    This was my big morning today:

    ~ waking up my teenage triplets at 6:40

    ~ getting them to eat breakfast (choc. chip banana muffins and orange juice – hey, at least nowadays, the OJ has calcium – wonder what Erma would’ve made of that?)

    ~ dropping everybody at the train at 7:15

    ~ convincing the elderly Russian lady at the pool that it was OK for her to share her lane with me, even though she has a bad heart

    ~ writing several thank-you notes

    ~ questioning the foreman at the construction site a football-field distance away from my home office about what his crew is presently doing that is causing the dishes in my dish drain to dance

    ~ starting in on my to-do list.

    Here’s what’s left on the “to-do” for today:

    ~ call the plumber (again) to get him to figure out why hot water is coming out of the “cold” faucets on the second floor

    ~ call the electrician to figure out why the electrical sockets on one wall in the kitchen have stopped working (teething mice?)

    ~ take laundry to the dry cleaners

    ~ re-schedule an appointment to meet with a neuropsychologist for one of the kids

    ~ fill out medication forms for the school nurse so my daughter can use her asthma inhaler before gym

    ~ get to the library to read microfilm of The New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1947

    ~ set up interviews with Sudanese refugees for a documentary

    ~ finish War and Peace (I’m loving it, but it’s too heavy to take to the gym).

    Instead of tackling the to-do, I’m starting this blog. If you, too, are running away from your to-do list, come join me.

    My blog, “Bowl O’ Cherries,” continues Bombeck’s practice of examining and poking fun at women’s choices. I have parked my behind on a chair at a kitchen table where family and the wider world intersect. Many others have taken a seat at this table:

    Judith Warner

    Lisa Belkin

    Anna Quindlen

    Katha Pollitt

    Anne Lamott

    Marge Simpson

    …to name some of my favorites. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these women are all white and middle-class. We seem to be productively self-conscious about our privilege and our decisions.

    I can answer questions about the implications of the transcontinental railroad on national expansion and labor unrest, can describe what it was like for the first Americans to read books, can explain how to record and transmit digital sound, and enjoy talking about the factors leading to the French and Indian War or the War in Iraq. Mother of Three with LD, I can also share my thoughts about the best ways to organize a mud room or swap stories about advocating in classrooms where kids’ needs might go unmet.

    I am, in short, as typical and atypical as all American housewives.

    And for the record, I know what the Bush Doctrine is. I cannot, meanwhile, field dress an Alaskan moose.