We’ve made it to mid-July. Summer is officially full swing.
The kids are both gone, romping around the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina making memories with their sleepaway camp buddies. The husband is hard at work in Mexico, or China, or, who knows?
Which leaves me with the dog, who appears a bit confused and deflated with having me as his only option for companionship. He deals with his disappointment by upgrading his napping schedule.
I, who am programmed to carpool, to do endless rounds of laundry, to shout commands, to check homework, to check summer work (as if!), to pick up after messes, to complain about picking up after messes, to fry eggs and scramble some too (because one likes it this way and another that way and I am far too accommodating. I know, it will bite me in the butt later.)
I am stuck in a quiet, empty, neat house with a hebetudinous dog.
At first, I was quite useless, roaming from room to room, unsure of what to do with myself, with all this time. But by day two, I felt better. Much better. Found myself wondering when was the last time I could sit in my office and write, uninterrupted. Ever? And I have coached my children to be sensitive to my writing needs. There’s a big bold sign I made that reads: Working! Don’t bug me!!! My kids know they’d better be careful to go near me when that sign is up. But as trained as they are, I still have to feed them. At some point.
In mid-summer it appears my biggest responsibility as a caretaker is to make sure the dog has food and water- supply that rarely dwindles since he is busy snoozing.
With all this coveted open-ended time on my hands, you’d think I’d get right down to working on my book. After all, I’m this close to being done with the manuscript.
Instead, I’ve been going out of my way to find new digressions, because a writer, even one gloriously stripped of family-related distractions, will always find ways to procrastinate in his/her craft.
No one said editing a weighty manuscript was sexy work.
So, there’s the cheesy films I’ve put on my Apple TV Wish List that need watching.
And the neglected garden that suddenly begs tending.
Let’s not forget re-organizing closets, that’s a stellar time suck.
Of course, there’s always the kitchen. Visits there are not really distractions, but rather, a space to process whatever literary hump I’m stuck on. As I knead dough or mince garlic my mind quietly reworks the awkward phrase that has me stumped or seeks the adjective that eludes me when I’m in the office. Usually it works, by the way. And if it doesn’t, I still win: I get a tasty treat in the end.
Today’s diversion is a twist on key lime pie. Instead of using a traditional graham cracker crust, the crust is made out of saltine crackers. I learned about this pie while listening to All Things Considered on NPR.
Another benefit to my solitary status is that I get to listen to all the NPR I want.
The pie, called Atlantic Beach Pie, is a staple of the North Carolina coast. Because my kids happen to be in the same state being featured, I took it as a sign to step away from my keyboard and make the pie that instant.
Plus, I was having a heck of a time resolving Chapter 46 of my book.
This pie is perfect for writer’s block.
The first step requires crushing a whole bunch of saltine crackers, which, the recipe recommends you do with your hands.
Thoughts whirled as I crushed crackers and crumbs flew.
Maybe she learns to forgive him in the end?
Maybe she moves on?
Maybe she doesn’t, though. Not everything has a Hollywood ending.
Maybe I need to crush some more crackers.
Luckily the recipe is quick. There’s not enough time to rethink the plot.
When I was done, I had solved a few of the hiccups, I had just a few more to go. My mind was at ease and I trusted I’d soon have a fabulous, final manuscript, worthy of another round of this incredibly delicious salty, sweet, simply perfect summer pie.
(adapted from Bill Smith, Crook’s Corner, featured on NPR All Things Considered)
For the crust:
1 sleeve of saltine crackers
¾ cup softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
For the filling:
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish
For the topping:
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sweetness (see below)
coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Crush crackers to crumbs with your hands. Get in there and get down on it.
Add sugar, then knead in the butter until the whole thing sticks together.
Press into an 8-inch pie pan.
Pop into the freezer for 10 minutes.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until crust starts turning golden.
Meanwhile, whisk in egg yolks with the condensed milk. Add juice. Blend well.
Pour into shell (the shell can be warm) and bake for 15 minutes.
Make the topping:
Beat ½ cup of heavy whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Oh, I know what you’re thinking:“Why can’t I just use that canned thing from the supermarket with the pretty picture and the cool spray doohicky?” Because this is so much better, trust me. So, buckle down and beat it, it’s two minutes of your life and you’ll be happy you did it.
Add a wee bit of confectioner’s sugar to the cream, if you’ve got it around, say, a tablespoon or so. If not, regular sugar will do. Or a drizzle of agave. Or maple. Oooh, maple!
Once that’s all stiff upper lip, spread it on top of your pie. It doesn’t have to look all perfect. Scratch that. It shouldn’t look all perfect. We’re going with messy here. Think rough draft. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt- if you’ve got funky sea salt, like that grey Turkish pyramid stuff, that works great and is a visual conversation starter: “Hey, what are those grey specks on the pie? Is that on purpose?” “Why yes, it’s Turkish pyramid sea salt.” Well, you get the picture. The conversation can go anywhere from there. If you want to converse. Maybe you just want to eat pie, because this pie is amazing. If that’s the case, perhaps pick a white sea salt, or, go with the grey and slice and serve quickly. No nonsense like. Your call.
He watched it ooze and bubble and grow steadily under the flame, his eyes widening in awe with the rhythm of the melted mess he was creating. This was no ordinary activity. This was the best activity for a cold, cloudy, rainy Wednesday, a day that kept him trapped indoors instead of his usual outdoor setting of trampoline jumping and dog chasing.
Playing with fire was my ten-year old son’s version of being antsy. I needed to redirect, and fast.
“Whatcha doing there?” I asked, feigning as much casualness as my terror instinct allowed.
“Melting a marshmallow,” Son replied, equally unphased.
Black scabs formed on the petrified victim, a super-sized Jet Puffed marshmallow ruthlessly pinned to a fork. My fine bought-in-Italy fork.
This had to end and fast. I had to think of a distraction.
I turned on the television and put his favorite cartoon on. It did nothing to deter him from his pyromania.
I called our puppy, his favorite play thing, and began bouncing his ball around and playing tug of war with him in the cramped kitchen, risking collateral damage all in the hopes of engaging my son.
Flames have a way of mesmerizing him. He was hyperfocused on the destruction of sugar.
“Are you going to eat that?” I asked, desperately.
“Naah. It’s too burnt. I like my marshmallows gooey but good, like we had them at summer camp,” he offered, allowing me a sliver into his and his sister’s coveted secret world of summer camp.
And that is when inspiration hit! Of course! Summer! Marshmallows! S’mores!!!
My genius moment was quickly deflated by the thought that embarking on a s’mores project would inevitably entail more flames for toasting the marshmallows, and as much as I wanted to bring home the joy of summer, there’s a reason they do this stuff at camp and not in my sleek kitchen.
Still, s’mores had invaded my thoughts now. That is the perfect combo of childhood yumminess: melted marshmallows with chocolate and graham crackers. There had to be another way to relive it without possibly burning down the house.
At that point my daughter pounced into the kitchen and looked with horror at the disaster her younger brother was making.
“Mom!” she castigated in the tone of a seasoned caregiver. “Don’t let him do this mess! Make a s’mores pie instead.” And with that, she was gone. A fleeting vision of inspiration. A true moderator. My beloved problem solver had planted her seed and disappeared, back to her Facebook or her Skype or whatever other technological trend had a hold of her 13-year old mind.
‘S’mores pie, of course,’ I grinned. And even my daughter’s brief entrance had made an impression on my son, who, for once, looked up from his fiery disaster.
“Hmmm. That sounds good mom. Let’s do that,” he echoed.
As quickly as a marshmallow turns to a crisp I grabbed my distressed Italian fork from his grasp and turned off the fire that so readily had grasped his attention.
“Let’s put a bunch of marshmallows on the top of the pie and watch them grow in the oven,” I urged, seeing the spark of excitement light anew in my son’s mischievous eyes.
Many, many years ago a young child with tossled blond hair witnessed the true species of fatherhood. A much-used door that led from the ever-popular kitchen (where oh such delicious scents traveled from one of Mother’s many spectacular culinary concoctions) broke. The handle, over years of steady usage, became looser and looser until finally, under the strain of yet one more attempt to open, gave out and fell, leaving a small circular gap in its place. The young child with tossled blond hair was aghast. What would become of this traveled passage? Would it be forever sealed? Would this fabulous oak door that had so sturdily shielded one atmosphere (the warm comforts of an understood kitchen) from a less inviting one (the shady, dusty hallway that led to dark storage rooms musty with years of neglect) no longer serve its necessary function? The girl sat down and thought (because all seven-year olds must allow necessary space to sit and think such dilemmas through) and then, confused and perplexed beyond belief, she shared her crisis with her mother (now carefully placing a treat to be baked in the toasty oven.)”What!” the mother cried. “The door is broken?””Yes,” the girl answered with a tear forming in the corner of her azure eye. “And I don’t know what to do.”The mother’s alarm was only but a front. She knew exactly what to do and that was to not tell the little girl’s father. “I shall call the repairman right away,”Mother declared.And then the girl with the tossled blond hair, who was but only a youth of seven years old, felt a strange tug that would gnaw at her throughout her lifetime: a sense of loyalty momentarily displaced. Confused, she wondered to herself what this could be, for, she loved and cherished her mother (and her cooking) but her father was her father, and, even though some innate female DNA combination in her assured her her mother was right on this one, she still felt as if there was something terribly wrong.”What?” her shaky voice managed to suggest. “And not tell Father?” At this given time the mother stopped her culinary frenzy and gazed into the troubled azure eyes of her seven-year old with tossled blond hair.”Oh honey” she managed to coo in her signature maternal glaze as sticky as the Pecan Buns they had enjoyed that very morning. “One day, you’ll understand. If we want the door to be fixed, we must call the repairman.”Time has an odd way of imposing itself upon shaky moments as this and, before mother or daughter could settle in their decisions and opinions, Father, out of the clear blue nothingness, appeared.”Did I hear repairman?” the man who normally hears nothing heard.Mother froze, the girl with the tossled blond hair smiled meekly.”Honey, don’t worry about it” Mother tried in vain. “I know you are much too busy for these petty things.”But Father, being a father, met no challenge with more gusto than home repair. “No dear, not to worry, I will get my tools and it will be fixed by tomorrow.”Mother ( knowing this battle was long lost but hoping perhaps it would serve as a crucial case study for her daughter’s early exposure to male behavior) only sighed and stirred more batter to be cooked into something ultimately delicious.The girl with the tossled blond hair sat as still as she could. She realized she had just witnessed something grandiose, she just couldn’t place her finger on what it was. Still, her heart grew warm and a simple hopefulness in her arose (like when Barbie’s purple Mink coat matched her Party Pumps perfectly, even though they weren’t in the same set).And off went Father looking for his tools, only his tools weren’t enough for such a match. They included a wrench, a screwdriver, and a rusty hammer, and such things weren’t enough for Father the Fix-it-all. Lest not forget that Father, being a father, met no challenge with more gusto than home repair.This is how the story began, but certainly not how it ended. For Father did go to the store and tally up a bill worthy of a skyscraper’s construction, where he returned with every tool, bolt, nut, and hammer necessary for the job of door repair.And this is the part of the story where we give thanks to Mother for her endless patience, where we understand how it is she can bathe, burp, heal, scold, and generally raise three rowdy young children with just the right amount of grace and dignity (and still create a Coq Au Vin, Scalloped Potatoes and a Chocolate Mousse Cake worthy of three Michelin stars). This is the part where Mother turns away while Father saws and cuts and drills and hammers, and, where it would be so tempting for her to introduce a constant IV drip of righteousness, yet opts (as Mother always knew less was more) to say nothing, going about her business (as well as one could, what with all the racket, the electrical chords, and the curious seven-year old with the tossled blond hair) baking and bathing, burping, healing, and scolding, until finally (as she knew he would) Father would hang his sweat-filled head low and say:”Honey, go ahead and call the repairman”.And what would be left of that marvelous oak door would be but a gnawed out frame, for the man who met no challenge with more gusto than home repair would have left it as such after try after try after try after try to get that circle just right to fit that new expensive door handle worthy of a skyscraper’s construction.And still, Mother, with class and strength unparallel to no other, would mumble nothing other but “yes dear”, but her look, that sparkle in her azure eyes would say it all. Volumes of thoughts were speaking in silence. And then, seconds before the timer would ring alerting that her Sour Cream Apple Pie had caramelized to perfection, the most delicious thing would happen: she’d smile. The corner of her watermelon pink lips would curl upwards ever so gently and she’d look at her seven-year old with tossled blond hair and wink. It was a moment the seven year-old would forever savor, nestled inside the memory banks of all the culinary caresses that nourished her childhood. Azure to azure. She now understood.