Monday, April 30, 2012

Road Trip!

"By noon, the lemon pie was a few smears of filling in an empty plate, and by one o'clock, all three pies were gone." - Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain

The job is great – I received a promotion at the beginning of March, I love the people I work with, the gig is satisfying in a restauranty way: busy without feeling frantic; none of that drowning feeling people talk about on the Line. The apartment is tidy, the garden is going nuts – the arugula seeds are coming up so quickly I’m tempted to run a time-elapse photography experiment. There are crows building nests in the trees up and down the street. All factors that generate a sense of calm, of peace in the valley, which should contribute to a sense of peace in the present.
But of course, they don't.

Some of this discontent has to do with my current book queue – I’m gobbling up books about Getting Away From Here, which is one of those themes that always gets my blood moving:  oh, to tie one’s belongings in a bandana, grab a walking stick, and Go. Oh, to grab a stack of audio books, adopt a dog, buy a car, and Go.

A few weeks ago I read William Vollmann’s Riding Toward Everywhere, which informed any decision to begin freight train jumping (I’m going to pass), and is a powerful mediation on the pull we feel to Get Out of Here, even though there may be nowhere – or Everywhere – to go. I recommend it, especially for reading on a train, though Vollman sometimes seems as ragey as a broiler cook.

Right now I’m reading Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. I don’t know how I missed this one for so long – we had a pinkish hardcover on the shelves in the living room of the house where I grew up, there was a dog on the cover. Pink cover!? A Dog in the story!? Seems I should have gone for that one long ago. But there is, occasionally, a peculiar magic to finding and reading certain books, almost as though the universe were a talented bookstore employee who picked just the right book for the moment, just the right balance of humor and angst for the existential moments, just the right blend of mystery and Siamese cats for Sofa Saturdays (for younger readers, a “Bookstore” was a shop, sort of like where you might buy sunglasses or IPad covers, but the shop sold books, which were physical objects of paper and ink). I’ve always appreciated this about the universe. In fact, the mysterious congruence of outside idea with internal musing makes me want to write a recommendation card for the Cosmos help with reading selections – With its vast black spaces and dim frozen reaches, who would have expected the universe to make such a perfect suggestion? But “The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax” was just what the doctor ordered! I will take Cosmos’ recommendations again!! 

Anyway, Travels with Charley is such a book. Despite my relative happiness in this place and time, I still want to Go Away from Here. I want to pack up a camper van and hit the road, I want to watch the countryside and see the changes in landscape and weather. However, this impetus doesn’t share Steinbeck’s curiosity about the America he writes about, or Vollmann’s escapist need to leap onto trains in the middle of the night.
I want to go on a road trip for the pie.

In the very early eighties, my father and I took a Trailways bus from Boulder to North Carolina. Memories of the trip east are mostly of the fabric backing the bus seat in front of me, but I do remember stopping at numerous truckstops and in each one, there was the rotating display of pies. I also remember realizing I’d forgotten a hair brush and so arrived at my grandmother’s house with an astonishing occipital nest that had to be cut out before dinner was served.

Returning west in the passenger seat of a used Volkswagon, I spent most of the trip reading The Book of the Dun Cow (With its numerous references to both Chaucer and the Bible, how could this young reader NOT become an English major?! Cosmos’ latest suggestion was a real salad bar of despair, but not without some interesting characters and action.), and watching the hawks atop the telephone poles along the way. But every four hours or so (possibly a slight exaggeration), my dad had suggested stopping for pie. And I, with my hair neatly brushed in a way that mostly concealed the gap where the knot had been removed, agonized over apple a la mode, lemon meringue, PEACH, sometimes even Sweet Potato, which seemed exotic and homey at the same time. If desire is the root of all suffering, then those early confrontations with rotating pie cases filled with delicious choices was Hell.

Jump forward twenty years, and my friend Lesley and I are hurling along the snow-choked highway between Seattle and Park City, Utah. Somewhere along a highway in Idaho, when we realized ours were the only tracks in the snow that was starting to come down sideways, we stopped for pie. Fast forward four years and I am driving west from New York City, across Ohio, alone in a Penske truck, and I am stopping for pie. Maybe more than I really should have been, actually.

So what is it about the road trip and a slice of pie? Is it the sugar boost that will keep you going until your blood sugar crashes and so do you? Is it the variety of flavors slowly turning in a special display? Is it that one so rarely intersects with truckers – the folks who spend their lives driving Away from Here – that a slice of pie in an Idaho truckstop feels like a communion? A slice of romanticism, with a crust of nostalgia so flaky it nearly falls apart before your fork touches it, filled with your heart’s secret delights?

Perhaps it’s all those things and more. We have a special place for pie in our National consciousness, and food magazines insist that pies are the next cupcakes. (Although it seems Hostess fruit pies, and McDonald’s apple-lava pies, both models of the portable piece of pie, have waned in popularity.)

There is something about pie that suggests Home, too, both a call to return to the nest and also a reason to never leave it in the first place. Maybe the restless longing for another place can be quelled by a decent slice of pie filled with local fruits. Lesley’s pies are amazing, possibly because she really enjoys the process: rolling out the dough, crimping the edges, and she uses fruit from the trees in her back yard -- both the filling and the latticed dough over the top are delicious reminders of Hearth and Home. Maybe that’s why we romanticize the hobos drawn to pies cooling on the windowsills of a pastoral, mythological, possibly extinct America – they want a taste of Home.

Back when I wrote menus at my old job, I was struck by the narrative force of the road trip. We were doing a Columbia River Valley menu and, somehow, the menu items seemed to have a real chronology, as though we were driving along the curving roads through Eastern Washington and down into Oregon. The pie from that menu, Blueberry Lemon Meringue, was not everyone’s favorite. It had a very short shelf life – really meant to be eaten in one sitting, I suppose – and the filling was a little bit “leaky.” That said, with summer almost upon us, and the urge to escape pulsing through veins, pulling us from our boring, if necessary, daily routines, I offer you the recipe as a way of finding a modicum of contentment in the here and now.  Or at least as a distraction from flipping through train time tables and road atlases.

Blueberry Lemon Meringue Pie:

Approximate time to make: 1 hour. Serves between 8 and 10 slices.

The Crust:                                                          
1 1/4 c flour
1/4 t salt
1 t sugar
3 oz cold, unsalted butter 
3 - 4 Tbsp icy cold water

Combine everything but the water in a food processor. Pulse until crumbly. Add cold water while pulsing until dough just holds. Turn out onto a table, shape into a disk. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough out, drape it over the sides of a pie dish and crimp the edges. Dock the bottom with a fork. Bake at 350 degrees for 11 - 15 minutes, until golden. Set aside.   

The Filling: 
1 1/4 c sugar           Combine the dry ingredients in a sauce pan. 
3 T flour                  Stir in the water. Heat until bubbly and and thickening.
3 T corn starch
dash of Salt
1 1/2 c water             

3 egg yolks                                 Beat yolks until they are ribbony. Temper them with a few drops of the hot filling.
zest of one lemon                      Mix in the tempered yolks, bubble, bubble, bubble. Stir in butter and zest. 
2 T unsalted butter                   Stir in lemon juice. 
3/4 c lemon juice                       Cook over low heat until the mixture is quite thick: maybe 5 mins more. 

1 heaping cup of blueberries         Scatter the berries across the bottom of the cooked crust. Pour hot filling atop.

The Meringue:
whites of 5 eggs                               Combine egg whites, vanilla extract (vanilla bean would be pretty, too), 
merest drop of vanilla extract        cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.
dash of cream of tartar
4 tsp granulated sugar                    Add sugar one teaspoon at a time until stiff, shiny peaks form.      

 Spread the meringue across the pie filling and seal to the edge. Make dramatic swoops and whirls, try to make it tall and gorgeous. 

Bake at 325 for 15 minutes. Finish for a minute beneath a broiler for a real truck-stop look.

Let cool for at least an hour before cutting. 


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