Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Recipes, Day Two: Pie Crusts

So yesterday I lied, and said it didn't matter about your pie crust. It was sort of the truth, because the store-bought doughs do taste fine - I mean, they won't actively interfere with your pie, or make it taste awful, but they won't help your pie either. They're neutral, whereas making your own piecrust not only makes your pie taste even more awesome, it makes you feel better too. Wouldn't it be nice to know, when your family chomps into your Pie of Wonder, that you had made every splendid inch of it? Of course it would.

Anyway, for a long time I didn't make crusts, because I had assumed the whole process was as intimidating and complicated as it was unnecessary. Turns out, it's none of the three. Here's all you need: flour, water, and a fat.

1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup refrigerated lard
1/3 cup ice water

Yes, here is the hard truth: an animal must die for your pie. I don't care if it's the world's most vegan kiwi-mango-acai berry pie, if some animal somewhere did not lose its life to make that crust, your effort was in vain. Kosher-keepers, I see no reason you can't substitute schmaltz for the lard (though I'm not a schmaltz user myself, and can't answer for how it might behave), and technically one can also substitute butter, but my default position here is going to be unapologetic Southern cooking, where pig is not just a frequent main course, but flavor, seasoning, fat, and oil - the matrix for just about everything you cook, and present in all dishes from the vegetables to the bread to the dessert. Lard is not hard to come by, in a grocery store: your best bet is to head to the Hispanic food aisle and get one of the large, inexpensive tubs of "manteca." There are several schools of thought on refrigeration here, but in general we don't refrigerate lard, for daily use. However, in this case you will be better served by sticking your lard in the icebox a few hours before you get down to business with your piecrust, because chilled fat will "chunk" better, and will avoid blending too rapidly.

Under no circumstances are you to use Crisco. Vegetable shortenings are a grave sin.


1. Combine the flour and the salt (no need to sift), then cut in the lard, one chunk at a time, until the mixture is in even bits about the size of peas. Then sprinkle the ice water over the flour by tablespoonfuls, stirring it in with a fork until just enough has been added so you can pat the dough lightly into a ball. Since not all flour is created equal, you might not need all the water. Handle the dough as little as possible, and don't knead it.

The most complicated bit is when you cut the fat into the flour. This does require a bit of technique. The thing is, you don't want a neatly homogenized dough of flour and fat, because that will produce a tough, unpleasant crust. You want your crust to flake, which means your dough is going to have to be spots of flour layered with spots of fat. KNEADING IS THE ENEMY.

So with that in mind, use a knife to cut chunks of the fat into your flour, bit by bit. Then you take two knives, one in each hand, and you perform this sort of Japanese chef maneuver where you keep cutting the fat particles in a crosswise manner, until it's more or less evenly distributed into your flour. DO NOT use your hands, because you don't want the fat to warm and melt by the heat of your fingers; melted fat becomes homogenized with the dough, which remember is the thing you don't want.

Now, Williams-Sonoma will happily sell you a pastry blender for incorporating fat into flour, for about ten bucks or so, and I guess you could buy one of those, but exactly how many piecrusts are you planning on making here? Plus, I have noticed that there is an inverse relationship between number of cooking gadgets owned and competence as a cook. If I open up someone's kitchen drawer and find a pastry blender, a garlic press, boning knives, saute spoons, fish spatulas, mesh skimmers, a double mezzaluna, and a v-blade mandoline, I know immediately not to eat anything that comes out of that kitchen. Williams-Sonoma will even sell you (for $16.95) an egg slicer. You know what else slices eggs? A FUCKING KNIFE.

A double-angled potato ricer. I ask you. 
I will confess that my aesthetic, as a cook, is a minimalist one. In large part that's because I'm influenced by my husband, who is the actual cook in the family. He cooks because he can't play baseball. He has extreme strabismus, and though a series of surgeries when he was young made it some better, he's never been able to see all that well. It's worse when the object is in motion; he can barely focus on moving objects at all, which is something I try not to think about when he's driving the children. So when he was a young boy in North Carolina, and all his cousins were out in the side yard playing baseball, he pretended not to be interested, and instead hung out in the kitchen with his grandmother's cook Alberta. We eat like kings today because Alberta took him under her wing, and made him her apprentice, and when I tell you my husband cooks like a seventy-year-old black woman, Southerners will understand the depth of the compliment being paid. By the time he met me, he was pretty much the most amazing cook on the face of the planet, which explains everything you need to know about our courtship.

Anyway, Don's bedrock belief is that in order to cook you need: a knife, a medium-sized bowl, and a spoon. Anything more than that, and you're just embarrassing yourself. This is why I say the fat-cutting part should be done with two knives working crosswise: because this is just How Things Are Done.

A final consideration is the bowl you are working in. My oldest daughter's sensory issues make her hyper-sensitive to metal-scraping, so I have to use a ceramic or pottery bowl for this part. (Look for my best-selling cookbook, Cooking for the Neurologically Challenged, in stores soon.)

2. Wrap the dough in wax paper or foil, and chill it for an hour or so.

3. Take it out and place it on a floured surface. But not too floured! Too much flour makes piecrust tough. Just tap your chilled ball with your rolling pin to flatten it, and roll with quick light strokes. As with all doughs, sprinkling with flour makes it drier and crumblier, and sprinkling with water makes it softer and gooier, so keep these two poles in mind as you fiddle with your dough to get it where you want. I always fiddle at this stage, so don't worry if you have to as well.

This recipe ought to make two piecrusts, so you have one for topping if you're making a berry pie. In practice I've found this makes me one crust, plus some leftovers. That may be because I roll my dough too thick; a more practiced hand could probably get more dough out of it than I do. Don't be afraid of a thick crust - I think they're tasty!

And I guess this part goes without saying, but lay your rolled piecrust in a pie dish and bake away. And enjoy the moral superiority you will feel over all those people who rely on the store-bought dough. Bless their hearts.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Recipe Fest, Part One: Pumpkin and Neurology

Like most children growing up in the 70s who didn't live on a farm, there were about four foods that I ate, and all of them came in a can or a Wendy's wrapper. For a long time I blamed my mother for this, and while yes, it's true that she was responsible for more than her fair share of canned-pears-topped-with-Miracle-Whip-and-grated-American-cheese salads, the reason for my constricted tastes probably has more to do with me than with her. There just weren't that many textures I could tolerate touching, and the thought of touching a new texture literally frightened me. Yes, I may have issues.

Once, Mom got wild and sprinkled paprika on top. WHAT.
My son has Asperger's, and so does my husband, and for a long time (kind of like with the blame-Mom thing) I thought both those facts were unrelated to me, and that my neurologically challenged family was something that had just happened to me on accident. Of course, researchers now know that autism spectrum disorders often appear in clusters, or "nests." In other words, people with Asperger's tend, for understandable reasons, to be drawn to each other, and the people they tend to develop close friendships with often have Asperger's or a related spectrum disorder, and then they produce (surprise!) kids with yet more Asperger's, and there you go - before long every single person with Asperger's in America is living in a five-block radius, which is pretty impressive for people who find social contact somewhere between difficult and agonizing. So yeah, I suspect I'm on that spectrum somewhere, and I only tend to think of myself as normal because when the doorbell rings every pair of eyes in the house turns to me in mute terrified pleading, knowing I am about the only one capable of handling superficially normal interaction, though what I think of as my competence probably strikes the rest of the world as deeply odd, and what were we talking about? Oh right, pie.

So about ten years ago we were invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and I offered to bring something, and my friend said, what about pie? So I said sure, no problem! I'd never made a pie in my life, much less something with that weird disturbing gelatinous texture, but I was a grown-up, I could handle this. It was Thanksgiving, so I made the inspired and original choice of a pumpkin pie, and I threw the gloppy ingredients in a bowl (I think I just got the recipe off the Libby's can) and prepared to slop it into the pie shell, and then I took a taste to make sure it was all right, as one does, and OH MY GOD.

Oh my God. It was sweet! It was spicy! It was voluptuous and creamy and something indefinable and yet warm and seductive that could only be the taste of PUMPKIN. The angels sang. The heavens opened. A voice from heaven said, This is my beloved pie, in whom I am well-pleased. I fell to my knees and ate it. I don't mean I ate the pie when it came out of the oven. I mean I DRANK THE RAW FILLING, all of it, straight from the bowl, and licked the edges like an Ambien-crazed sleepwalker, one of those people who wakes up at four in the morning to find her face in a mop bucket filled with funfetti cake batter and an empty can of Easy Cheese in her other hand.

So yeah, I like me some pumpkin pie.

What follows is my variation on a recipe published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in 2006. I can talk about pie dough if you want, but I suspect most people just like to get the chilled pre-made pie dough from the dairy section of their grocery store, and that's perfectly fine, honestly I think those taste just as good as the homemade. So I will save discussion of pie dough for another day, since that's Advanced Pie Making anyway, and plus it will give me something else to talk about!

Finally, I will say that I am not one of those scoop-and-sift-and-bake-your-own-pumpkin people. For starters, jack-o-lantern pumpkins that you buy in the stores are not the same as pie pumpkins, and they produce a pumpkin meat that is distinctly coarser and more bitter than you are going to want in your pie, or than you will be able to counteract without a metric assload of sugar. And for another thing, who the hell are you people, and would it kill you to open a goddamn can for once? You know what's inside those cans? PUMPKIN. You know what you just spent three hours slaving over in your kitchen? PUMPKIN. This is one of those times when purity is not going to gain you any mileage. If you really feel called by Jesus to be the Queen of Pie, save it for the pie dough.

3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
1 15-oz. can of pure pumpkin
1 12-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk

1 unbaked pie crust, laid in a 9-inch pie dish

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Combine the sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves in a medium-size bowl. Beat the eggs lightly in a small bowl, then whisk them into the sugar and spice mixture. Add the pumpkin and the condensed milk, and stir it all together into a beautiful orangy swirl.
4. Exercise all the self-restraint you can muster, and pour it into your pie shell.
5. Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees to brown the edges of your crust, then turn your oven down to 350. Continue baking it for 40 to 50 minutes, depending on your oven, or until the center of the pie isn't jiggly anymore.
6. Serve warm, with plenty of fresh whipped cream.

If step six confounds you (and before you reach for that pus-oozing bottle of spray-foam Redi-Whip, you unbelievable lazy slack-ass) here is how you make whipped cream. In the milk section, your grocer has pints of "heavy cream" or "whipping cream." Throw that in your mixer. (You can't do this by hand, unless you are Iron Man and have ion thrusters on your elbows.) Turn your mixer on high and watch what happens. While you are watching all that delicious milk curd up into cream, throw in some confectioner's sugar and some vanilla. This is totally to taste. Start with a few tablespoons of the sugar, and then taste until it's at the level that tastes yummy to you. Some people like a really sweet cream; some people (because they are deranged and wrong, or English) prefer something less sweet. Throw in about a teaspoon of vanilla, or more if you want a stronger taste. When you have a soft mountain of cream (but before the cream starts to get hard and buttery) turn off your mixer and pour over your pie!

You can tell this is not actually a picture of my pie, because of the ludicrously tiny dollop of cream on this. That is about the appropriate amount of cream for bite one. 
This differs from generic recipes in two respects: it doubles the amount of spice (I like the spiciness to war with the sweetness), and it uses sweetened condensed milk instead of the more common evaporated milk. The latter produces a lighter texture and more pleasing color, it's true. My pie will be a bit darker and heavier - but also richer, smoother, and sweeter, so take that. Basically, this is just a standard recipe with both the sweet and the spicy dial turned up, but I've never known it to go wrong, and it could not be easier to make. And you people out there who like to put liquor in your pumpkin pie (you know who you are), save it for the pecan pie, because that shit is wrong. Eat your pumpkin pie like God meant you to, after you've finished your pear salad. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reflections on Cranmer's Daily Office

On this day in 1556, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, was burned at the stake. However one feels about his theology, I’m pretty sure everyone agrees that tying a 78-year-old man to a stick and setting him on fire falls under “things your Sunday school teacher warned you against,” but this was the sixteenth century, and religion was England’s favorite competitive bloodsport.

In tussles between competing views of what it means to be Christian, “martyr” is an intentionally loaded word. Latimer made plenty of martyrs himself, before you go all soft around the edges for him – most famously, he preached during the burning of a Franciscan friar whose pyre was stoked by the wooden statue of St. Derfel, from a shrine in North Wales. (No matter where you turn in English history, somebody is screwing the Welsh.) That friar, John Forest, was later named a martyr by the Catholic Church, and Latimer, along with his fellow bishops Cranmer and Ridley, is an official martyr of the Anglican Church. You can’t kick a rock in sixteenth-century England without turning up a martyr for somebody’s faith, and I don't say that to minimize or dismiss any faith: these were deeply held, deeply significant differences of opinion, with real world consequences for people’s lives, and they were right to argue and dispute and hold their ground. I just wish they had confined it to shouting and throwing scones at each other, but history would have to wait another few centuries (and another continent) before it could conceive of a place where the John Forests and the Hugh Latimers of this world could live side-by-contentious-side.

Before he went up in a puff of smoke, one of the things Cranmer managed to do was write a new daily office for the Church. (Okay, to be fair he wrote an entirely new way of worship for the Church, and say what you will, but Jesus that man could write.) Those with time on their hands could examine all of Cranmer’s re-structuring of English worship, but I think just looking at Morning and Evening Prayer, as he re-imagined them, is a perfect microcosm of what it was Cranmer was aiming at.

Catholic Daily Office today
Episcopal Daily Office today
Opening versicle
Invitatory psalm with antiphon
Daily psalms with antiphons
Canticle with antiphon
Short Biblical Reading
Gospel Canticle with antiphon
Intercessory prayers
Our Father
Concluding collect

Opening versicle
Invitatory psalm with antiphon
Daily Psalms
Extended Biblical Reading One
Canticle One
Extended Biblical Reading Two
Canticle Two
Apostles’ Creed
Daily collects
Intercessory prayers
Concluding collect

 You might notice these columns are largely the same – sure, there are differences in the order of stuff (Anglican office reserves the hymn to the end), some of the stuff might get switched out (the Anglicans change out the Our Father for the Creed, fewer collects in the Catholic office), and some of the padding might get removed (no antiphons on the psalms in the Episcopal office), but pretty much it’s all the same basic idea: you chant a few psalms, a few canticles, a few short prayers, and on you go with your day, please try not to burn anybody at the stake.

However, if you were to spend some time actually praying both these offices, you would immediately be struck by how differently they “pray.” See that bolded stuff above? Yeah, the Reformers were not messing around about their Bible. For centuries—since the time of St. Benedict in the sixth century, really—the structure of the daily office had not significantly changed. What Cranmer did was to drop a huge lot of Bible reading in there—not just one or two verses, but entire long passages, from the Old Testament, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels. Here is what happens when one or more of these selections are read: everybody sits down, a reader stands up, and everybody follows quietly along as the reader reads the passage. Then you stand up, another canticle, and when that’s over you sit back down again for the reader to have another go. (It’s fairly common to have the Old Testament and Gospel readings at Morning Prayer, and the Epistle reading at Evening Prayer, making the latter significantly shorter.)

In other words, Cranmer shifted the focus of the daily office from the praise of God, to the instruction of man. The single most time-consuming part of the office was no longer the chanting of psalms and canticles to God’s honor and praise, but the didactic Bible-reading. And by the way, those readings are long enough that there is no comfortable way to chant them, as one can in the Catholic office, so a “sung office” is really Bible reading with intervals of song: what had been an opera becomes a musical.

To many Reform-minded and evangelical Christians, this is all to the good. Plenty of people prefer musicals to operas, and both definitely have their place. You can also manipulate one of these offices into looking more like the other: if you are praying the Catholic office in Lent or Advent, for instance, and you want to combine some lectio divina with your daily prayers, you can tote along your Bible and expand what the office supplies. Or, if you are praying the Anglican office, you can (as I have often done) simply omit the clunky Biblical inserts altogether, and glide from Psalms to Canticles to Creed.

But of course, in doing that, I am de-Cranmerizing the office, and arguably undoing what he would have thought of as the entire point. (I’m pretty sure Cranmer’s issues with me would not end with my mangling of his lovely office, but we could maybe start the conversation there.) I have found the Scriptural inserts unwieldy and beside the point – if I want to read the Bible I’ll do it when it’s not smack in the middle of my prayers, thank you – and I tend to toss them out like the shrink-wrapping on a lampshade, but for many others, reading is a form of prayer, and the office works as a seamless whole. For me, reading is a form of reading.

Cranmer is not taking my calls, really at all. 

 A final quibble with the Anglican office is its lack of propers outside of a collect for saints’ days. A daily office is unbeatable for those of us with attention-deficit issues (ooh! a saint’s day! ooh! new psalms! and antiphons! different hymns! different collects!) and the Anglican office does not bend in all the places I would like it to bend, with a supple acknowledgement of the wind-and-tide shifts on the Kalendar. For instance, Catholics on this day are not stuck commemorating the sticky and complicated legacy of the Oxford Martyrs – they get St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, visionary of the Sacred Heart and founder of that devotion, so for someone like me with a devotion to the Sacred Heart, it’s great to spend your office focusing on something of interest to you. But of course, that lack of flexibility comes from strict use of the Prayer Book, and I know for a fact many Anglican monastic communities use variations of the Prayer Book Office that do supply saints’ offices and antiphons.

This discussion avoids entirely the other two forms of daily prayer I am familiar with: the Orthodox Christian daily office (as contained in the Horologion) and the Jewish daily prayers (meaning Shema and Shemoneh Esrei, at a minimum). However, neither of those allow for much (if any) variation, so I will be honest and say I have had trouble mining spiritual fruit from them, and sticking with them long-term. I would be curious to hear the experiences of other regular office-prayers, and what they have found to work or not work over the years.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Chosen of the Lord, and Precious

Corduroy: official fabric of white people. 
Two years ago a student of mine took to hanging about my room to talk colleges. My room was often host to a nest of strange birds: the queer kids, the artsy kids, the theater kids, and the newspaper kids, for the same reason all the neighborhood kids congregate at that run-down house down the street – it’s got an absent-minded mom too busy watching her soaps and smoking her cigs to care if you happen to light one up too, or to notice if you say “fuck” too loudly. Benign neglect is a great way to attract a following, it turns out.

Anyway, Emily kept bringing the conversation around to Sewanee, and I kept gently deflecting it. I didn’t think much of those teachers who pushed the glories of their alma mater on their students, and I didn’t want her to sense approval from me that might have influenced her choice. And also, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I would have had much approval to emanate. My own relationship with Sewanee is complicated, less straightforward than the feelings a lot of alums have for their school, and I’m the last person to tell a ferociously smart, extravagantly quirky young woman that Sewanee is the best place for her. I kept nosing her north, in our conversations, and she kept swinging back as resolutely south.

And then finally she wouldn’t be nudged any more. “I really fell in love with it,” she confessed. “I love Sewanee.” Well then God help you, I wanted to say, because naturally there was nothing more to be done for her. There never is, once it gets to that stage.

Today I had the privilege of gowning her at Convocation, with my gown. A sophomore gownsman, no less! It’s ridiculous how proud that made me. It’s ridiculous how happy it makes me to see Sewanee through her eyes, instead of my jaded ones. It’s the same kind of happy I feel when I see Sewanee through my kids’ eyes—my kids who have been spending their summers romping around Sewanee since they were little, and whose memories of it are decidedly uncomplicated. Last year I mentioned to my oldest that if she wanted, she could think about going to college there. “For real, there’s a school up there?” she asked. “Where is it?” Because of course for her the landmarks of Sewanee are lakes to swim in and woods to explore and people to visit and gardens to weed-torch; all those buildings are only large things you bike past on your way to Horace’s market.

They have no clue that's a library behind them.
But for many of us, it’s not quite possible to bike past the things we don’t want to see. At Convocation today, I was shocked to see how white the place still is. I’ve seen more diversity at a family reunion, Lisa Rung is fond of saying, and she’s not wrong. My years living in larger cities make me wince at Sewanee’s whiteness. It’s the price you pay; if you’re going to have the audacity to call yourself the University of the South, you’re going to be taking on all the wretched, complex freight of that word “South,” and you can’t expect other people not to know what that freight is. They know. People of color just don’t apply in large numbers, and it ain’t no mystery why.

It’s still a place without any women in upper administration, or at least, not any visible today. Everyone who conferred degrees or had anything to do with the ceremonial was white and male: chancellor and bishops and chaplain and vice-chancellor and provost and deans, and if that ever seemed normal to my diffident 18-year-old-eyes, it shocks me today.

You’d think, once you know all those things, once you’ve lived there and seen behind  the curtain, that Sewanee has lost its power over you. That’s where you’d be wrong, of course. Refusing to be charmed by Sewanee is like ignoring your ex-wife’s calls in the middle of the night, when you know she is drunk and calling you from a bar and everything she says is going to be a lie, but you know just as surely that you are going to pick up that phone, goddammit, and you’re going to get your keys and stumble out the door and drive to wherever she is, and yes, probably sleep on her sofa too once you get her home safely, just to make sure she’s all right in the morning. You can know all the stuff you know, and all the people you know it about, and by the time the choir hits the soaring descant on “Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation,” it will not matter. You can’t stand there and sing All that dedicated city, dearly loved of God on high and not feel that clench in your throat, that tightness in your chest.

Sewanee will never not be the place I met and fell in love with my husband, and the place we bought our first house, and the place I lived for seven years. But also, Sewanee will never not be the place that viciously screwed the person I love most in the world, and the place where some friendships are buried forever because of that. It will never not be the place I tasted my first beer, got laid by a guy, got laid by a girl, bit into a tomato right off the vine and hot from the sun, and learned that the word for my kind of conservative was in fact liberal.

Sewanee will never not be a tough place to be a woman, to be queer, to be non-white, to be non-Christian. It will also never not be a wonderful place to be all or one or several of those things.

But all that was too long to say to Emily today, so I just hugged her. “I’m so proud of you,” I said. She will figure out the rest.