Friday, July 27, 2012

Why Is this Pie Different from All Other Pies?

With all other pies, I felt certain that I would find blueberries at the farmers' market. Why with this pie did I worry that I might not?
As any halfway awake person has noticed and can confirm from personal experience, the weather and related environmental events have been . . . troublingly weird. Record-high temperatures. Drought here. Floods there. Violent storms, some with names we never heard before. Forest fires. Electrical outages. Trees falling. In Illinois, where I live (and nearby, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana), we've had the record drought and heat. Farmers are suffering, and at our local farmers market, farmers report that they lost high percentages of their peach and cherry and corn crops. As I heard and read about all this, I started to fear for the blueberry crops. I started to fear the idea of going to the farmers market at all because I feared I would see empty booths and tables that in past summers had been laden. But I forced myself to go, because it was the time of year for making the muse-inspiring blueberry pie, and to my delight and amazement, I found a wealth of blueberries.
In short, it wasn't as bad as I feared. And there were peaches, too. And ears of corn. Maybe not as much as in years past, but it was there. And none of this is to say that I dismiss the reality of environmental "problems." But it is meant to explain why my feelings about this pie are different from any other pie (that I can remember).

With all other pies, while being baked, the crust shrinks down a little bit from the sides. Why with this pie did the crust shrink down way more and the bottom-center of the crust balloon way up?
Now I realize that I should have taken a photo to show the described phenomenon. But I was so nervous about it (would the filling even fit into the shell with all that distortion?), I didn't think to take a picture of that phase. I did take a picture of an earlier phase--which may in part explain the crust behavior.
It's not a very good picture. In fact, it's a pretty bad one. But I think you might be able to see the problem. It was a very, very hot evening when I was rolling out the dough. And the butter was getting greasy--something you don't want to happen. Then, I delayed putting the crust into the refrigerator even longer as I attempted to get a photo of it, but I think my hands were unsteady (my concern with the crust, the heat of the evening), and that's why the photo is blurry. At any rate, I am thinking that the extra heat and greasiness may have contributed to the final outcome--the shrinkage and the ballooning. All of which might also be seen as weather-related.

With all other pies, the crust is visible along the sides of the pie pan above the filling. Why with this pie is the crust completely submerged?
See answer to previous question and photo at the top.

With all other pies, I have been basically by myself in the kitchen while I was baking. Why with this pie did I have company?
My daughter is home visiting, and she was in the kitchen while I worked, and she stirred the blueberries on the stove top for me--a step that has troubled me in the past, as some readers might remember, because the mixture looks so impossibly dry. Having her there was a very nice addition to the routine, as she reminded me with great practicality that everything would be fine because the berries have juice, and they would eventually release it into the dry ingredients on the stove top.

The point, I believe, is that every homemade pie is different from every other pie, as is every night. And to work back to the literary spirit that is at the heart of this pie baking, so is every writer and every writing session and every book and anxious moment and every joyous moment, and every literary rejection and every literary success. The crust sides may shrink and the crust bottom may balloon, and the result may be unconventional and unexpected in multiple ways, but it may still end up to be quite delicious, as my pie did this time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stories from Readers

It's good to get out. Last night I went to the home of a neighbor for a meeting of her book group. Her group--ten to twelve women--had read my book, Grand River and Joy. The novel has been out three years this month, and I am grateful and also thrilled that people are still reading and discussing it. A few weeks ago, my sister's book group in New Jersey discussed it. This morning, first thing, I had an email from a woman in Israel (an old friend of my husband's family) who read my book and plans to discuss it with her book group near the end of the month.
     The women at the group last night were excellent readers and thinkers, and the questions and comments were insightful and thought-provoking. Because they just read the book, they remembered details I had almost forgotten (Curtis's response to white women playing with their hair; the grandmother's disapproval in the bicycle giveaway; the way Curtis and Harry step on each others' toes, trying to give each other parenting advice).
     Anyway . . . a couple stories that these women told from real life stayed with me and also fit well with the topic of this blog, from which I have so often strayed.
     1. One woman is a children's librarian in a suburban library where the community is relatively affluent and mostly white. She says that they track circulation statistics, and books with ethnically diverse characters or with black characters portrayed on the cover tend to circulate very little. I asked whether circulation statistics influence purchasing decisions, and she said that the library staff try not to give in too much--she believes that in a homogenous community like that, it's particularly important for children to be exposed in some way to people who don't look exactly like they do)--but budgets are limited, and so the collection tends to track with popularity. Sigh.

     2. Another woman--the host for the evening--said she had recently gone to a spelling bee at the neighborhood elementary school. This is the school my daughter went to, and it is well-integrated in the racial/ethnic sense. It is the school that offered the gospel choir I referred to a couple posts back. At any rate, the spelling bee was for all grades, and there were about 100 or more children there, all very excited and eager to participate. The worrisome thing, she said, was that of all these children, only perhaps three or four were black. Why is this? she wondered. Although I can never again think of a spelling bee without thinking of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (what a little jewel of a book), I wondered too.

     3. Then there were the two women--one who grew up in a Chicago neighborhood called "Back of the Yards" (where the stockyards used to be when Chicago was "Hog Butcher to the World") and the other who grew up in an Illinois town called Bensenville--who had never met a black person or a Jew until they went to college. As I often explain when discussing my book, pretty much the ONLY people I knew growing up were blacks and Jews. And so we all reflected on how we're shaped by the place where we grow up. Although several women in the group last night grew up in various parts of Chicago and had families who moved as part of "White Flight," the woman from Back of the Yards said that her neighborhood--which was very poor--never became integrated. Books, stories, life, books, stories, life. So many stories. So much life. So many books.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


photo by John Thomas Grant, cemetery photographer
 Once upon a time, my father was leveled by grief at my mother's sudden death. Really, it seemed impossible that we (he, my two sisters, and I) would be able to accommodate the idea that this had really happened. For him, especially, however, the question of how to go on, to find a path through life without her, loomed. My sisters and I lived scattered across the country from him, and he did a pretty good job of feigning adjustment and recovery in addition to (gradually) actually adjusting and recovering, as widows and widowers have done since time immemorial.This was more than 25 years ago.
     One day, as my father become more lively, he began to speak of meeting new women. My mother had often joked that he would not be at a loss for women if she was no longer around. And I believe that he did meet several, but then suddenly, there was Trudi. Full name: Gertrude Haftka. They met at an anti-war march, and she lived in the same town as he did, not far away, and they seemed to have a lot in common in addition to political activism and hopes for peace.
     They both liked to walk, be active, think, read, discuss, travel. Book groups. Study groups. Soon, he introduced Trudi to his family, as she introduced him to hers--her daughter, Judy. Her son, Harold. Their spouses and children. And then they were talking about moving in together, and then they broke up, and then they got back together, and then she moved into his house, and then they got married. And she was Trudi Messer. We (meaning his daughters) had many complicated feelings about this, as we tend toward complicated feelings in our family, but overall, we could see how happy Trudi made our father, how she helped him come out of his shell, with the same extroverted spirit our mother had.
     One thing about Trudi: She was very good with her hands, with the fine-motor skills--sewing and knitting and so forth. She had long, graceful fingers, and even now I can remember how they looked when they were working and when they were still. As a charitable project for her temple, she used to launder and press  other people's fancy table cloths (she had a way with fabric). She did one for me once, and it was so beautiful (every stain gone; crisp and perfect) that it brought me to tears. Here she is, with my father and my daughter and her knitting--about 15 years ago.

     It is not an easy thing to sum a person up, to do them justice with a brief description, and I will not claim to even be trying to do that here. The point is that my father died in 1998, and this was difficult for her, of course, to lose her true love, and it was also difficult for us, his daughters, to lose our second parent.
Trudi continued to be part of our family's life after that. She came to Chicago when one of my stories was "performed" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And she also came for my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, where she drank a lot of wine at the party and appeared to have a wonderful time.
     Then, she became ill, and her slow withdrawal from life began. And this morning her daughter called me to tell me that Trudi had died. I told her daughter that my sister and I often quote Trudi--one memorable quote in particular. Whenever we were feeling discouraged or downhearted and hoping for change and revival, Trudi would say, "Look. I don't know when it's going to happen. I don't know how it's going to happen. I don't know where it's going to happen. But I KNOW it's going to happen."
     Why, just last week, when I was talking to my sister (neither of us having any inkling that Trudi was in decline), she used the Trudi quote on me, and I think we both felt better.