Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Musing on Apple Pie

I am not a good cook.  My mother Martha was not a good cook either. (If it was Thursday, you could be sure we were eating Tuna Casserole with crushed potato chips on top.) My first job, back in 1964, was as a writer in Ladies’ Home Journal’s food department.  “I can’t believe you’re telling seven million women how to cook!” my mother would often exclaim.  (Of course I wasn’t writing recipes—the ladies in the test kitchen were doing that.  It was my job to write the text that went with the recipes, with a heavy reliance on words like “crunchy” , “delectable”, “golden brown”, “rib-sticking”, “taste tempting”, etc.)

But my mother and (later) I always knocked ourselves out at Thanksgiving—it was part of our Scandinavian/American heritage. When I was a child, we would often drive the forty miles to Aunt Olive and Uncle Clarence’s house in Princeton, Minnesota, at Thanksgiving, where our grandmother and aunts would be laboring over a vat of boiling oil, making those three-dimensional cookies called “Rosettes”. (You need a decorative iron mold on a long metal rod, coat it with thin dough, then plunge it into the boiling oil.)  I remember we’d all eat until we were sick—cleansing the palate with sherbets between courses so we could eat more—and then the men would loosen their belts and fall asleep while watching football on television and the women would retreat to the kitchen to clean up and gossip.

Ever since I got married forty-one years ago, I’ve made a big production out of Thanksgiving – even in the years when we were living with our three children in Greece, where the traditional ingredients were never available. (Daughter Eleni, in her travel memoir “North of Ithaka” describes a particularly hilarious Thanksgiving when I cooked turkey in the very primitive conditions of my husband’s mountaintop childhood village while Dina, the acknowledged cooking queen of Lia, endeavored to out-cook me, ending up with a charred Turkey that everyone preferred to my golden-brown one.)

So for 41 years I’ve been doing Thanksgiving—streamlining the procedure drastically every year because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.)  They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other things.  Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.”  

But because I like to bake, I generally make four pies or three pies and a cake.  This year I made three of the pies on Monday night—a “reduced calorie” pecan pie with maple syrup instead of corn syrup, and a “chocolate-kahlua” pie which somehow became a Thanksgiving tradition many years ago when I tried out the recipe.  Now I could leave out the turkey and no one would complain, but they sure would miss the Chocolate Kahlua pie.  The pumpkin pie I’m making today.

But to get to Apple Pie.  Some people (like author Joyce Maynard, who often writes about her famous apple pies) are born with a pie-making gene that’s usually inherited from their mother.  There was no apple-pie gene in my family.  So every Thanksgiving I try a different apple pie recipe, in the hopes of finding the prize winning Apple Pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow)  to my family’s eyes.

I haven’t hit on the perfect recipe yet, but this year, on Monday night, I baked a pie based on a recipe I tore out of the New York Post.  The article seems to be about what wives of NY Jets football players cook at Thanksgiving.  Now, I know even less about football than I do about cooking, but I noticed the apple pie recipe with the title “Apple Pie Made Woody Marry Her!” Woody is Woody Johnson, owner of the Jets, it seems, and the recipe looked very simple, so I figured why not?  If it landed this lady a “mogul husband” I’d giving it a try—even though I landed my mogul husband forty some years ago by learning to make Greek Coffee.

Among other things, the recipe calls for “Five large peeled apples, chopped.”    When I went to my supermarket on Monday before my pie-making marathon, I reflected that I love Thanksgiving because (1.)  It’s non-denominational—everyone can enjoy it except maybe the Native Americans—and (2.)  Only at this time of year do you see the market jammed with crazed shoppers trying to find some exotic recipe ingredient (dried cherries, fresh ginger, craisins ) that they never buy at any other time of the year.  

I finally found the last package of chocolate wafers--needed for the crust of the Kahlua pie, but it was way at the back of the top shelf so I convinced a leggy blonde shopper pushing a baby nearby to climb up on the bottom shelf and reach it for me. 

(Food shopping at Thanksgiving can be hazardous to one’s health, as I reflected yesterday when, visiting the newly opened Wegman’s in Northboro to get some of their adorably frosted Turkey cookies to use as place cards, I passed by a woman who was being wheeled on a gurney out the door to a waiting ambulance, escorted by about a dozen EMTs and trailed by Wegman’s employees looking worried.  As I stood aside to let the gurney pass,  I heard the injured woman say “I didn’t even see her coming and then there she was, right in front of me!”)

During my pie-shopping market visit on Monday, I went to the produce department and asked an employee who was stacking fruit, a young man about 18 years old, “What’s the best kind of apple for making pie?”

“Uh, I don’t know,” he stammered, then asked another 18-year old near-by who also shrugged.  Then he yelled at an older man, who was spraying brightly colored  peppers, “Hey Tom!  What’s the best kind of apple….”

Tom didn’t even blink. “You need a combination,” he said.  “Pink Lady for the flavor, Comstock for the crunch and also Granny Smith.”  He chose for me one Pink Lady, two bright red Comstocks, and two green Granny Smith’s. 

That’s the kind of information and friendly interaction with one’s neighbors that is inspired by Thanksgiving.  People helping people.  As opposed to Christmas shopping, when it’s the law of the jungle to get the last Tickle-Me-Elmo.  That’s another reason I love Thanksgiving.

So I cooked the pie that made Woody Johnson marry his wife Suzanne.  It’s keeping cold on the porch.  On Thursday we’ll find out if I’ve finally hit on The Ultimate Apple Pie—good enough to become a Thanksgiving Tradition, like Chocolate Kahlua.  I’ll let you know.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Does The New York Times Scorn Women?

If you read the New York Times announcement of my daughter Eleni’s wedding last year, you might think the mother of the bride was dead, hidden away in the attic, non-existent or had never held a job in her life.  The New York Times (free-lance!) writer, Devan Sipher, who wrote the announcement cited the professions of the mother and father of the groom and the father of the bride, but refused to mention the fifty years I had spent writing for national newspapers and magazines, even though 21 of the articles I’d written had appeared in The New York Times.

(You may remember Devan Sipher as the writer of the notorious “Vows” column in the Times celebrating a couple who dumped their spouses for each other after they met at their kids’ pre-kindergarten classrooms.)                                 .

While the snub was painful, I put it aside until yesterday, when I read a new post on my daughter’s blog “The Liminal Stage” called “Nice Work if You Kin Get It.” Eleni studied folk lore and mythology in college and will publish her second book “Other Waters” in February.  She usually writes in her blog about “psychological thresholds, times of transition…The biggies are birth, marriage, death.” The subject of yesterday’s post was “kin work” which she explains as  “the term anthropologists use to describe the ‘conception, maintenance, and ritual celebration of cross boundary kin ties’” –in other words, hosting Thanksgiving dinner, remembering birthdays, sending Christmas cards…you get the idea.

Eleni went on to say that it’s usually women who do kin work and their work is usually unpaid and therefore undervalued. She continues:

“I also think it’s a question of identity. If someone goes into an office every day, society knows how to define him or her–by his or her title or job description. The fact that a person goes somewhere and does something that someone else pays them to do renders them, inherently, worthwhile. Those of us who work at home, juggling work that pays us along with kin work, are considered dilettantes.

“This was brought into high relief for me during my wedding, by the writer who wrote up our New York Times’ wedding announcement

“The reporter asked where my mother, a writer, had been published in the past year. I said Vogue and Budget Travel. 

‘If that’s it, that’s exactly what the Times is trying to avoid–-part-time work,’ said the man, a freelancer himself.

“This angered me for any number of reasons: First, who gets to decide how many publications per year make one a full-time freelancer versus a part-timer? What if your sole publication is a groundbreaking article or book? (I mean, if my mother had been Harper Lee, would he have said, ‘And what has she published in the last 51 years since To Kill A Mockingbird?’)

“And second, what’s wrong with part-time work anyway? In an economy such as ours, and a world in which technology enables us to work from home, more and more people in any number of fields are going freelance. Does the fact that they don’t go into an office every day mean that they don’t really work?

“But what angered me most was the misogyny of it all. My mom had gone into an office before she started raising kids. As did I. And the fact that she re-shaped her career to make room for kin work, as well as paid work, had rendered her so unimportant in the eyes of a paper she had contributed to well over a dozen times, that she was omitted from the graph describing the jobs of the parents of the bride and groom in the wedding announcement of one of the children she’d made time to raised. So yes, as Mary Elizabeth Williams pointed out in Salon today, the New York Times does have female trouble.”

Eleni’s right. I did go into an office for many years—working first for Ladies Home Journal, then in London, editing a small magazine called “Homemaker’s Digest”, then, after returning to New York and marrying a reporter for the New York Times, I worked for a syndicated features service that published my articles around the world.  By the time the second of our three children was born, I only went into the office a few days a week, working at home on other days.

When our third child was born in 1977, our family was moved by the New York Times to Athens, Greece, where I raised the children while my husband spent most of his time in Turkey and Iran covering revolutions and war as the Times’ foreign correspondent for the Middle East. (He usually made it home for Christmas.)  During the five years in Greece, I wrote a number of articles for the Times about entertainers, politicians, artists, travel and archeology.

Among the journalistic gigs I’m proudest of is the series of essays I wrote for the Times “Hers” column in 1979.  People born since 1970 cannot imagine what a journalistic milestone it was for the Old Gray Lady to launch a weekly essay written by women about women’s issues.

During the 1980s I wrote a monthly column called “Kids in the Country” for  Country Living, and have continued to publish free-lance articles everywhere I can, including several in Vogue, as well as writing a number of movie scripts with my husband (which have been optioned but so far not made it to the screen.) So, from my point of view, it feels like I never stopped working

Daughter Eleni ends her blog post with a thought about her baby daughter Amalía: “This attitude towards women–and work–this idea that any work done at home is irrelevant, is something I struggle with now that I am doing more kin work than ever. How can I raise my daughter not to think that her father’s work is more valuable than mine because papi gets dressed and drives off to the office, and mama stays home and writes in between loads of laundry…Maybe by the time Amalía does kin work of her own, we’ll have figured out a way to reward it, beyond just giving it a name.”

I share that wish, and I hope that when Amalía gets married some 30 years from now, her mother will be included in the New York Times announcement, acknowledged as a real person who had a real career.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Night in the Mission –San Francisco

Visiting San Francisco gave me a chance to hang out and see daughter Marina’s cool apartment in the Mission neighborhood (Bay window in the bedroom, solar powered mood lights in the bathroom, diner-style corner booth in the kitchen.)

Yesterday we meandered down 24th street and then turned right on Valencia and over to Mission, reveling in the unique atmosphere of this neighborhood.  There are painted ladies and wonderful Victorian architecture everywhere.  And nearly every wall bears a mural –which is why we took a walking tour of the Mission Trail Murals on Saturday, an incredible experience I intend to write about next.  Everywhere you look, including on this playground, are images referring to  the hopes, aspirations and beliefs of the many ethnic groups who have made Mission their home.

The stores sell everything from Day of the Dead candy skulls and skeletons of every kind (including Michael Jackson), to tarot readings, very cool vintage clothing, antiques of every nature, lucha libre masks, and the world’s best donuts (at Dynamo). 

Today we had breakfast at St. Francis Fountain (SF’s oldest ice cream parlor) that features such items a “Nebulous Potato Thing” and “Chef’s Mess.” (We split the latter. It was delicious.)  They also sell vintage gum—the kind that came with trading cards of your favorite TV program.

But last night, after shopping our way down to Mission, antiquing at “Gypsy Honeymoon”,  buying 1950’s style stools at “Stuff” on Valencia, watching  people have their tintype portraits taken at Photobooth and admiring the art exhibited everywhere, we  forged on through the cloud of marijuana fumes to have a drink at the roof-type “Sky loft” at  MedJool on Mission Street atop the Elements Hotel (which offers dormitory-type hotel rooms.)  From the roof we could see the sunset and the now boarded-up movie theaters that once offered porn films in glamorous surroundings.

Soon it was dark and Marina made plans for us to meet with her friend Kristen and Kristen’s year-old daughter at the nearby “Radio Habana Social Club.”  We walked into a place the size of a large walk-in closet.  Its walls and ceilings were hung with bizarre “art” including mangled figures .  I decided the wall art was tributes to authors and rebels, many of whom died tragically, especially with the help of alcohol.

In the back of the small room, a trio of Cuban musicians were playing at an ear-splitting level, while to one side drinks and sangria were being served at the bar.

“This is no place to bring a year old baby” I shouted into Marina’s ear over the  din.

But by the time Kristen and baby arrived, I was completely under the spell of the music, the warmth and enjoyment of everybody in the room, which heated up to the point where the tall, dark man to my left busted out with some incredible break dancing moves—not easy in such a limited space.

Finally we tore ourselves away from Radio Habana and walked over to the “Foreign Cinema” restaurant—unassuming from the outside, but very large and up-scale on the inside.  We sat in a giant  covered courtyard where  classic foreign films are project on the  giant screen.   Last night it was “The Shadow of a Vampire” about the filming of one of my favorite old-time films, Nosferatu.

We ate Opa fish, kalamari, pork belly and a vegetarian plate for Kristen followed by pumpkin cheesecake and roasted pear profiteroles.

By the time we got back to the bedroom with the bay window view, I felt  transported back to my youth, when I graduated from Berkley in 1963 and headed for New York and  the rest of my classmates hung around to nurture the Free Speech movement and wait around for the Summer of Love.   Wonder where we’ll go tonight?

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Baby with 1,000 Faces

Here it is November 11 and I haven't written a blog post since Halloween!  My computer & blog teacher and famous artist Andy Fish will be scolding me again, as he firmly believe in Blogging Every Day as he does on Fish Wrap.

In the last two weeks I have experienced the "Historic Storm" in the Northeast,  which downed a lot of trees and knocked out our power for four days (when the interior temperature went down to 20 degrees.)

Then I flew down to Miami to spend about five days with daughter Eleni and granddaughter Amalia (and son-in-law Emilio).  I've been planning to write a blog about South Beach and the Sleepless Night festivities we enjoyed and the art on the Wynwood Walls, but just can't get my act together. Stay tuned.

And then I flew yesterday to San Francisco with husband Nick to attend a Hellenic Charity Gala, staying in the Fairmont and exploring San Francisco with daughter Marina who is setting up her apartment here (with a kitchen that incorporates a diner theme.)

So I'll tell you about all that soon (I hope) but meanwhile will show you some more photos of Amalía, the baby with a thousand expressions, as she  approaches her three month birthday and delights us by interacting with and discovering the world.

She sits in her Boppy Pillow watching with awe as her butterfly mobile spins.

She hangs out with her parents at all the happening spots in South Beach.  But sometimes can't stay awake.

She practices making sounds as a preview to talking.

And she readies her wardrobe  for Thanksgiving, when she will travel to New York and Grafton, MA to meet all of her extended family and her parents' friends.

I promise a more serious blog post soon--with no grand-baby photos!