Chess Pie: Nothing But Sweet

Photo by Eunice from Flickr

When I was a child, chess pie was my favorite dessert.  Chess pie is a phenomenon of Tennessee and perhaps Kentucky.  It is not subtle.  It is rich and sweet and buttery.  It has some characteristics in common with caramel pies, but the flavor and texture are different.  It is not subtle or savory.  It’s just teeth-stickingly sweet.

As the youngest of five children sometimes I got lost in the shuffle.  Mother was convinced that chess pie was my brother Gil’s favorite (true) and that mine was something else (not true).  One time I came home from college to Aunt Geneva’s coconut pie, which was excellent, but far down my list of favorites.  I’ll never forget how hurt Mother looked when I told her she baked the wrong pie for me.  That was part of our relationship, I’m afraid–she came up with something that wasn’t personal to me, and I punished her for it.  Not very kind of either of us.  Mothers and daughters often are not much fun, but sometimes we learn from our experiences.

Once she got the message I got my chess pie.  I don’t know where the name came from or its history, but it goes back a long way in the middle South.  It must have been a luxury when sugar was in short supply.  My brother gave the recipe to the mess cook in South Carolina when he was in the Air Force, and introduced it to a number of hapless Yankees as well as Southerners.

Chess Pie

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon cornmeal

1 teaspoon flour

1/4 cup milk

2 eggs

1/2 stick melted butter

1 teaspoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix and pour into unbaked pie shell.  Bake at 350 degrees for 40 – 45  minutes or until firm when pressed lightly in the middle.


Riders On the Storm

Effects of Great New England Hurricane of 1938

It’s Saturday, and we’re just starting to feel the edge of Hurricane Irene where I live, north of New York City.  It’s raining steadily, but the violent winds and heavy rain haven’t arrived yet.  I keep hoping one of the TV stations will show “Key Largo,” my favorite hurricane movie.  I live on high ground, so the real dangers for me are power outages and flooded roads.  Here’s hoping I don’t have to live on the canned tuna and cereal bars I bought!

Hurricanes have a different sense of menace than thunderstorms or tornados.  Tornados are the most frightening to me because I grew up with them in Tennessee.  When the sky turns that eerie green you know you have only moments to take cover.  The destruction a tornado wreaks is so random it seems malevolent.  Hurricanes can be enormously destructive and frightening in their threat, as we all know from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.  This will be the first time I have lived in the projected path of one, so I am hoping all the planning and evacuations will prevent any casualties.

The common thunderstorm has its own scary elements.  Lightning and thunder rolling across the horizon, day turning suddently into night, driving sheets of rain–a strong storm is the stuff of old horror movies when you’re safe and dry inside.  But how about when you’re alone in a car at night?  Not so fun!

When I first learned to drive I was often alone on dark country roads at night, coming home from some after school function or club.  It seemed to me that whenever the road was darkest, the radio d.j. played “Riders On the Storm.”  “There’s a killer on the road/his brain is squirming like a toad.”  No thanks to the Doors that I didn’t wreck the car, as I sped up to get home and into the light.

Culinary Disaster by Act of God

Photo by Ghering Family
When I was in high school I took cooking as a challenge, particularly baking.  I was much more ambitious then than I am now.  There’s nothing like energy and not knowing how hard something is to get one into a project.  The kitchen was Mother’s domain, and she rarely allowed me to do much besides stir vegetables or see if the fried chicken was ready to turn.  But she had taught me how to bake desserts.

So I decided to bake a white cake from scratch for Mother’s birthday, a three-layer cake which I planned to decorate.  For those of you who haven’t done this, you have to separate several eggs, i.e., separate the whites from the yolks, without piercing the yolk, in order to make a white cake.

I set to work in the kitchen of our house on the farm, sifting flour, separating the eggs, creaming butter and sugar.  Glancing out the window over the dining table, I saw thunderclouds gathering, but that was nothing unusual for July 5 in Tennessee.  I poured the batter into the cake pans and put the pans in the electric oven, feeling a trifle smug.

I don’t remember what I did after that–probably I lounged around in my cutoff jeans and read a book, which was what I usually did on a summer day that was not promising for tanning.  Then without warning the sky turned an odd greenish-black, growing darker and darker, and the power went out.  Mother and I went in the garage since it only had one window and waited for the storm to go through.  My dog Dusty whined to come in, so Mother let him in the garage, a rare treat for him.

The storm blew through quickly.  We learned afterward that a tornado went through a couple of miles away.  After about 15 or 20 minutes the power came back on.  I reset the timer for the oven and watched the cake pans anxiously.  But it was no good.  The cake layers had fallen when the power went out, and no further heat could save them.  Each layer was about a half-inch thick, dense and rubbery.

“I’ll bake you another one,” I said to Mother.  “Do something simpler this time,” she said.  I threw two of the layers in the trash and took the third one out back to give to Dusty.

Dusty looked at the cake layer, and looked at me.  He looked at the cake again, looked at me, and wagged his tail.  Then he picked up the fallen cake, carried it out in the field, and buried it.  It would be a very rainy day before he dug that up.

The Way We Were

Photo by MaxPride
The other night I watched the PBS special of Barbra Streisand performing to a small audience at the Village Vanguard, “One Night Only,” recorded in 2009.  Never having been a huge Barbra fan, I was surprised at how moving the show was.  Just Barbra and a jazz quintet, with a room of adoring fans (including President Clinton and Sarah Jessica Parker), and her best songs–and a flood of memories.

As a kid, I saw “The Way We Were” and had a good cry.  Whatever happened to romantic tearjerkers, even stupid ones?  Hearing that song transported me to a time when I believed lost love was tragic and hoped it would never happen to me.  Robert Redford in his golden youth–what could be better?

Women and girls back then were struggling to create more opportunities for themselves.  Remember the Equal Rights Amendment?  How about “equal pay for equal work”?  When was the last time you heard that phrase?  And women still make less than men for the same work today.  There was also a great emphasis on equality in relationships between men and women, and what a struggle that was!  But love and/or romance tended to overwhelm any differences, whether in movies or in real life.

My impression is that young women today take all this struggle for granted.  My other impression is that romance in movies is dead unless you’re a vampire or werewolf.  I saw the movie “Friends With Benefits” a few weeks ago, and it was about as romantic (and as comic) as a visit to the drugstore to buy condoms, despite having two very appealing leads, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.  They sort of learned a lesson about sex and love, but it was distasteful every step of the way.  Is this what love has come to?

So here’s a link to a video from the Village Vanguard concert.

And here’s to a little more romance in the world, between loving equals.

Bad Photography and Good Memories

Fira, Santorini

It poured rain today, so I finally embarked on a chore I’ve been avoiding–going through old photos.  I have five or six file boxes full of envelopes with prints and film in them, going back for several pre-digital years.  One of my friends advised me to winnow them down to just the ones I care about and pitch the rest, which makes the task of scanning the remaining photos more manageable.

I only made it through one box so far, which seemed to cover pieces of 1997 through 2000.  My trip to Australia and New Zealand in 1998 was not in there, but every Christmas was.  Glancing through the photos made it clear that I was a terrible photographer in those days.  I took a million pictures of statues, castles, museums, and monuments.  The only ones I recognize now are the David in Florence and the radio/TV tower in Berlin.  I took a great one of my late partner Ron in which it looks like the tower is coming out the top of his head.

In the bad old days you had to take rolls and rolls of film to get a few usable shots, and that was just the norm.  It didn’t help that it took me years to learn not to have the sun behind your subject (they will be dark) and a little bit about composition (frame the shot, or make sure your subject of interest is to one side, forming a kind of triangle).  There are so many shots of people that I don’t remember, or places where I spent too much time taking pictures and not enough being there, taking in the moment.

I swear I have some better ones in the other boxes (at least, I hope I do!).  But even some of the bad ones made me remember some times I hadn’t thought about in a while, like when all of us sisters surprised Juanita on her 60th birthday.  Her husband Larry flew us all in from around the country so we could go out for dinner and a limo ride through Washington D.C. at night.   Then there was the ’70s party at a company sales meeting.  Hmm, maybe some of those photos would be good for blackmail (just kidding).  It’s interesting to watch my hair, weight, and clothing change.  Whoever came up with pleated jeans as a fashion statement should be shot.

The photo above was taken in Fira on Santorini sometime in the ’90s.  The donkeys are carrying passengers and goods up from the harbor where the cruise ships dock.  It’s a pretty good picture.  I think Ron must have taken this one.

Too Much Sharing?

An article in The New York Times today addressed how people handle the proliferation of social media sites .  Some folks are even threatening to start a boycott or cut back their usage.  It’s a far cry from the old message boards.  Most of these sites will not survive (remember Friendster?).  But there are an alarming/exciting/bewildering number of ways to communicate online.

I’m less concerned about the burgeoning number of ways we can talk to each other because we all have a choice–pick the one(s) you want to use, and walk away from the others.  I’m more concerned about the public nature of most social media.  This blog is an example.  Everything I write here is true to what I recall or what I know.  However, there are many subjects I don’t write about because this forum is public.

I don’t want to argue about politics or religion.  I don’t want to reveal family secrets.  I don’t want to tell stories that could be damaging to me personally or professionally.  Yet I will only write about things I care about or find amusing.  So you can trust my content, but it’s not very sensational.

I’m concerned about the wealth of personal information many people divulge online.  Did you know employers are now checking Facebook to see if potential employees exhibit bad judgment or distasteful behavior?  All I’m saying is, let’s stop and think before we post.  Then go ahead and tell a good story!


Kangaroos in the Woods

Photo by Roke
Some years ago I went to Australia and New Zealand with my boyfriend.  He was attending a young lawyers’ convention in October, and I was along for an exotic vacation.  The convention was at a hotel in Sydney.  We had become friendly with one of the Sydney lawyers and his wife, at other conventions in other cities scattered around the globe.  I don’t recall his name now, so I’ll call him Jim.  His wife was Brenda.

Jim invited us to spend some weekend time with them at their ranch in the Hunter Valley, which is north of Sydney.  The ranch was about two hours’ drive from the city, in some lovely hills and wine country.  It was early spring in New South Wales, so the trees were just turning green and the weather was cool and damp.  We toured a couple of wineries and enjoyed some samples, then set off for the ranch.

My first reaction was a shock of recognition.  The ranch house was actually a fairly smallish white-painted clapboard with a tin roof, a screen door and a large porch.  It looked exactly like the ones I grew up with in the country in Tennessee.  The trees in the yard were familiar, willows and elms as I recall, and there were rose bushes.  Jim said the original owner had gotten them from England many years ago.   The leaves were opening on the trees, the grass was bright, and I felt I could have been back in Montgomery County.

Jim led us to the back yard and fired up a huge stone “barbie.”  Brenda had brought a lot of barbecue food, and Jim set about cooking a real Australian feast.  I helped set the picnic table and walked over to pet the white horses in their pasture, who were offended that I didn’t have carrots or apples for them.

It was a little chilly and cloudy, but Australians like being outdoors, and I was happy to sip a glass of wine and watch someone else cook.  Then Brenda said quietly, “Keep your voices down and move slowly, and look over at the woods on the edge of the pasture.”

Coming out of the woods with their ungainly lope were three kangaroos.  “They’re shy,” Brenda said, “but if we’re quiet they will graze for a while.”  It was like watching deer come out of the woods to eat grass, only kangaroos instead.  I felt again that odd sense of displacement, as if they had hopped out of the woods at my uncle’s old farm in Tennessee.  They grazed for a few minutes then slipped back into the woods as quietly as they had come.

Later that night our hosts took us to a corroboree, a ceremonial meeting of Aborigines, and we encountered a wombat strolling along the side of the road.  Yes, we were really in Australia!  But that night at their ranch house I hoped for rain so I could hear the sound of rain on a tin roof, as I did long ago at my uncle’s house.

Small Comforts

Photo by Miya
I just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith’s new book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, “The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.”  Reading one of those books is like dropping into another world, brightly colored, lively, but with a culture based on respect and manners.  It’s Botswana, but mostly a gentle version of the country, although occasionally AIDS, blood diamonds, and witch doctors appear in the stories.

Mma Ramotswe, the lead detective, reflects at one point on how small things can save you when life begins to seem too much to bear.  For her, it’s a cup of red bush tea as she sits on her veranda and contemplates the day, or as a tea break in her office with Mma Makutsi.  The ritual is as important as the tea itself, if not more important.

A number of things help me when I’m feeling down.  Re-reading a Jane Austen novel or getting lost in a British murder mystery from the Golden Age (Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh) or a Rex Stout or Robert B. Parker reassure me because the good guys always win, and I’ve read them before, so I know how it comes out!  These books are an escape into another world.

Petting my cat or brushing him helps because it makes him happy.  One of the most satisfying things about pet ownership is how easy they are to please (as opposed to most human beings).   Having my supper club friends over for dinner forces me to concentrate on planning and cooking instead of my troubles.  Other small things I enjoy are a really cold Diet Coke, being safe inside while a thunderstorm rages outside, relaxation in yoga class, having finally learned how to fix the stopper in the bathroom sink, and unexpected hugs.

Sometimes I have run through my whole repertory and nothing works.  Those are the nights when I wake up in the small hours and can’t go back to sleep.  I have a new trick that seems to help–think of words that make me happy or comfortable, and repeat them.  Relax, safe, comfort, light, cool, quiet, calm, snuggle.

What are the small comforts you enjoy?  What are the words or deeds that work for you?  Wishing everyone a calm, safe, comfortable, cool, quiet, relaxed night!

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