Sneeze, crumple, aimless toss, miss. There is an ever-growing parade of crumpled tissues surrounding the oval trash can next to my bed. From overhead, the tissues on the floor easily number enough to cover a high school homecoming float. Too tired for Netflix, too feverish to read, the harsh reality of a mid-winter cold is it's as unwelcome as a sub-par tissue against a crimson nose. Medical offices tend to stock under-sized, scratchy tissues from flimsy boxes. On a recent Friday morning, I’m ¾ of the way through a box of thin-ply tissues way before a pair of cordovan leather loafers pause at the doorway. The doctor reads my chart, glances at me and immediately dons a mask. The nurse practitioner has noticed my steady tissue dispensing and reaches into a glass-doored supply cabinet for a fresh box. She suggests I keep the one I have adding, “you look like you really need it.” I want to thank her but the words unleash a ferocious tickle followed by what I refer to as the Marlboro Man cough. I drain the flimsy tissue box of the last one.
Both the doctor and my local pharmacy, (the one known for its register-receipt- coupon-generosity) commend me for having gotten a flu shot earlier in the season.
Still, whatever malaise has taken up residency in my ear is the gift that keeps on giving. Both doctor and patient are more than anxious to derail the culprit who has stayed far too long and is reluctant to leave without a little intervention. I wait on a slim chair behind the screen reserved for flu shot participants. At the moment, no one is participating and the pharmacist seems pleased to have me tucked away, out of plain sight. When my prescriptions are ready, the enthusiastic cashier reminds me of all of the savings I’ve accumulated and hands me enough register tape to wallpaper my kitchen.
Before making the Sherpa-less trek up the stairs and back to bed, I cobble together a cold beverage, a hot beverage and a bowl of mandarins. Had I taken the time to peruse my pharmacy coupons, I could have taken advantage of the very generous two dollars off store-brand Vitamin C tablets. My preferred kind of Vitamin C allows you to peel back the skin, unleashing each sweet/tart segment. Before climbing into bed, I gather up the tissue parade float from the floor, tossing it into the trash. I will not venture down the stairs again until my hankering for chicken soup overrides my desire to sleep.
Loretta Robertoy remains my go-to whenever cherry pie demands my attention. Answering the phone at Hyline Orchards since 1958, the matriarch of the orchard and farm market calls Fish Creek, Wisconsin home. I’ve been chatting with her since 1984 when we first opened A Slice of Heaven in Philadelphia. Loretta is a great-grandmother these days, but continues to run the business alongside her husband, Marvin. Hyline cherries played a prominent role in A Slice of Heaven’s menu, featured not only in pie but enhancing steaming bowls of steel cut oatmeal for breakfast. Cherries arrived frozen in plastic tubs, methodically wrapped in the Advocate, the local newspaper, then slipped into large plastic bags and knotted securely. The knots reflected Midwestern capability- sturdy, no-nonsense and requiring a dickens of a time to undo. I suspect that Loretta implemented the non-negotiable tying of the knots. Loretta has consistently provided cherry support when I needed it most.
When cherry pie was on the menu for Molly O’Neill’s expansive LongHouse Food Revival in Rensselaerville, NY, I called Loretta. It was Loretta who saved me from a commitment I had made for a ridiculous number of cherry pies for Showtime’s Tribute To Twin Peaks, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few years back. And for the past 8 years, when Cupid schedules a February fly-by through Maplewood, NJ, Loretta’s phone rings in Fish Creek.
Connecting with Loretta by phone is not always easy. Loretta divides her time between the house and the store, and has no interest in computer generated customer relations. Loretta retains most information in her head, which she then transfers to an order pad of fine lined paper. Non-smudge resistant carbon paper provides the duplicate copy which is kept somewhere on Loretta’s desk. The challenge in ordering from Loretta is that her long-term memory insists that I still own a restaurant in Philadelphia.
“You’re in Pennsylvania, aren’t ya?” she always says when we finally get down to the business of my shipping address.
“No, not anymore,” I remind her. “I’m in New Jersey.”
“Right,” Loretta replies. “Let me have your address again at the restaurant.”
“It’s a bakery,” I remind her. “The restaurant was in Philadelphia a long time ago. I’m in New Jersey now.”
“We’ll ship these out in a few days. You should have them next week, unless the weather is bad. It might take a little longer.”
It always takes a little longer because Loretta is a busy woman. Sometimes the shipping department at Hyline Orchards needs a gentle reminder, a second phone call. Always surprised that the cherries haven’t yet shipped, Loretta lets me know that she’s currently in the house but will walk over to the store and get things rolling. This second phone call gives us an opportunity to revisit my current address, and reminisce about the time the cherries were sent to Philadelphia.
On our most recent phone call, Loretta told me that the Winter Carnival was scheduled for the weekend, and despite the mild weather forecast, if there was an abundance of snow, the cherries might not ship for a few days. I told her I understood, gave her my address once again, and promised I’d call when the cherries arrived.
Three days later, a weighty corrugated box arrived, postmarked Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Still frosty on the inside, the label advised, Door County Frozen Cherrys.
Keep Frozen – and then in fine print, “Use in your favorite cherry pie recipe or as a topping or eat as they are.” Pretty good cherry advice, no doubt dictated by Loretta. After unwrapping the box and securing two tubs in the walk-in and two tubs in the overcrowded freezer, I stepped outside and called Loretta to let her know the cherries had arrived. The phone rang and rang until I was just about to hang up. Finally Loretta answered, slightly breathless. “I was in the house,” she replied. “Did you get the cherries?”
Of course, I did.
Valentine’s Day is a holiday that sparks division. Nowhere is this great divide more keenly evident than on a sugar cookie platter. With less than a week remaining, the countdown to February 14th feels less sentimental this year, a touch snarkier than in years past. Are we falling out of love with Cupid’s heart-driven holiday?
Much like New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day wants us to plan appropriately. Plans dependent upon long-stemmed roses and dinner for two at over-booked restaurants, generally yield over-priced mediocrity. I am not shy in voicing my opinion that second to Mother’s Day, Valentine’s is the holiday when dinner is best eaten at home, perhaps attired in the Pajama-grams you received in December.
February 14th and I have spent far too many retail days and nights together for me to embrace the holiday with enthusiasm. I will readily accept ownership of tossing the words “I Tolerate You” over my shoulder a few years back, when searching for a suitable flourless chocolate cake inscription. It should also be noted that I did not flinch when the conversation heart cookies took a turn from saccharine to sarcastic, when pastels were replaced by somber gray. This year, however, we’ve reached a tipping point.
Sugar cookies proclaiming their love are being elbowed off the yellow Fiestaware platter by conversation hearts sneering “not ever” and “you wish.” Cynicism penned in royal icing mirrors the way we’re feeling; far less sweet, infinitely more agitated about the world in general. Does this mean we should give Cupid the boot? Not necessarily.
Perhaps a healthier approach to February 14th is simply embracing it for what it is; an excuse to eat chocolate. And there’s plenty of stellar chocolate from which to choose. Unless you are tethered to the heart-shaped boxes filled with mediocre chocolates available at your neighborhood pharmacy/megastore, there are far better alternatives. You can start with the oversized Pound Plus block of bittersweet chocolate from Trader Joes. While you’re there, grab a small container of buttermilk, some butter, a little heavy cream, and a carton of eggs.
Chocolate Chess Pie can sweeten the Hallmark holiday that many of us love to hate. Why Chess Pie? Because it doesn’t require a huge time commitment and the end result is scrumptious. Based on humble ingredients, Chess Pie originally hailed from England before traveling across the pond and taking up residency in New England and throughout the south. Prone to many variations, Chess Pie is a custard pie, known for being a little heavy-handed with the sugar. Similar to many humble pies, its ease in preparation stemmed from the fact that the pie relied on four season ingredients that were available in most kitchen pantries. Over time, the early recipe morphed into variations incorporating the ingredients we liked best.
My long-time relationship with Chocolate Chess Pie played out at Philadelphia's Cafette restaurant. I lost count of the number of pies I baked there, but Chocolate Chess was a perennial favorite. Walnuts were key to the pie’s experience, but can certainly be omitted. Some versions include both nuts and raisins, but since we’re on this side of the pond, our enthusiasm for raisins in baked goods is lackluster. Either way, select a good-quality bittersweet chocolate and spike it with espresso and vanilla. Traditional Chess pie recipes instruct you to whisk some cornmeal into the filling, but as a pie rule breaker, I prefer to toss the cornmeal into the piecrust instead.
As someone with a chocolate-covered cherry Valentine’s history, (thanks, Dad) boozy cherries make a fine addition to this pie. Ditto for a sensible dollop of unsweetened whipped cream and a tall glass of bubbles.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm