With summer plans stymied by an unprecedented state of uncertainty, most of us are grounded for the foreseeable future. Retreating to the confines of a deeply cushioned, roll arm wing chair, I remember travel. Travel boasted traffic delays and flight cancellations. Luggage carousels were part of the travel experience; not-so-merry-go-rounds of almost everyone’s American Tourister and Samsonite that successfully made the flight. We tossed around the words ‘tarmac,’ and ‘now boarding’ and ‘gate change’ with cockeyed optimism because the world was indeed, our oyster. With seatbelts tightly fastened and tray tables secure, we bemoaned the non-stop crying baby chorus on the non-stop flight. Even when it was the worst of flights, in hindsight, it was the best of times.
Currently confined to quarters with no travel on the horizon, my itinerary is limited, my favorite destination, the kitchen. I have become a step-ladder traveler, dragging a ladder from the basement, up the stairs, planting it firmly in front of the kitchen pantry. Teetering on the top rung of a supposedly “Non-slip 3 Step” feels somewhat safer than stepping out of my clogs and scaling a kitchen chair. It feels infinitely safer than boarding a plane.
My folding ladder offers a panoramic view of dry goods, canned goods, glass bottles and beveled jars. From my lofty perch, it is easy to scan the inventory, reacquainting myself with purchases lost in the shuffle of quarantine provisioning. It also affords an up close and personal view of items smuggled back from far-flung holidays. Wedged beside too many jars of peanut butter and just as many almond butters is a tiny jar of pistachio cream. The pistachio cream instantly conjures a gravity defying double scoop of gelato, eaten within view of an imposing duomo. The velvety pistachio concentrate was purchased in Siena, a jaw-dropping Tuscan hill town. It was in Siena that our merry band of travelers packed a week’s worth of sight-seeing into a single day. Access to the medieval city was dependent upon a casually reliable local bus with an elusive timetable. Winding through the Tuscan countryside, I was hell bent on visiting a bakery highly touted by the locals. Bini, known for its exquisitely rustic pastries and tempting salted almonds was a bakery nerd’s dream. I circled back to the glass-fronted display cases of the pasticceria four times in that single day, once after losing my way, and three times, intentionally.
Distracted only by Gothic-style churches, handmade leather goods, and waffle cones over-filled with gelato, our walking tour of Siena led us away from the Piazza del Campo, down a labyrinth of streets. A sliver of a grocery store jutting out from a row of residential buildings deserved a pause. A very patient man nodded while I attempted to converse in embarrassingly non-fluent Italian. Attired in an impeccably clean white jacket and slim black trousers, the merchant led me to a small wooden cabinet filled with jars. The cabinet housed specialty ingredients for both pasticceria and gelato. The shopkeeper pointed to a jar of Cremadelizia Pistacchio, closing his eyes in reverence. He paused for a moment before deliberately pointing to the ‘use by’ date. I nodded.
Too much time has lapsed between my trip to Tuscany and my current harboring at home status. Kneeling on the middle rung of the ladder, I examine the glass jar with the gold lid and pistachio green label. Squinting, the numerals on the 150 gram jar are sadly indistinguishable. Doing some quick travel math, it appears the pistachio cream train is preparing to leave the station. I bump it to the head of the baking line. Directly adjacent to the nut butters is an ongoing jam/jelly/confiture travelogue. Each jar on the pantry shelf traveled home buried in a suitcase, overwrapped in t-shirts and stray socks. Some jams were purchased at sun drenched farmers’ markets, others were recommended by locals, and a few were enjoyed over coffees, teas, and sweets. Behind the jams, a small tin of violet sugar from Provence and a bottle of rose extract, procured from a tiny shop in Florence, stand neglected. A palm-sized plastic bag offers a fistful of cardamom pods from Carlos’ House of Spice in Toronto. Remembering when a quick visit to Canada was still possible, I fold the step-ladder with regret and lug it back downstairs.
The lid of the pistachio cream is stubborn. Grasping a kitchen towel, I twist once, twice, and once again before tapping the lid with the handle of a knife. The lid pops, unleashing a buttery, nutty, purely Italian fragrance. Dipping a pinky into the smooth surface of the pistachio cream, I close my eyes. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in Siena.
A few Mays ago, I was tasked with baking sixty cherry pies for a pop-up event in Brooklyn celebrating the return of “Twin Peaks.” A new season of the cult classic was airing exclusively on Showtime, prompting renewed enthusiasm for ‘damn fine coffee’ teamed with ‘the best cherry pie.’ The number of cherries needed to fill sixty pie shells is probably more than most people encounter in years of summer vacations. And with Memorial Day the official kick off to summer, despite my love for rhubarb, I am keeping my eyes peeled for the first cherries of the season.
Timidly stepping inside my local supermarket, mask slightly askew, glasses foggy, I am met by a towering display of scarlet cherries, astronomically priced. The fine print affixed to the cherry signage indicates a savings with my Shopper’s Card. Yes, I am a shopper and yes, I have a card, but the idea of rummaging through my wallet to access the card will require removal of my protective gloves. It seems awfully cumbersome and will clearly encourage the ire of my fellow shoppers. I walk away, distancing myself from the cherries and the couple wheeling an over-filled basket just ahead of me. Maintaining 6 feet of proper social distancing, I follow the one-way signs until I locate the end cap display of shallots and garlic, plucking the latter from a wicker basket. The well-worn industrial flooring is decorated with footprints guiding me towards the check-out. With the proper disco accompaniment, the footprints could serve as a tutorial for learning the Hustle. Clutching my lonely head of garlic, sneakers planted firmly on my designated square of carpet, I wait impatiently in a holding pattern, unable to move forward until Check-Out Traffic Controllers deem it permissible. It reminds me of hovering above Newark Airport on Friday evenings around 5 pm, pre-March 2020, when people still traveled.
The longer I wait in the one-couple-ahead-of-me-line, the weaker my cherry resolve. Though the idea of a freshly baked cherry pie tempts, I can’t bring myself to sign on to the cherry pitting commitment. Transferring the garlicky cloves from right hand to left, I consider my options. “Maybe I’ll buy a handful of cherries, just for eating. No commitment.” Too far away from the magazine rack to catch up on the latest Kardashian news, and too damn close to the cherries, the cherries win. It is anyone’s guess how many cherries are lurking in the cello bag clutched in my fist, but it is unthinkable of traversing the produce section, going the wrong way down a one-way aisle in search of a produce scale. Even with a shopper’s card, it is doubtful there will be much of a savings. But this purchase feels almost necessary, a small luxury highlighting the upcoming holiday weekend that doesn’t feel like a holiday.
Distracted by the cover of Us Magazine, the price of the cherries goes unnoticed. “Shopper’s Card?” the cashier asks politely. Barely grazing the scanner with my credit card and gathering up the lonely head of garlic with one gloved hand and the extravagant cherries with the other, I shake my head. “Have a good weekend,” the cashier adds, more as a suggestion than an ultimatum. I nod half-heartedly. Trying to squeeze into a Memorial Day state of mind this year is akin to squeezing your feet into your favorite pair of socks; the ones that were washed in hot water then tumbled dry on high heat. As May ebbs into June, the kick off to summer via a 3-day weekend just doesn’t seem to fit.
My pop culture correspondent in Queens informs me that many of the bars and restaurants in her eclectic neighborhood are offering cocktail delivery service and restaurant cocktail kits. In between Zoom conference calls and episodes of a Netflix binge-a-thon, you can stir things up in your favorite bar glass. I’m intrigued by this idea, imagining a perfectly crafted libation garnished with a festive swath of citrus and a pesticide-free edible flower.
The reality of my ready-to-drink cocktail is this; in the midst of several conflicting culinary projects something clicks in my brain signaling, hey! I’m ready-to-drink a cocktail! Grabbing a kitchen towel and wiping the butter off my fingers, I procure a glass from a cabinet over-filled with stemware, pilsners, and tumblers. Without a definitive cocktail destination in mind, I wander towards the freezer. The on again/off again ice maker only knows extremes, catapulting frozen cubes at a ferocious pace or shutting down completely. This hardly automatic ice cuber is a fickle creature, never showing its hand until you commit to opening the freezer door. Silence means you’ve stumbled upon ice cube organizers in the midst of a work stoppage. A frantic kerplunk/crash/kerplunk means the ice bin is dangerously full and projectile cubes will soon blanket the floor. The ice cubes I covet are oversized, crafted in small batches in rubberized trays that don’t quite fit our freezer. Dropping one of those hefty cubes into a glass miraculously transports me from a floury kitchen to a dimly lit bar. It’s the kind of bar where the bar stools are slightly off kilter yet perfectly comfortable and the bartender fills the cocktail shaker with exactly what you need. The perfect combination of angtsy-yet-hopeful jazz plays softly in the background.
When I'm the one actually crafting the craft cocktail, it is a wage of wills between bartender, ice cubes, spirits, and citrus. I find myself battling with one of those oversized ice cubes, trying to wedge it into a glass that is better suited to average-sized ice. By the time the cocktail glass is adjusted to accommodate the ice, the oversized cube is looking less romantic, more run-of-the-mill. As the ice melts, so do my dreams of freshly squeezed juices and perfectly chilled simple syrup.
Peering into the refrigerator, I am momentarily sidetracked by an almost empty jar of expensive Italian maraschino cherries in heavy syrup. “Someone should replace these,” I mention to no one in particular, scooping one out with my impeccably clean fingers. Leaving a trail of maraschino syrup between the fridge and the kitchen counter, a container of rhubarb compote taunts, prompting inspiration. A lackluster assortment of citrus, most having been zested within an inch of their lives, are looking more Loehmanns than Saks. A sprightly naval orange has survived unscathed and teamed with the rhubarb, might prove promising.
The cocktail that is spinning around in my head is from one of those off-the-beaten-path bars in a town with a name I can’t pronounce. A small, dusty chalkboard hangs alongside the bar, announcing the daily specials. I vividly remember a chubby glass filled with vermouth and orange and something about rhubarb. The memory of the drink doesn’t provide a recipe, just a mindset. Pitching the ice cube in a rapid state of decline towards the sink, I replenish my glass with a new behemoth cube. Eyeballing what seems like the correct amount of rhubarb syrup followed by a fruit cocktail’s worth of orange, I’m encouraged. A double dash of rhubarb bitters from a paper-wrapped bottle generally reserved for baking seems appropriate. Reaching for a tall bottle of Lillet Blanc, my mood is far less dark and stormy. Unfettered by a closing time and feeling downright punchy, I nearly take a header on a renegade ice cube.
Maybe I should have washed my mask in cold water; it’s a little snug, fitting more like a Barbie sweater and less like protective gear. I’ve been gifted a number of fashion forward Corona wear, but every time I slip the elastic straps over my ears, my face tightens. The words that come out of my mouth sound stilted, much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, before Dorothy fetches his oil can. Masks tend to fog up your glasses and tickle your nose, making it both hazardous and sneeze inducing to navigate the outside world. It’s nearly impossible to see where the sidewalk ends and the front step begins and I feel myself stumbling, instinctively putting my hands out to save myself from I don’t know what. The combination of absurdity and desperation and ill-fitting disposable gloves makes me laugh and cry. I long to pick up the phone and call my mother who would have helped me find some humor in all of this insanity. Had Rommy been here to witness Covid-19, she would have filled her quarantine days Norma Rae-ing through remnants of Laura Ashley floral and jacquard, sewing up a storm of colorfast masks.
The masks would have been meticulously executed, probably reversible, a curious but agreeable fashion accessory. I envision the masks edged in cheerful rickrack promoting cautious optimism. For a select few, Rommy would have fitted her imposing sewing machine with a special needle attachment, monogramming the lower right hand corner of the mask with our initials. There would have been a sensible pocket (with room for a filter) and a little quilt bunting to cushion the form fitting nose wire. In some cases, bits of coordinating fabric would have been pieced together in order to craft a matching headscarf, or an oven mitt. Rommy would have known instinctively what I needed in the midst of this crisis and would have supplied the appropriate gear. A variety of headscarves would have distracted from my desperately needed haircut. The perky oven mitt would have been helpful in protecting one hand from a scalding pie drip.
A glutton for punishment, I fuel my pandemic anxiety with a daily dose of Governor Cuomo’s riveting and unsettling news. Drawing me close to the screen daring me to watch, I’m haunted with too much information, visually sucked in by blue charts punctuated in yellow. Coupled with my housemate’s recitation of medical statistics and Times Square updates, I find myself constantly eyeing the kitchen clock, wondering if it’s approaching five pm; if not here, somewhere.
The funny/not so funny thing about quarantine is despite having all the time in the world, I continue to procrasti-bake. A half-hearted attempt at basement organization unearths an assortment of kitchenware. A pullman loaf pan from a restaurant kitchen sparks an afternoon of whole wheat bread baking. A 7” springform that cradled Oreo cheesecakes in the 1980s, prompts an exhaustive search of crumb cake recipes. Ignoring the mountain of papers snaking across my desk, I open the refrigerator and reach for a stick of butter.
Beyond the kitchen, the dining room window frames a solitary pink dogwood, a harbinger of Mother’s Day. The wall clock ticks off the minutes a little too loudly, punctuating the surreal passage of time. Feeling nothing like a holiday weekend and more like an incessant episode of the Twilight Zone, the clock hands indicate 5 o’clock. With the temperature unseasonably warm, a tall glass emblazoned with the brand Peroni, seems appropriate. “A shot and a beer,” Rommy liked to say when sipping an occasional beer, clearly conjuring boilermakers and sky blue afternoons spent cheering the Brooklyn Dodgers. Setting down my glass with a distinctive smudge of butter across the front, I can hear my mother’s laugh.
What begins as a classic love story ends with a broken heart. Baker meets Vegetable. Baker falls head over pie plate with Vegetable. Vegetable refuses to commit and leaves town at the end of the season. Baker mends her broken heart by cramming bulging Ziploc bags of rhubarb into every vacant freezer nook.
Last year around this time, Rhubarb and I had a falling out. There was plenty of blame to share in our volatile relationship. When he callously called me needy, I swung back with the word unreliable. Rhubarb complained that my expectations for a vegetable were unreasonable. I reminded him that every time he was a no show, I was left explaining his absence to a freezer stacked high with eager pie shells.
Uttering the word ‘spring’ felt hollow until the first case of pie plant had crossed the bakery’s slightly unhinged screen door. Rhubarb didn’t understand.
A baker of habit, now that Mar’pril has segued into May, I cannot face these uncertain times without a hint of certainty. Unable to identify the day of the week, I can still identify the season. This is the season for rain-splashed sidewalks, sneeze inducing blooms, and crimson rhubarb.
A stalker of stalks, I’ve burned through two cases of the pinky-green vegetable in the last two weeks. Methodically chopping, keeping an eager eye out for any toxic leaves, the repetitive practice feels therapeutic. My cutting board crime scene refuses to surrender to a fresh sponge and extreme suds-ing. Standing in the midst of a season unlike any we have known, the simple act of pairing rhubarb with freckled strawberries and tucking them into a pie plate feels the tiniest bit hopeful.
Rhubarb will always be my James Dean of a vegetable; my iconic spring pie essential, swinging through the kitchen on his own terms, sassy and demanding, trying my patience with his mercurial availability. I will continue to hunt him down, fully aware that our time together is fleeting.
Boldly using a kitchen towel to navigate a tired sheet pan, a strawberry rhubarb pie overwhelms the room with its intoxicating sweet tang. The pie is dangerously hot, extroverted juices bubbling through a haphazard lattice. Brazenly poking a pinky finger into the syrup, the heat deters but doesn’t stop me. Burning my lip, the taste is unmistakable; cautious optimism.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm