Lately, Rhubarb has been behaving like an inconsiderate boyfriend. Elusive, refusing to take my phone calls, promising to arrive with the Lancaster Farm Fresh delivery, only to be a no-show. I call him at Whole Foods but he doesn’t call back. Someone says they saw him at Stop and Shop, but his usual haunt in the produce aisle is empty. What began in early May as a 425 degree Fahrenheit romance, is beginning to cool down.
Last Tuesday, Rhubarb was hanging out at the Farmers’ Market, cozying up to coils of garlic scapes. Feeling despondent, I scooped up two quarts of gorgeous sour cherries and took the long way around the gingham-draped table. Standing directly in front of the basket of pie plant, I watched Rhubarb look away. “I can’t talk to you now,” he stage whispered. “I’m working.”
After days of checking my text messages and staring at my phone, Rhubarb finally sends a curt text saying he’ll meet me for a drink. The barstools are filled with newly graduated college kids. Most of the young women are wearing golden tans, over-sized sunglasses, and strappy sandals. My sneakers are dusty with flour, my hands dotted with blueberry. Rhubarb is late and when he leans in to give me a non-committal hug he says, “You smell like butter.”
“I’ll have a Negroni,” we say to the bartender simultaneously. Sipping our drinks out of wide-mouthed rocks glasses, I play with the ribbon of orange peel, trying to find something pithy to say. Rhubarb shifts on his bar stool, swirling the over-sized ice cube in his glass.
“You look tired,” Rhubarb says. “You work too much.” I shrug.
Staring into my glass of equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin, I blurt out, “Are you breaking up with me?”
Rhubarb sighs, signals the bartender to bring the check, then replies in a low voice, “Pie plates talk, you know.”
I did know. Rhubarb continues. “You’ve been spotted at the Farmers’ Market hugging quarts of sour cherries, squeezing peaches… “ His voice trails off and for once, he sounds the slightest bit jealous.
“That was once,” I try to explain. Stony silence. I stare into my drink. “Okay, maybe twice,” I admit.
His voice is a hybrid of outrage and hurt.. “For goodness’ sake, you know it’s too early for peaches…” He drains his glass and continues. “The truth is, you deserve someone better, someone sweeter.” Rhubarb leans in, adjusting his gaze to meet mine. My eyes are foggy with unshed tears.
“C’mon- you’ll be fine,” the pie plant insists. “You’ll forget all about me once the freestone peaches swing through town.” Rhubarb looks around uncomfortably before delivering the final blow. His words sting with the barb of a poisonous leaf. “It’s not you, Nice Pie. It’s me. The season’s over.”
Beyond the barstools, the late June sunlight is blinding. Rhubarb squeezes my hand, leaving behind a hint of pink. “But what about us?” I ask. Rhubarb kisses my cheek then climbs into the back seat of an Uber. The rear window rolled down, Rhubarb leans out, winks, and smiles. ”We’ll always have May.”
It was August 3rd of 2014 and my GPS was faltering. I considered turning the car around about a dozen times en route to Molly O’Neill’s house. “Bring what you think you’ll need,” Molly advised. “There’s absolutely nothing up here.” She wasn’t kidding. The tiny hamlet of Rensselaerville, NY boasted a lush forest preserve, a dramatic waterfall at the end of the road, and a night sky dressed in pinks. Precious coffee shops and artisan bakeries however, were an hour away. We were a diverse group of nine; East coasters, Pacific Northwesterners, and one from smack dab in the middle. We had signed on for a month long writing intensive only to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere.
Bookcases groaning under the weight of cookbooks occupied much of the wall space in Molly’s house. The kitchen shelves were stacked a little too high with one-of-a-kind pottery that transported the most mundane bowl of fruit into a still life. For the entire month of August, our breakfast consisted of bowls of Molly’s homemade granola. The blend was generous to a fault with toasty oats, nuts, and dried fruit. We ate it with spoonfuls of what my friend Dakota described as the love child born to whipped cream and yogurt.
Molly was a formidable presence, hair piled high atop her head, generally followed by a parade of dogs in varying degrees of decline. Quick to laugh, yet just as quick to scold, Molly could be your toughest critic and your most fervent cheerleader. The front door of her house welcomed a steady stream of farmers and photographers, chefs, wordsmiths, and neighbors. One weekend featured a cameo appearance from food writer Ben Mims. Following a tutorial on the proper way to write a recipe, we headed into Molly’s kitchen for a green bean casserole cook-off. “Isn’t this fun?” Molly beamed.
Sometimes dinners were held at ‘the Barn,’ a cavernous red structure set down in a farm field dotted with sunflowers. Chef Alicia Walters created the most extraordinary meals in that space; multiple courses boasting fresh and local. Molly had an extraordinary eye for talent and a gift for making introductions.
Our group of nine was dubbed the “Scholars,” scribbling morning pages in Moleskin journals, composing stories late into the night on laptops. We shared bedrooms and bathrooms, confidences and frustrations. Molly pushed us to pen our what ifs and what next. When we weren’t writing we were re-writing.
The summer never really ended because Molly had a way of insisting that something was going to be such fun, and there you were, driving back to Rensselaerville with Dakota to bake dozens of pies for her Longhouse Food Revival. You returned again and again because Molly had a way of drawing you back in.
In 2016, Molly decided to rent Julia Child’s house in the south of France and wouldn’t it be such fun and before you knew it, you were writing morning pages in Julia’s living room and baking apple tarts in Julia’s kitchen. Molly continued to expand my circle of friends and inspiration, but the one thing that was missing was Molly. When Molly admitted to having health issues, it resonated with the knell of a beloved soap opera character stricken with a chronic cough.
I returned to Molly’s home to talk about words and piecrust on several more occasions, sitting on her back porch listening to her tell animated stories against a soundtrack of crickets. Long before I met her, I squirreled away Molly’s columns plucked from the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Times. Re-reading her words I can hear her voice. I am profoundly grateful for the things she taught me and for the people she ushered into my life.
On occasion, some berries are best with just the slightest intervention. Tucking local strawberries into a pie often yields a puddle on the plate or a slice of berries suspended in an overly sweetened, starchy filling. We can do better.
The strawberries that are currently popping up in Farmers’ Markets want you to take them home. They are fragile souls, requiring the gentlest mist of cool water, the least amount of handling. Unlike the strawberries crammed into clamshells year round, these crimson jewels are intensely flavored berries with a stem, a handful of freckles, and nothing more. They make the very best ice cream, the brightest sorbet, the perfect biscuit shortcake. Oven roasted strawberries are often overlooked but should be part of your summer berry repertoire. A short stint in the oven set at a low temp intensifies their sweetness without overheating the kitchen or the baker. Served alongside circles of bite sized-pie crust sprinkled with basil sugar answers your pie calling. Feel free to add a scoop of ice cream or a fluff or whipped cream. Strawberries in June are possibly sweeter than the last day of school. The season is now.
Even if you declare yourself a cake person, you can still respect pie. Pie is the circle that thrives on being divvied up into triangles, a casual mingling of butter driven crust and seasonally inspired filling. Pie pulls us together around a dining room table or a Formica countertop, or makes room for us on a picnic blanket. Pie doesn’t raise an eyebrow if you don’t follow the norm. Pie gives you the green light to have a slice for breakfast or sneak a slice before going to bed. Pie is the hug that wants you to feel better about the day you are having or the day you just had.
Cake certainly has its place and deserves our respect, but the truth is cake takes itself a little too seriously. I was all about cake when it was swirled in frosting and dotted with birthday candles. That was before cake morphed into a diva, worrying about hair and make-up, wanting to know if a certain shade of buttercream clashed with her beaded border. Cake begs to be gussied up for a birthday or a wedding, ombréed or drippy, overdressed in fondant. Cake loves to steal the spotlight and can’t keep a secret. Cake is all-telling when it gender reveals, high-fivey at milestone celebrations, and the last one to go home when the band stops playing.
Not pie. Pie doesn’t need an occasion because by its very nature, pie creates an occasion. Sure, pie loves a good holiday, (I see you Thanksgiving) but pie is rooted in humble beginnings driven by necessity, a teller of stories, conjuring faces and far away places. Most importantly, pie encourages the act of sharing, of inclusion. This simply means looking up from your own little plate and welcoming someone else to join in the conversation. We could all take a lesson from pie.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm