I miss you, Memphis, and have allowed last week’s pie insanity to overshadow my recent trip to your remarkable city. Flour dusted clogs once again firmly planted in the kitchen, Hanukkah taunts, only to be followed by Christmas and New Year’s rockin’ eve. Assaulted by warm spices, chubby gingerbread, and the threat of year-end resolutions, I find myself day dreaming of a city that unfolds along the mighty Mississippi.
After three short days in Memphis, it seems there is no such thing as bad cholesterol; it all tastes incredibly good. The chicken fried steak and the crunchy fried chicken, smoking hot hush puppies, and fried green tomatoes, every bite is positively restorative to someone who inhales clouds of confectioners’ sugar on a daily basis. Late night beignets drizzled with dulce de leche and early morning doughnuts oozing Jack Daniels pastry cream should be approached with caution then abandon. Memphis encourages us to bring our soul but forgets to remind us to bring our stretchy pants.
Surrounded by new faces that would soon become friends, our formidable hosts from SAVEUR magazine navigated our food travels. Criss-crossing the city, we squeezed into chrome legged chairs and leatherette banquettes, perched on bar stools, resting elbows and cellphones on laminate tabletops, smooth wooden bars, and linen draped banquet tables. We spiked our meals with hot sauce, laced our coffee with cream. Sugar poured freely and so did the local spirits. Three days provided a tapas of a city brimming with history, culture, and distinctive cuisine.
Personally, Memphis reminded me that my diet is severely lacking in anything batter-dipped, anything plumped in dangerously hot oil. Reunited with fried food made me realize that we should never have broken up.
The festival of lights is mere days away, affording me the opportunity to rekindle my love affair with foods plunged into sizzling oil. Hanukkah is notorious for encouraging copious consumption of latkes and jelly doughnuts. This season, inspiration stems from two Memphis restaurants; The Liquor Store, who introduced me to the genius that is a biscuit beignet, and The Four Way Soul Food Restaurant, serving up the sweetest yams to ever snuggle up alongside a behemoth serving of fried chicken. The marriage of the beignet and the yams resulted in a sweet potato jelly doughnut, which some folks might consider a sensible holiday indulgence.
Memphis is a city I hope to return to, although the next go around will be markedly different. SAVEUR brought together globally diverse creatives, affording us the opportunity to share and consider food cultures and traditions beyond our own kitchens. That in itself, is a gift far more lasting than a deep fat fryer and a new pair of pants with a stretchy waistband. Happy Hanukkah.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THANKSGIVING
The house doesn’t smell like Thanksgiving this year. Absent is the distinctive assault of sweet onions sizzling in butter, the perfume of fresh thyme and sage, the very specific aroma of matzoh stuffing and an oversized turkey fighting for oven space. There’s the slightest hint of caramel in the air from the Wild Nut pie that seeped out of the springform and pooled along the corners of the baking pan. Burnt sugar is stubborn the morning after, refusing to surrender beneath a sponge and scalding water.
A little before nine am, the television remote quickly adjusted from CBS to NBC, Al Roker is brandishing a large pair of shears and my holiday begins. The ribbon is cut for a parade first launched in 1924; Macy’s legendary Thanksgiving Day celebration. Revelers bracing frigid temps line the parade route snaking down from Central Park West and 77th Street to Herald Square. I’m less cold in my kitchen with the oven turned up to 425 degrees. Three hours of marching bands and Broadway show tunes punctuated by the high kicks of the Rockettes and larger-than-life balloons, serve as background accompaniment to my personal pie baking.
Drew’s Wild Nut pie dozes on the dining room table, already turned out of its springform and divvied up under the blade of a commercial serrated knife. History has shown that trying to slice through a pound of nuts with a delicate pie server is torturous for the baker and the dessert seekers. I’m waiting for the ice crystals on the rhubarb to dissipate and the excess moisture from the butternut squash to drip through a fine mesh strainer.
Looking up from my butcher block table, I catch the eye of the Pillsbury Dough Boy balloon. In my sleep-deprived-over-pied state, I take this as a good sign. Perhaps the Dough Boy is giving me a nod, indicating I’ve made it to the other side of Thanksgiving. It’s time to be grateful.
My year has been punctuated by the luxury of travel, affording me the gift of time with some of my favorite people. It has also opened the door to new acquaintances from far-flung parts of the world. The opportunity to feast upon idle time in magnificent cities brimming with history and extraordinary local food, overfills my Thanksgiving gravy boat.
This afternoon, faces will circle a holiday table that extends just beyond the dining room to include a child-sized folding table. There will be too much turkey and a hotly debated sweet potato offering and parsley flecked matzoh stuffing. We will struggle to release the requisite blueberry-studded gelatin from my grandmother’s fluted jello mold and cleanse our palates with After Eight mints that have been smuggled in from the UK. Pie will make an entrance, then an exit, only to reappear Friday morning. The patriarch of the family would have approved of pie bookending his favorite holiday. My favorite holiday, too.
FRIENDSGIVING? NO THANKS
Armed with an unwieldy branch of brussel sprouts and a can of organic pumpkin, I watch Friendsgiving cut in line, right in front of Thanksgiving. Someone should ring the crew member bell alerting the store manager, but it won’t be me. I don’t want any trouble. A few years back I had a falling out with Thanksgivukkah over some decorated cookies, and I'm still recovering. The truth is Friendsgiving and I have never met.
While the appeal of a holiday based on assembling your best pals for the sole purpose of consuming festive eats and drinks is understandable, there’s no room on my plate for Friendsgiving. Ask my co-workers and family, and they will tell you I am not feeling particularly friendly on the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Traveling the narrow path between home and bakery and back again, I am in a constant state of simmer, like a stockpot of sweetened condensed milk morphing into dulce de leche. My temper teeters on explosion, making me an unlikely candidate to attend an event based on comraderie. There's a reason for this and it has to do with pies and people and pressure.
The mental and physical pressures of Pie-mageddon are staggering. Tethered to rolling pins and pie plates, I bob and weave against a steady onslaught of pumpkin puree and unruly apples. I am a liaison between pie shells and fresh fruit, an ambassador of sweeteners and spices, a pie traffic controller, guiding and overseeing hundreds of pies as they embark on their oven journey. Armed with a pair of worn oven mitts that are just the slightest bit crunchy on the inside, I march across a battlefield of butter, flour, sugar, fruit, and nuts. Nuts are not limited to pecan halves and pieces, but extend to the occasional retail customer. The one who needs more chocolate lining the bottom of their pecan pie. The one who wants a smaller ratio of cranberries to apples in their cranberry/apple pie. The individual bad mouthing the oatmeal almond crumb, imploring for a crumb pie without the crumb on top. The person who feels the need to go on social media insinuating there must be another bakery in town where she can secure an apple pie. Friendsgiving? I couldn’t possibly and you wouldn’t want me, so please don’t add an extra place setting. You will be better suited inviting someone who is happy to contribute a pie still warm from the oven, melting the plastic of the Tupperware carrier, the lid slightly askew.
I haven’t time for Friendsgiving, because I’m too busy worrying. Worrying about the pies and whether there will be enough room in the ovens and the walk-in refrigerators, and whether or not the pies will find good homes. The seven hundred or so individuals swarming into the bakery next Wednesday are preoccupied and distracted. From a safe distance in the rear of the kitchen, I’ll witness a blur of windowed pie boxes launched from metro shelving into kraft paper shopping bags. Shopping bags that barely accommodate the fragile pies. Pies hot enough to burn through your favorite cashmere gloves with the ribbed cuffs. With the free falling finesse of a tilt-a-whirl, double crusted apples and delicate pumpkin custards will land with a not-so-gentle thud, jostled by the next coffee-clutching person in line. My eyes get misty just thinking about it. The nightmare of watching people mistreat your pies by carelessly tossing them into the backseat of their SUV is real. You wouldn’t treat your baby-on-board that way, would you?
A Thanksgiving pie maker's dream is a table surrounded by happily sated guests, leaning back in their chairs, slightly giddy from that last smidgen of pie. The ultimate compliment is learning that pie is the first thought that crosses someone's mind the morning after Thanksgiving. Drowsy from tryptophan, many will pad their way to the kitchen in fleece-lined slippers and flannel pajamas. Struggling with the French press and fumbling for a fork, they will aim for the nearest pie plate leftovers.
Friendsgiving may find you seated on a folding chair in a tiny apartment, balancing a plate on your lap. It might mean the discomfort of whacking your leg against the leg of an expandable IKEA table stretched between two rooms. It may also require a journey on mass transit, promising an abbreviated holiday schedule. Regardless, be sure to wear something featuring an expandable waistband and tote along a few empty Tupperware containers for leftovers. As for cutting the turkey without me, I insist, Friends, go right ahead.
ENROUTE TO MEMPHIS
The TSA agent in charge of lane designation at Newark’s Liberty airport is very specific when he tells me to remain in Lane 3. My crumpled boarding pass falls to the ground just behind a red industrial food service truck overloaded with cases of Adult Assorted Cereal in a Cup, Premium Bananas, and a ginormous tub of Sysco Brand Fresh Fruit Salad. I am reassured knowing the airport’s fruit offerings are indeed, fresh.
Lanes 1 and 2 seem to be moving along at a fine clip while Lane 3, (much like the lane I often choose for the Lincoln Tunnel) is at a standstill. The TSA agent has assigned me to a security line reserved for the Elon University men’s basketball team. When I try to bring this to the agent’s attention, he frowns and advises me to stay put. From my vantage point, I am clearly the shortest individual armed with a laptop, an unwieldy leather belt, and a carry-on awaiting scrutiny. Without benefit of my thick-soled sneakers, I am even shorter. As 15 minutes roll into 20, then 25, my teammates and I wonder aloud if we will make our flights, and then, a miracle.
From behind an imposing mesh gate, a TSA agent miraculously appears, peeling back the armored divider, promising relief from our security purgatory. In an instant, my newfound friends and I create Lane 3A, emptying our pockets of loose coins, loading up plastic bins with electronic devices and over-sized travel snacks.
Hoisting my carry-on towards the conveyor belt, a bespectacled man helming the security scanner glares at me. “I’m with the team,” I state emphatically, depositing my sneakers into one more warped plastic bin emblazoned with the words, “Thank you for flying with us.”
Reunited with my sneakers and belt, I notice there is a defibrillator located mere steps beyond security. My heart racing, I run towards Gate 21, wondering if I’ll have time to stop at the mini mart for a cup of adult cereal and some fresh fruit.
Eyeing the last of the candy corn I pause, debating whether to finish it off or add it to a wastebasket filled with empty fun size candy wrappers. Struggling to recall my last visit to Dr. Stef, D.D.S., I toss the corn syrup/dextrose triangles into the trash. They stare back at me, in all of their Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 food dye brilliance. Candy corn is well aware that no sooner do we extinguish our Jack-O-Lanterns, we find ourselves three short weeks away from Thanksgiving. Not only does that mean we are officially in the throes of cold and flu season, many individuals will fall victim to pie anxiety.
A common November malaise, pie anxiety affects more than enough folks to spark hotlines helmed by flour and shortening experts. The simple commingling of flour, butter, sugar, and salt (with just enough cold water to hold it together) creates panic among perfectly competent bakers. On a recent Tuesday morning, I commandeered an unwieldy shopping cart alongside a woman in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s. As she unearthed a box of Gourmet Pie Crusts from the freezer compartment, my eyes involuntarily began to roll. Noticing my disdain, she assured me the pie crusts were as good as homemade and, she added with emphasis, “I consider myself a very good baker.” Avoiding confrontation, I moved on, working my way towards the end of the aisle. Pausing by the Pound Plus chocolate bars, I chose the 72% Dark Chocolate cloaked in its signature red wrapper. As soon as I finish the Peanut Butter Cups and the Milky Ways, I’m going to focus on good chocolate eating habits.
These are stressful times. With less than a month remaining, Thanksgiving will pervade every working moment, prompting heated debates about pie crusts, blind bakes, and pumpkin fillings that insist on cracking. Some of us will agonize more about the dessert course than the butter basted turkey. We proclaim this as the year we will try something new and different, straying from the old reliable fruit, nut, or custard pies. Change is good, but best explored early in the Thanksgiving game.
This very well may be the year you roast and purée your own pumpkin, lovingly toasting the seeds and spicing them just so. Just make sure that in addition to having the time and the inclination, you also have the cheesecloth necessary to strain the water-logged squash and a can of Libby's on the shelf if things don't turn out as planned.
It's quite possible your public television station will air a holiday special this Sunday, sparking your inspiration. Do you really have the time to bake a pie on your gas-fired grill, while your turkey hums in a vat of deathly hot oil? More importantly, how interested are you in getting to know your local fire department?
When you’re told “This Is the Only (pick one) Pumpkin/Apple/Pecan/Gluten Free/Vegan Pie Recipe You Should be Baking Right Now!” they mean right now, not Thanksgiving morning. You can choose to be daring, but don't overlook the stability of recipes that are comfortably familiar.
At some tables, a red felt turkey will preside over an overfilled centerpiece of fruit and nuts. We will slice wedges and slivers of classic pumpkin, reliable apple, and a dangerously wild nut pie. In an attempt to sail through November 22nd with the gracefulness of a Macy’s Day Parade balloon, do yourself a favor. Plan accordingly and plan ahead; well before Al Roker is wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving from the corner of 77th Street and Central Park West.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm