Pie Discussion on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show

Did you miss the pie episode of the Melissa Harris Perry Show on MSNBC? No worries. The videos can be seen online. It was a fun experience to part of the panel discussion, even if I was joining in remotely from a studio in Chicago.

Besides the host, Melissa Harris Perry, the panel was made up of Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Pie and Pastry Bible; Kelly Choi, former host of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters”; Sunny Anderson of the Food Network’s “In the Kitchen”; and Jelani Cobb, a professor at the University of Connecticut.

I was grateful to be included because I always love talking about pie and its healing powers.



As a bonus, here are a few recipes from the panelists:

The World Needs More…Meat?!

Empanadas are pie too.
Note the caipirinha cocktail to the upper left.
And note the “Yes Please” card lower right. That means
you want more meat.

What do you do when you’ve been dating a vegetarian who has conditioned you to live without meat in your diet and a dear friend you haven’t seen in over a year invites you out for a Brazilian steak dinner? At a newly renovated, upscale restaurant in Los Angeles? A place with exotic caipirinha cocktails and grilled filet mignon sliced off of skewers right onto your plate?

You say YES, that’s what.

I left Iowa and came to LA several weeks ago (driving my RV and bringing along Team Terrier) to visit my parents and reconnect with old friends. Kim is one of those friends, a former boss actually, who runs her ownpublic relations agency. I had been trying to arrange a time to see her and between her busy travel schedule and the fact we were on opposite geographical ends of the vast metropolis, it was nearly impossible to make a date. Until she suggested I join her at a press dinner she was hosting at the M Grill in Koreatown—strategically located at the halfway point for us.

Now admittedly, as long as I’m in LA and not rural Iowa I jump at any chance to go out for a nice dinner—meat or no meat—because after spending the past three years wearing nothing but bib overalls and gingham aprons, I love, love, love putting on a designer dress and high heels. And after three years of Crockpot cooking and take-out pizza from either one of Eldon’s two gas stations, I appreciate to no end candlelit ambiance, crystal and china table settings, and black tie service.

But saying yes to this dinner was not some opportunistic leap at a freebie. It was special. First, it was with Kim, a smart and savvy Energizer bunny who I’ve always looked up to like a big sister and mentor. Second, it represented one of the things I value most about LA: cultural diversity. Though in this case it almost seemed more like a cultural clash. I mean, what is a Brazilian churrascaria (Portuguese for steakhouse) doing in Koreatown?

The answer, Kim told me, is that the owner of the swanky, cavernous steakhouse is Manny Kim, who was born in Korea but raised in Brazil. And yet from the look of the restaurant’s wine collection—entire walls lined floor to ceiling with bottles—he may as well have come straight from Napa Valley.

Which brings me to a downside of LA: driving. As much as I longed for a glass or three of some fine South American malbec or some rich cabernet, I had to drive home after dinner. One drink was my limit and I had already used that up on a passion fruit caipirinha. That one drink was so tangy, so icy, and so #*%[email protected] delicious I didn’t miss the wine. I sipped it slowly while waiting for Kim to arrive. It felt so decadent, so “Sex in the City,” to sit at the bar with my big girl drink, listening to lounge music and basking in the warm glow of romantic lighting. If Frank Lloyd Wright had designed night clubs, M Grill would have his signature all over it.

If the ex-boyfriend could see me now! Ha!

But let’s get back to the controversy—I mean, the meat. It’s served rodizio style, which means waiters (well dressed and good looking ones who are probably models in their day jobs) come around with skewers, shaving off slices of various types of sizzling meat, still hot from the grill. Lamb chops. Leg of lamb. Top sirloin. Bottom sirloin. Pork spare ribs. Smoked sausage. Parmesan beef. Rib eye. Chicken hearts. Garlic chicken. Bacon wrapped chicken. They keep bringing you meat—juicy, tender morsels of warm sustenance (and this is after you’ve already pigged out at the meat-filled salad bar) until you flip a card over that signals the waiters that you’re done, i.e.: your belly is about to explode. The green side of the card means “more please” and the red side means “STOP OR ELSE.”

This is my dear friend Kim hogging the berries and ice cream.
All that was missing was pie crust. But this dessert was
so good I didn’t miss it.

Luckily I had worn a dress with a loose waistline and was able to squeeze in a few bites of the cinnamon-sprinkled grilled pineapple (sliced off the skewer tableside) and some of the coconut flan and the mixed berries over ice cream for dessert.

Grilled pineapple sprinkled with cinnamon.
Mmmm. Green side of the card up for “Yes please.”

Also—and god knows I could not possibly publish a blog post without at least some mention of pie—I had made room for a few empanadas. Yes, an empanada is considered pie—anytime you have crust encasing a filling it is defined as pie. This little Portuguese fried meat-filled finger food was served as an appetizer. I had two but given my affinity for pie, I could have eaten a whole meal of just these.

After the evening’s big feast, I can say this: it was so fun to dress up and have an elegant night out. It was so great to see Kim. And really, it was good to give my body a much-needed overdue dose of iron. As for the vegetarian boyfriend, he’s out of the picture and I have already met someone new, someone perfect for me, someone who accepts me for who I am. Even if I am a carnivore.

The new meat-eating man in my life also came for dinner at the M Grill.
Talk about delicious.
M Grill is located at 3832 Wilshire Blvd #202, Los Angeles, CA 90010. PHONE:  (213) 389-2770

The Liberation Artist

I was very flattered to be interviewed this week by a sweet and humble blog called The Liberation Artist. I love what its creator, Laura Saba, is doing, what she believes in, and what she is promoting: a life lived outside the status quo, free from fear and hesitation.

I don’t know that I completely qualify for said description. I often feel fear and hesitation. I have my moments when I’m plagued with self-doubt, stymied by loss of direction, filled with resentment for my still-broken heart (i.e.: still wishing my husband Marcus hadn’t died.)  But then I’m pretty good about kicking all that self-limiting chatter to the curb and saying, “To hell with it, I’m going to keep living my life to the fullest regardless of all the obstacles and set backs. As long as I am still on this earth, I am going to live the biggest, richest life possible.” Which is how I ended up living in rural Iowa–in a tourist attraction, no less–for the past three years. And writing books. And baking pie. How I ended up being a poster child for grief recovery. And how I learned to stop listening to all the naysayers and instead following my own gut.

Please visit Laura Saba’s wonderful website. Don’t just read my interview, but peruse all the other rich and wonderful profile stories in there. I promise, you will find inspiration and hopefully it will encourage you to create your own status quo.

PS: It’s nice to be blogging again!

Here’s the direct link to my interview on The Liberation Artist:

Wuz Up Wit Dat Hip Hop Pie Class?

The “Black Ops” as they called themselves,
striking their first pose of many.

A few weeks ago I posted some pictures on my Facebook biz page from a pie class I taught at my house (my house being the American Gothic House, in Eldon, Iowa). I have posted many, many pictures on that page over the past few years and NEVER have I had so many “likes” and comments and shares. It also begged the question: How did this class come about? I’ll tell you how.

My BFF in Eldon, Patti — or Mizz D, as she is known at work– is a high school English teacher. She uses my blog to get her students interested in reading, and as a bonus, they get a pie class taught by me at their school. (I love those Home Ec rooms — all that counter space and five ovens.) Here’s the story of my first class I did with her students: Click here to read.

I’m on my third year now of teaching Mizz D’s classes. You would think teaching pie making to 60 restless teenagers would be exhausting. But it’s quite the opposite. I always get so energized and encouraged by seeing these kids pay attention and stay focused (something that is apparently much harder to get them to do in their reading classes!), and I get especially buoyed watching them leave so happy with their finished pies. Really, if you know high school students then you are familiar with their normally snarky attitudes and sullen ways. Put a homemade pie in their hands — one they made themselves — and they are absolutely ebullient!

But there was a little “incident” after the last class I taught. We had 30 pies sitting out on a table and the kids had to leave them there to cool while they went off to their next class. They were to come back at the end of the day to collect their pie.

Their own pie, not someone else’s.

One girl, whose name I won’t mention (and I will also restrain myself from calling her other things), couldn’t find her pie so she knowingly just took one that looked good. (Do you see why it would be easy to call her other names?)

The pie she ran off with belonged to a kid named Terrance who had just moved to Iowa from Alabama. Eventually Terrance came into the room and…that’s right, no pie. (They had all created their own designs on the top crust so they KNEW whose pies were whose.) Terrance was feeling pretty down. I could imagine the feeling. He had worked hard on his pie. He was looking forward to taking it home to share with his mom. He was now empty handed. Pie-less and pissed off.

It broke my heart. I mean, some of these kids at this school have a hard enough time getting through life as it is. They don’t come from privileged means, they don’t always get enough support or attention or love — let alone enough to eat. Not that pie is going to save their lives or keep them from flunking out of school or joining a gang or landing in jail, but…at least taking home a finished pie is something they can be proud of, something they can show to their parents, something that can give them a boost to their confidence, even if just for a day.

“She can’t just take someone else’s pie,” I growled. “If she thinks it’s okay to take a pie, what else is she going to take? Is that how she’s going to go through life, taking things that aren’t hers? There needs to be some consequences for this.” Oh, you should have heard me rant! I was furious. And I felt so bad for Terrance I blurted out to Mizz D, “You tell Terrance we’ll make more pie. Tell him I am going to give him a private pie class at my house.”

And so I did. Terrance (far left in pic below) brought along two of his classmates, Isaiah (center, a freshman who is on the varsity football team and now wrestling team) and Osha (right, pronounced “O’Shay” who may need to work on his reading skills but, wow, can he make pie!)

In anticipation of their arrival I set Pandora to a hip hop station. They not only liked it, they walked straight over to my computer and turned up the volume. Way up. They also found the knob to control the bass and they turned that way up too.

At last we could get to work. Sort of.

They knew ALL the words to all the songs so while they were working the butter and shortening into the flour not only were their hands moving, but so were their lips and their hips. They were singing along AND dancing. My instruction couldn’t be heard above the noise — er, music — but, hey, they were having fun. And it was equally fun to watch.

In spite of the distraction of the computer (they kept going over to play songs on YouTube — I have now been educated to the rhythm and lyrics of Chief Keef — who is currently back in juvie hall — and Jay-Z and his popular song “Poppin Tags“) we managed to progress with our pies.




Mizz D not only chauffeured the boys to my house (they aren’t old enough to have a drivers license) she also participated in the pie lesson.

Once the pies went in the oven, I had the guys help me carry some of my 50-pound bags of flour and sugar to the storage room in the basement. (I have learned the value of delegating to save my energy — and my back.) I left them down there and went back up to the kitchen and when they returned Terrance asked, “What about those basketball shoes?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Though I did wonder what kind of snooping they were doing to come up with such a question. “You mean my bike shoes?” I asked. I don’t play basketball, let alone own anything resembling basketball shoes. “Show me what you’re talking about.” So we went back downstairs and sure enough, there was a Nike box sitting right on top of a pile of other boxes with a brand new pair of shoes in it. I had forgotten that H left a bunch of his stuff when he moved out over a year ago (remember him?!)

“Try them on,” I insisted. Terrance slid his narrow foot into the black high top and pinched his thumb down along the toe, leaving an indentation in the leather. “Okay, so they’re a little big. But your feet are probably still growing. Just put an extra insole inside and wear thicker socks. Take them. They’re yours.”

He grinned. I think the basketball shoes might have meant more to him than the pie. Especially since the [enter expletive adjective here] coach at his school wouldn’t let him on the basketball team because he didn’t have the right shoes. (WTF??? And you wonder why these kids get in trouble????)

I don’t have pictures of what happened next but two of Mizz D’s students from her old school stopped by. These girls are very cute, athletic…and white. They have been raised on farms, whereas the boys have all moved to Iowa from big cities (Isaiah and Osha are from Chicago). The girls are also into country music, not rap.

I was checking on the pies in the oven and I heard some stomping coming from the living room. Oddly, I also noticed the absence of the bass beat that had been permeating the house all evening. The girls had changed my Pandora settings to a country music station and the stomping was coming from the boys — who were LINE DANCING! They had no idea what they were doing, but given their natural dance ability they looked like they did. The boys had also hiked their pants so their butts and boxers no longer hung out. Instead they had pulled their waistlines as high as possible, pretending to be nerds.

I have never heard such laughter in my house. I have never seen such smiles. And I have never seen such a heartfelt, spontaneous and natural mingling of cultures, sharing of customs — and a speedy exchange of phone numbers and Facebook pages. All because of pie.

Yeah, high five (or thumbs up, or fist bump, or whatever) to that.

India Hicks Envy: Part 2

I had the nicest, funniest surprise yesterday when a pie class participant, Linda, showed up bearing a gift for me.

Behold, her barely used bottle of India Hicks Island Living perfume.

I laughed — and she laughed — because without saying a word, I knew she had read my recent blog post about my India Hicks envy.

“It’s just a little too sweet for my taste,” Linda said. “I thought maybe you might like to try it.”

I pulled off the cap, sniffed at the spray nozzle, and said, “Yes, I do like it. Thank you so much.” But then I couldn’t stop myself from adding with a laugh, “Damn her. Why did I have to like her perfume? I’m already envious enough.”

I proceeded to tell Linda about a private email I received from a woman after my post telling me how I had no reason to be envious, that India Hicks may have a perfect jaw and royal blood, but she doesn’t make pie! Case in point: “She made cupcakes for her mother’s book signing but no one ate them and she couldn’t even give them away!” (I didn’t add that last part to be catty. I was merely repeating what this woman pointed out in her email after obviously having perused India’s blog.)

“You should have your own line of perfume,” Linda replied.

Amazing how one photo can conjure up
an impression of someone’s life — and
provoke such envy

I looked at the bottle and thought for a moment — and I remembered that picture of India Hicks, looking glamorous and carefree, driving her speedboat — with her two dogs on the bow — on those clear turquoise waters of the Bahamas.

“Yes,” I said. “I could recreate her image– and rename the perfume –to match my life.”

Here’s what the formula would be:

Two terriers — one black, one white — with bandanas instead of expensive leather collars

We like to pretend our huge sand-colored hay field is like a beach.

In a canoe (no motor) on the murky green waters of the Des Moines River

You won’t be eating any lobster out of here. And it’s probably best to avoid eating the catfish too.

Finally, add an native Iowan pie baker with oven burns covering her arms and absolutely no trace of blue blood…

And what you get is:

Beth Howard’s 
River Living 
Apple-Cinnamon *  Oh dee Toilet
Wait until I get the label designed. Crabtree and Evelyn is gonna love it. I’m sure they’ll be calling any minute. 

Just Another Part of Country Living

I live in the country, right next to a cornfield, in a very old house, so it is inevitable that at some point I would encounter the typical country house nuisance: mice. When I moved in 2 and ½ years ago the house had been vacant for several years. Vacant except for mice, at least the remaining evidence of them. I did a very deep cleaning before my furniture arrived and haven’t seen one trace of these little creatures since. Not one dropping. Nothing. I figured it was because I have two terriers, dogs that were originally bred as rat hunters (and not couch potatoes). But lately, with plummeting temperatures – and perhaps a little more time than usual spent traveling – I have had, er, visitors.

You see? My house is clean and tidy.

I maintain an extremely clean house. I have to. I run a pie business in it. Business or not, I can’t stand living in house that isn’t (a) kept neat and tidy and (b) scrubbed to the bone at least every two weeks. No professional cleaning service will get as deep as I do into the corners or use the hose attachment to vacuum in between the planks of the hardwood floors. I know, because I’ve hired – and fired – them. So you can imagine that any sign of varmints of any kind would send me into a fury. I have zero tolerance for uninvited guests of this nature. Nature is best enjoyed outdoors.

I just returned from a few days in Chicago and came home to some “gifts” left under my bathroom sink and, worse, behind my kitchen door. I spent the next several hours scrubbing, scouring and triple-washing with boiling water and bleach anything that had been sitting out. I used a whole bag of steel wool to fill in any and all possible cracks and holes and seams where the little f**kers might have been able to squeeze through. And I went into the basement to retrieve the box of glue traps that has been sitting down there, untouched, since before I moved in. I don’t have any experience in trapping mice, and since a trip to the hardware store to get any other kind of trap would be a two-hour commitment roundtrip (that’s rural living for you), I figured I’d just use what was on hand. I put a dab of peanut butter in the middle of the plastic glue-filled tray, parked it in a corner of the bathroom (where the dogs couldn’t reach it) and finally sat down at my computer to get some “real” work done at last.

I wasn’t at my desk more than ten minutes when I heard a scuffle and some squeaking coming from the other room. Got one! Damn, that was fast! I took a peek and saw the little gray guy squirming to get free, his body contorting as he twisted and wriggled. If I could have seen his eyes I would have seen desperation, panic. The sight made my heart twist and wriggle. I could feel his despair, his panic. I heard him cry. And that made me cry. I ran out of the room.

I didn’t cry just a little. And I didn’t just leave the room. I flew upstairs and flung myself down on my bed, sobbing almost as hard as I did the day Marcus died. (Well, not quite that much. No, not even close.) What the hell was I supposed to do now? This poor thing. It was struggling for its life. And it could either die a slow miserable death or I would have to kill it.

And then the downhill spiral of internal reasoning and arguing began. I am not meant to live in the country. If I can’t deal with something that any other seasoned country dweller would solve without flinching then maybe I need to move back to the city. But I’ve lived in the city and what about all those cockroaches? Remember those huge ones and how they’re so pervasive you can never get rid of them? Yeah, gross. Even tropical places like Hawaii have their own pests, like geckos crawling on their walls. And so went the solo dialogue with myself. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I sobbed and sobbed for at least a half hour, wondering why I could get so upset over one little mouse. I mean, I experienced far less emotion — and far less existential angst — over the six-foot-long snake in my bathroom. But snakes aren’t cute and furry. And I never had snakes as pets. I had hamsters when I was little. First there was Chestnut, light tan. Then Tanya, brown and white. I could still picture their sweet little furry bodies curled up in a ball as they slept in their nest of cedar chips. I could see the little exercise wheel spin as they ran and ran to nowhere.

There must be another way to deal with this, I thought. I dried my eyes and went back downstairs to my computer. I Googled “how to free a mouse from a glue trap.” I was somewhat buoyed to see I wasn’t the first person to search this as I hadn’t finished typing in all the words when the phrase auto-completed itself.

Yes, you could free it.

I read through the instructions carefully. “Put on thick gloves, pour vegetable oil on the mouse (but not so much that you drown it), put the trap with mouse on it in a sealed container bigger than the trap so it has someplace to get away from the trap once it’s free – be patient, it might take an hour for the mouse to get out of the glue – then take your container far away from your house before releasing it.”

I didn’t have vegetable oil, so I used my expensive extra virgin olive oil, dripping it slowly and carefully onto the mouse’s body. I watched through the clear plastic lid as he pulled and rocked and tugged until he found himself free. He sat on his haunches and cleaned his face with his front paws. This was a good start. I hadn’t killed him. I sat on the floor next to him and felt the weight of guilt and sadness lift off my body.

I gave him a few minutes to catch his breath while I suited up in my long underwear, overalls, long “sleeping bag” jacket, that wool hatwith the earflaps and my rubber farm boots. I picked up the plastic container with the mouse in it, and off we went, trudging across the field to freedom.

That’s Bob (left). Holding snake (far left).

I carried him a half mile across the cornfield, pried the cover off the container and set it down on the frozen soil next to a tree. He hopped right out but then just sat there. He was covered in extra virgin olive oil. The oil on his coat would keep him from being able to insulate himself from the cold. I could swear I saw him shivering. And then it occurred to me: I had just given him a death sentence.

Which would have been more humane? Set him “free” into the deep freeze where he would never survive or kill him myself in a quicker way? (I hadn’t even begun to think of how I would have managed to do that. I figured I would just carry the creature, still alive, trap and all, down to Bob’s house, since Bob is an 80-year-old farmer and obviously knows a thing or two about doing away with mice. Especially since Bob played a part in killing the snake in my bathroom.)

The mouse moved, rustling his way under the leaves until he was almost hidden. I reached down and using a dry leaf tried to wipe off some of the oil. It didn’t work. I reflected back on what I could have done before we left the house. Give him a bath and blow-dry before sending him on his way? And cook him a hot meal while I was at it?

Then I thought of an article I recently read in “O”magazine, one of the best, most moving essays I’ve read in a long time, about an American couple who rescued a rat off the gritty streets of Hong Kong and how they came to love that rat as if it were a child — their child. Should I pick up my oily little mouse and take him back home, let him chew up my sofa cushions and build him a five-story condo like the American couple did? (Seriously, though, you really need to read that article by Alexandra Harney. You too will fall in love with Mr. T the rat.)

No, in spite of how I felt we had created a bond by now, united in our quest for his survival, adoption was not in the cards for Mr. Mouse and me. I stood there for a few minutes, watching him disappear deeper into his leaf pile, and said a little prayer for him, wishing him well, and apologizing for turning him out into the cold. With all that oil on him.

I ignored my one friend when she texted me and said, “Get a grip. You got rid of that damn mouse. You should be celebrating.”

But I wrote my other friend back after she sent me a link of listings for humane, no-kill mouse traps, safe, comfortable little cages with doors to simply open and set them free. No glue. No oil. No drama.

“Thanks for the link,” I wrote. The mouse is now free. But what an ordeal. To use Marcus’s word, perhaps it was all ‘self-inflicted.’ Then again, I can’t help it if I don’t like to kill things. Anyway after all that, I need a nap. Or a shot of whiskey.”

Oh, country living. It doesn’t come without its challenges. But it is worth it. You just have to make sure to keep certain supplies on hand, namely a few (humane-style!) mouse traps, Kleenex, and liquor (whiskey or whatever). You never know when you might need it.


Related Post:
Interfering with Nature (when I tried to rescue an injured bunny from the side of a nearby country road)

India Hicks Envy

Rural Iowa in January.
The sky may be blue, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still get the blues.

Between the post-Newtown letdown after our manic pie-making/pie-sharing cross-country journey, the bitter cold Iowa weather, the isolation of winter and my inability to get my ass moving on my next book, all this is conspiring to create a serious case of the January blues. (Thank you, Gayle H., for giving a name to my malaise.) I’ve experienced this syndrome in winters past and I know the cure. It’s called “a tropical vacation.” There is nothing like a dose of heat, sun penetrating bare skin, and swimming in warm ocean water to revive the spirit and invigorate the soul. I immediately began dreaming of how I might get my S.A.D. self to the Caribbean.

But instead of searching for southbound flights, I spent the evening scrolling through Facebook where I noticed that a friend of mine had “liked” the page for India Hicks. I’ve heard of India Hicks, but all I really knew was she had been a bridesmaid in Princess Diana’s wedding, that she was a model or designer or something, and that she lived in the Bahamas. The Bahamas…ohhhhh. My curiosity piqued, I clicked on Hicks’ FB page, kept clicking on links, and clicking on photos, and the next thing I knew I spent an hour immersed in her website.

Come on, don’t tell me this picture doesn’t make you just a tiny bit jealous.

I lost myself in photos of the slim, square-jawed beauty driving her speed boat across the light turquoise Bahamian sea. Pictures of her and her perfect looking little girl modeling for Lands End against a backdrop of white-washed walls and palm fronds. Pictures of her looking regal, even in a bikini, with her long, cellulite-free legs wrapped around a beach chair. Pictures of her tanned face laughing with her kids, her dogs, her handsome partner, frogs, spiders, whatever. Pictures of this stunning sculpted blond — offspring of British royalty, no less — with the jewelry and dresses and purses and Crabtree & Evelyn perfume she designs. I became so envious of her beauty, her elegance, her worldliness, her wealth – I mean, I wanted to be sipping Pimm’s cocktails on a pink sand beach wearing my designer silk kaftan and straw hat, too! — I had to shut down my computer.

My dad told me years ago, “The surest path to unhappiness is to compare yourself to other people.”


My path.  Instead of bare feet on a pink sand beach I
leave boot prints on my snow-covered sidewalk. Fun times.

I stopped to think about that, about how his wisdom is true. And then, reversing his sage advice, I mused that, well, hey, maybe people envy my life too. After all, I live in a drafty old house in the middle of freezing cold rural Iowa where my main form of entertainment is feeding carrots to the goats up the gravel road, my closest friends all wear overalls and dentures, and the only “good” food around is a pork tenderloin the size of a dinner plate from the local bar or a donut from the gas station.

So, uh, yeah. India Hicks wins.

I swore to myself that I wouldn’t obsess over India Hicks anymore, I wouldn’t compare myself to her or anyone else, and that I would be grateful for exactly who I am and what I have. And then I went to bed.

I woke up to snow. And 12 degrees. I bundled up in my long, puffy sleeping-bag-esque coat, wool hat with the oh-so-attractive earflaps, and fleece-lined quadruple-layer mittens and went outside. As I heaved the cold white stuff in large scoopfuls off my front walkway I muttered under my breath, “India Hicks doesn’t have to shovel snow.”

I went back inside the house, my cheeks still burning as they thawed from the near-frostbite, and immediately looked up airline tickets to the Bahamas.

The prices were astronomical, so I looked up light therapy lamps. And since those were priced in the triple digits I ran a very hot bath. And now, since I can’t seem to conjure up any way around this long winter but to muscle through it, I will turn up the heat in the house and get back to work on that new book proposal. And occasionally I will look at pictures of India Hicks to remind myself that instead of being envious I just need to plan in advance for next January.

Cool Stuff from Chef’s Planet

I’m having lunch with my friend Carolyn tomorrow. Carolyn volunteered many, many hours last summer for my Pitchfork Pie Stand. She would come over on Thursday evenings and we would weigh and roll out pie dough, slice lemons (not her favorite job, especially picking out all those seeds, but she did it anyway), cut strips of fabric to make pie box ribbons, and so forth. Our work was aided, occasionally, by a glass of wine or a slice of pie, and always by animated conversation. I last saw her in early November when she brought over a homemade chocolate pudding pie — her mother’s recipe — to share on her way to shop for groceries in Ottumwa.

I needed to make a trip to the store myself, so we ate the pie, jumped in the car, and drove the twenty-some minutes to town together. We ended up at Aldi (my insistence, of course) and coincidentally it was the very week Aldi had pie baking accessories in stock. (Aldi offers weekly specials and the baking supplies are only sold once a year, just before Thanksgiving.)

We perused the inventory: rolling pins, pastry scrapers, rubber spatulas, mixing bowls, pie plates, lattice cutters, silicone baking mats and oven liners. All great stuff for bargain prices.

I didn’t need anything since my kitchen is well-stocked and I have given everyone I know these Aldi pie accessories for Christmas presents for the past several years, but Carolyn bought pie plates (2 for 5 bucks!) and an oven liner (one of the most essential items a pie maker can own). She wanted to buy a silicone baking mat but I insisted that I had a whole box of them at home — swag from a company called Chef’s Planet — and that I would give her one from my inventory.

The problem was, I hadn’t opened the box. Until today. Until I knew I was going to see Carolyn and wanted to make good on my promise.

There were no silicone baking mats in the box. The package had arrived sometime in July or August. I was in full-on hyper pie stand mode and I didn’t even have the capacity to open a box of free pie stuff. Sheesh.

I had already received a box of Chef’s Planet oven liners. I had been expecting that shipment and was waiting for it, thanks to the generous offer from one of the company’s regional sales reps. I go through oven liners quickly. I use them religiously, keeping several clean ones on hand, and swapping them out mid-cycle during my baking marathons to keep the smoke from boiled over pie filling at bay. Besides not wanting to set off deafening fire alarms or create panic among our local emergency crews that I’m burning down the famous American Gothic House, I also don’t care much for the resulting burning sensation in my eyes and lungs.

Enter oven liners. Genius.

I will say here too in an unapologetic plug and enthusiastic thumbs up for Chef’s Planet that their oven liners cost twice as much as Aldi’s but they are twice as good. The material is thicker and lasts longer. Well worth paying the extra few dollars.

But silicone baking mats? I don’t remember what made me think that was what was in that second box of Chef’s Planet swag. I just know I didn’t think I needed any at the time. So the box got sent to the pie stand storage room in the basement. And there it has stayed. In the dark. Unopened. For several months.

Imagine my surprise today when I discovered the box was filled with my other must-have pie tool: pastry scrapers. (Chef’s Planet calls them “Prep Taxi Food Scoops.“) Oh, I was really mad at myself. I have really needed a few extra of these this past month! I could have been using them for my pie classes!

There was more in the box. There was a nifty colander measuring cup. Pretty clever. It will be useful when making berry pies next summer. And last but not least — no, not silicone baking mats, but something like them. Some kind of hybrid sheet that works as an oven liner on one side and non-stick rolling mat on the other. Chef’s Planet calls it a Multipurpose Nonstick Kitchen Mat.

So all this to say, I stumbled upon a win-win today. I opened the box and didn’t find what I was expecting. I found something even better. And because there were two Multipurpose Nonstick Kitchen Mats in the box I have one to give to Carolyn when I see her tomorrow. I also accomplished one tiny step toward the goal of cleaning out my storage room. There’s one less bulky cardboard container taking up space. And next time I get something — swag or whatever —  no matter how busy I am or what I think is inside, I will open the box as soon as it arrives. It could be a good surprise.