The Uniqueness of Pie…and People

Like a Miss America pageant, only pie.

I had forgotten what an individual expression pie can be. I get so used to making my same old classic apple pie, stuck on my soapbox preaching “keep it simple” and “I don’t like to have to follow a recipe.” Apple is certainly delicious pie, but when I attended a “First Annual Pie Palooza” yesterday I was reminded of just how many different pies are possible, and how those pies can reflect its maker. And, really, how variety is the spice of life.

The woman who held the party-slash-pie contest, Carolyn, lives in a neighboring town to mine. She and her twin sister Marilyn and their friend had stopped by my Pitchfork Pie Stand this summer and bought a few slices. Carolyn had been a regular follower of my blog, so when she discovered I was living close by she initiated the outing to the American Gothic House. And now, she claims, I was also the inspiration behind her pie party.

She even included a quote from me in her Pie Palooza email invitation prefacing it with “Why We Should All Bake Pies,” leaving me to explain:

“Pie makes people happy. Happy people want to do nice things for others. When everyone is doing nice things for each other all the time there can be no war, and therefore pie can save the world.”

(She found the quote in Gina Hyams’ “Pie Contest in a Box,” and was using Gina’s kit for the party.)

It wasn’t until all the emails had gone out that Marilyn suggested to Carolyn, “Why not invite the pie lady?”

Carolyn replied, “She’s so busy. She probably won’t come. But okay, I’ll send her an invitation.” To Carolyn’s surprise I immediately said yes.

She’s right. I am busy. But I’m also home alone all day every day sitting at my desk in my bathrobe and taking breaks only to walk my dogs or, on a really good day, ride my bike. What Carolyn didn’t consider is that while I love my solitude (it’s essential for both my productivity and creativity), I am often very deprived of human contact. I get a little tired of having the same daily conversations with my dogs. Their part of the dialog is limited to “We want to go out. We want to come in. It’s time for our breakfast. It’s time for our snack. It’s time for our dinner.” Along with the occasional, “Could you please fluff up the sofa pillows?”

So to venture out on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of an Iowa winter — an actual reason to get dressed! And brush my hair! — came as a very welcome change of routine. And, hello? Eating pie with a dozen or so other women? This also sounded like great fun.

Having been a pie judge several times over (the National Pie Championships, twice at the Iowa State Fair, and once at the 52nd Annual Hedrick Iowa Barbeque Days), I knew how to approach the bounty: one bite at a time. I took only a small scoop out of each, circling the table like a pie-eating shark, my fork tines sharp and ready to dig in. I had learned my pie-eating capacity the hard way — as in, all that sugar may not affect you immediately but it will eventually catch up with you. No matter how good the pie, you will feel ill. And you will regret pigging out. So I exercised this self-taught restraint.

A pie sampler. Also a sugar high. And potential ensuing stomach ache.

Everyone had brought a homemade pie. And not one pie was alike. Out of 12 pies I would have expected to see at least three All-American apples. But there wasn’t one. (I brought a pumpkin pie, as I, in a rare twist, had no apples on hand.) I had never heard of some of the pies. One that was unusual but particularly tasty, called the “Mystery Torte,” was made of Ritz crackers, egg whites, sugar and walnuts. It tasted like oatmeal cookies covered in whipped cream. It was sooooo good. But remember: Just. One. Bite.

Another was a “Spin-Off Boston Cream Pie” and I’m not sure what was the spin, though it may have been the sugar cookie crust. There was a Chocolate Mousse pie, a No-Bake Key Lime pie, a Rum Pecan pie, a Lemon Chess pie, and a Pumpkin-Pecan Streusel pie.  There was Carolyn’s Sour Cherry pie with an all-butter crust, her mother’s favorite. (Her mom is 92, living in Ohio, and Carolyn sent photos to her during the afternoon so she could see the festivities.) The cherry was my personal blue-ribbon pick. I ate a whole slice of it.

And there was one that surprised the hell out of me because I liked it so much: a Pineapple-Mango pie with….drum roll….a gluten-free crust! I am a person who flees in horror from the sight of anything marked “GF.” But this crust had a slightly sweet and crunchy texture reminiscent of a crumble topping. And I love crumble topping. And I loved this pie. I had at least four bites.

After sampling all the pies we were asked to write down on a scrap of paper the number of our one favorite. This is always a challenge to choose only one. They were all good. Excellent, in fact. Outstanding. And none had a store-bought crust! They were all made at home. With love. And sugar.

And the winners are….The envelope please.

Pictured left to right: Mary took third place with her Key Lime. Bev holds the blue-ribbon for her Cranberry Raisin with a lattice top. And Claudia is happy with her second place victory for her Lemon Chess — made with 3, count them, sticks of butter.

I understood why Bev’s Cranberry Raisin won. It was one of those anomalies, not love at first bite, but you found something compelling about it so, curious, you went back for a second bite. And then a third. Maybe it was the mouth-puckering tartness followed by a pleasing aftertaste of sweetness that caused the “I want more, I need more” reaction. It’s the same thing that caused me to vote for a Strawberry-Margarita pie at the Iowa State Fair one year. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, and then I couldn’t stop eating it. And now I am STILL thinking about it. Those kind of pies don’t come along every day. Kind of like people. Or boyfriends. Or books.

Speaking of books…

Note that everyone removed their shoes.
I was so relieved I had worn socks with no holes.
That closet cleaning project over Christmas paid off.

It turns out a good way to digest all that pie was to sit down with a cup of hot tea and listen to me read from my book, “Making Piece.” This was an impromptu reading, I had only brought the book for Show & Tell, not to hold court, but it was good practice for me. It was the first time I had read to a group from my book. Ever. And the ladies were a gracious audience. It was especially reassuring to hear them laugh in all the right places. Fitting for the Pie Palooza contest, I chose part of the chapter on being a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair. In this section I describe how tasting Lana Ross’s French Silk pie was the pie equivalent of having an orgasm.

I have a feeling the Second Annual Pie Palooza won’t have the wide variety of flavors they had this year. But my guess is, seeing how everyone expressed their own individuality in their slightly exotic, beautifully decorated, gorgeous and delicious pies, when they all show up next year bringing the same “Lana Ross’s Better Than Sex French Silk Pie” each one will have its own unique style and taste. And they will all be winners.

A Good Reason to Wear Orange

Jack & Daisy. “We’re dogs, not deer. Please don’t shoot us.”

I used to live in Venice, California in a neighborhood referred to as “The Hood.” A transitional neighborhood, this is an area where young hipsters can afford to buy fixer-uppers, nudging gang members out of their dwellings, one half-a-million-dollar house at a time. Even Whole Foods invested here, knocking down Big Lots and opening up (in a brand new LEED certified building) one of its high-end health food stores. (This location has become so popular – read: crowded – there’s even a rap song about the battle for parking. It’s also known for its pick-up scene for singles where yoga babes and filmmakers cruise the organic produce aisles for dates not vegetables.)

In The Hood, it is a regular thing to hear gunfire. Marcus was staying with me one weekend (when we were temporarily living apart for our respective jobs) and we were on our way to the dog park at 8 on a Sunday morning. “Pop, pop, pop!” we heard as we were leaving the house. I can still remember the look Marcus gave me as we ducked back inside for cover – “What made you choose to live here?” his face expressed. I’ll tell you what: It was an affordable cottage within walking distance to the beach. (Affordable in LA translates to $1,250 a month for a one-room guest house.)

Now I live in rural Iowa (where I rent a whole 3-story house for $250 a month.) I moved thousands of miles away from the Crips and the Bloods. And yet, I am not safe from getting shot.

That’s because in Iowa it’s hunting season.

Don’s hat. My field of dreams.

Every day I walk my dogs in the hay fields next door to my house, hiking through a corner of the 1,300-acre unpopulated parcel of rolling hills and open space. I look forward to this daily walk, regardless of the weather. It is my therapy, my thinking time, my church. Pulling on my rubber farm boots signals to the dogs we’re ready and they start bouncing up and down with happy anticipation.

A few weeks ago I had just finished my hour-long loop of the hay fields late on a dark, rainy afternoon and was met at the gate by an SUV, parked there waiting for me. A man dressed head to toe in green and brown camo raced out, making a beeline for me.

“I almost shot you!” he barked as he approached. He looked panicked and ashen, his adrenaline clearly pumping. His eyes were wide, his breath short. “You could have been killed! Don’t you know you need to wear orange?”

I looked at him blankly, as my dogs sniffed around his pant legs. I had never considered how my outfit — a gray raincoat, black fleece tights and brown hat — blended right in with the drizzly gray dusk. I had also never considered that all those deer I came across during my walks, let alone me, had guns pointed at their heads.

“And you need to watch your dogs,” he continued, intense and breathless, his dark eyes fixed on me as if to force the seriousness of his message to sink in. “We set coon traps out there in the timber.” My two terriers, one brown and black, the other as blond as the hay, could have passed for raccoons or rabbits or any small mammal who might stumble upon a trap.

“Thanks for letting me know,” is all I said and left him to deal with the decline of his adrenaline.

His message did sink in as I went home and searched for all the orange and red and bright and fluorescent wearable items I could find. I came up with two red bandanas to tie around my dogs’ necks and an orange bike jersey for me.

Then I went to my neighbor Don’s house and borrowed his hunter-orange cap. Don is the same neighbor who towed my Mini out of the mud, tilled my garden plot, and rescued me from the snake who had invaded my house. And now I can add to the list: saved me from getting shot.

My lucky orange sweater.
A happy day with Marcus in Germany, 2007.

In spite of being required to dress for safety I don’t mind wearing orange because the color makes me think of so many positive things. I was wearing an orange sweater when I met Marcus – a bulky Ecuadorian wool cardigan with giant daisies on it. Orange was Marcus’ favorite color. He had lived in London when the British cell phone company came out with its catchy slogan, one we used to repeat to each other: “The future is bright, the future is orange.” Orange makes me think of sunny California and all those citrus groves. Orange is healthy. Orange is Vitamin C. Orange is the color of pumpkins and that means pumpkin pie!

And, according to Precision Intermedia’s definition of the psychology behind this shade, orange is “the most flamboyant color on the planet. It’s the color tied most with fun times, happy and energetic days, warmth and organic products. It is also associated with ambition. There is nothing even remotely calm associated with this color. Orange is associated with a new dawn in attitude.”

So with my “newly dawned attitude,” now I don’t just walk the fields in my eye-popping garb, I yell out to the tree line as I’m walking, “Coming through. Put your guns down. I’m walking with my dogs. Don’t shoot.”

Wearing orange seems to be the best rule for safe field-walking in Iowa – where, happily for me and my dogs hunting season ends in three days. But I doubt it would do much good in The Hood in Venice, where “hunting season” seems like it will never end. Not that I’ll ever move back there, but if I did, I might invest in a bullet-proof vest. For my dog walks to the beach. And to Whole Foods.

(If you missed it above, you have to watch DJ Dave’s rap video. I too have been cut off by a Prius — with Save the Whales license plates, no less — in that same Venice parking lot! He captured it perfectly. Except for the background noise, that is. Pop, pop, pop.)

Happy 75th Birthday to the Hippest, Coolest Mom Ever

Today is my mom’s 75th birthday. I would be in Los Angeles celebrating with her, but instead I am in New Orleans attending the American Booksellers Association Winter Conference as a guest author. I feel very privileged to have been invited to this conference, but I feel even more privileged to have been raised by such a great mom. I probably wouldn’t even be at this conference – hell, I may not even still be alive – if not for my mom and all the values, wisdom, strength and grace she instilled in me.

Can you even tell which one is my mom? Didn’t think so!

I write a lot in my book, Making Piece, about my relationship with my dad. That’s mostly because my book centers around pie and my dad and I share a love for pie. But in this blog, I find I write a lot more about my mom. That is because as I try to make sense of this confusing life by writing these soul-searching essays, I constantly hear my mom’s helpful, calming, sensible voice as my guiding force.

Which is why, for my mom’s birthday, I am giving her this gift of a “Birthday Card Blog” to let her—and the rest of the world—know just how amazing she is and share a few of the invaluable tools she taught me. And I believe I speak for my four siblings too.

Dress Well – My mom is one of the hippest people I know. She has outstanding taste in clothes, she puts them together well, and she always looks “smashing.” Her wardrobe is so covetable I always raid her closet when I come to visit, borrowing something cute, like a BCBG sweater or a Banana Republic skirt. Lucky for me we are about the same size. And, on occasion, when falling in love with some piece of her clothing she will utter my favorite four words: “You can have it.” I don’t know anyone who gets and even begs for hand-me-downs from their 75-year-old mother!

Dine Well – It was my mom who introduced me to high tea, the very elegant British tradition of drinking tea and eating scones at a table set with delicate china and shiny silver. But my mom also taught me that high tea must be enjoyed properly by wearing a hat and gloves and a flowery dress. (Kudos to my mom for being able to get me out of my overalls!) My mom also knows the art of gourmet cooking. When I was in grade school she and her friends formed a food club and took turns hosting elegant home-cooked French meals. She once sent me to the store to get pearl onions for her Coq au Vin and I came home with the smallest yellow onions I could find. She didn’t get upset. She made do with the “wrong” ones. To this day whenever I see pearl onions I appreciate my mother’s culinary skills, her lessons to me about fine dining, and her flexibility in ingredients.

Mind Your Manners – I wish that kids today were able to be raised by my mother. I see so many rude, inconsiderate little monsters running wild in restaurants, screaming at the top of their lungs, and whining to their parents. Parents who think their kids are perfect. My mom would not tolerate bad behavior and for that I recognize that I am so very very lucky. She taught us to say please and thank you. And send thank you cards. She taught us to hold the door open for someone or help an elderly person to cross the street. She taught us that if you can’t say something nice about someone then don’t say it at all. And she taught us table manners – something that seems to have vanished in our society – basic functions like chew with your mouth closed, don’t talk with your mouth full, and push your knife and fork together to signal you are finished eating. She wasn’t following Emily Post to the letter, but pretty close. If only that “Book of Etiquette” could be handed out in hospital delivery rooms today.

Don’t Whine– When I was 22, living in Chicago and complaining to my mom about not being qualified for a certain job I wanted, she said, “If you don’t have the skills, go get the skills.” It may have seemed a little tough love-ish at the time, but these words have propelled me forward again and again over the years, resulting in quite an eclectic and useful set of skills. Now, whenever I hear people whine (including myself) I realize how unattractive it is and how blessed I was to have a mom that wouldn’t indulge me in my self-pity.

Be Considerate – My mom didn’t just teach manners, she also excelled in teaching the lesson of being considerate of others. Having awareness of those around you is an all-important life skill. When you are mindful of others that means you are paying attention. And when you are paying attention, you are absorbing everything life has to offer. You are also doing things instilled in you by your mother, like calling when you are going to be late and checking in when you arrive at your destination after a trip to say you made it safely. Or else! So many people don’t realize how important these little gestures can be. Think about this the next time you walk into a building and the person coming out not only doesn’t hold the door to let you pass, they don’t even acknowledge your existence. You will be wishing that there were more moms out there like mine.

Be Yourself – When I was 19 and everyone but me seemed to know what they were going to be when they grew up, I cried to my mom, “Why can’t I be like Liz?” Liz was my best friend who even at 19 seemed steady and sure of her course. To this my mom replied in the way that only the wisest of mothers could, “Because you’re special. Your life is going to be more difficult than Liz’s but it’s going to be so much more interesting.” I guess she was prescient because Liz went on to become a drug addict, then a born again Christian, and eventually unhappily married. My life has indeed been challenging (though apart from Marcus’ death usually due to self-inflicted reasons). And my mom was right, my life has also been infinitely interesting. And still is. I credit this to my mom who didn’t insist I follow the crowd and always take the “safe” path. She encouraged me to step to the beat of my own drum, no matter how wild the rhythm.

Be Independent – I am more fiercely independent than may be good for me, but then…maybe not. I think “self-reliant” may be a better term here. And there is nothing wrong with that. My mom let me and my siblings have free run of the kitchen, allowing us to make cookies and no-bake cheesecakes on our own. Taking it a step further, she let me and my sister take the bus downtown to shop for our own school clothes. We were not older than 8 or 10, but we were granted both freedom and trust. She granted me an extra dose of that freedom and trust when I wanted to run away to the Oregon coast at the age of 16. Instead of me having to flee without permission, she took a deep breath and said, “We trust we’ve done a good job raising you. It’s time for you to test your wings.” She didn’t exhale until I returned home safe and happy a month later. I don’t know of any other parents who have that much faith in their children. I credit my mom and her confidence in me at that tender young age as one of my greatest life-shaping moments.

Be Creative – My mom signed up all five of us kids for just about every lesson and activity known to mankind. We had lessons in ballet, tap, gymnastics, jazz, tennis, golf, swimming, diving, cello, violin, guitar, piano, pottery, painting, knitting, sewing. We (well, my brothers) competed in sports of football, track, baseball, basketball, wrestling. We were cheerleaders. We were in school plays. We were camp counselors. We were busy. My mom not only encouraged us to try everything, she also drove us there. I am grateful for being so well-rounded, exposed to such a variety of activities, and for being given the opportunity to choose which, if any, I wanted to pursue. She didn’t push, she merely offered the path. This alone makes me acutely aware of how privileged my upbringing was and how dedicated my mother was to making sure we had a good life.

I could go on and on about how much I learned from my mom and how grateful I am to her. But I have to go autograph some books now. And while I’m here in New Orleans talking to book store owners about my forthcoming memoir, my mom will be riding in the back of a limousine with my siblings and my aunt and uncle. They will be on their way to her birthday dinner in Los Angeles. And if all goes according to plan, my sister will open my blog on her iPhone and read this story to my mom. The greatest, hippest, most generous and caring mom in the world.

Happy Birthday, Marie Howard. You rock.

My parents on their 50th anniversary last year.

Starting the Year with an Empty Box

Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I decided to tackle a few projects — the ones I’ve had on my To Do list for way too long — and get them done BEFORE the New Year. One of the big ones was emptying my “Box From Hell.” This was a cardboard box that contained the piles of paperwork that regularly accumulate on my desk. Whenever I had company I would just dump the latest pile into the Box-from-Hell and shove the box into the coat closet. Naturally, over the course of the year, the box filled up and the paperwork in it was a complete disorganized mess. Over the past few days, I managed to sort, throw, file and empty its contents, which was a huge, gratifying accomplishment and a freeing way to start off the new year.

During the course of filing, however, I dug into other old Boxes-from-Hell and found more even more disorganized piles of paperwork. More throwing and shredding occurred — and a lot of reminiscing. There were scraps of paper and old receipts from my desk in Stuttgart, Germany. (Old indeed as I lived there from 2003 to 2006.) There were photos of and hand-written notes from Marcus. And there was a magazine article I wrote about how Marcus picked me up for our first date on his motorcycle. Indicating further progress in my journey through grief, I could read the story about our über-romantic courtship with sweet nostalgia instead of guttural sobs. Now that is progress! (The article is below. You might need to zoom in to read it. And, of course, you can read more about my romance with Marcus in my book when it comes out in THREE MORE MONTHS!)

Cleaning and organizing my files before the calendar changed to 2012 was an excellent ritual, a sort of rite of passage to make space for whatever new things lie ahead. According to Zen wisdom, you have to “empty your cup before you can refill it again.” I say you have to empty your box. I can’t wait to see what it fills up with next. (Besides bills and insurance documents, I mean.)

Even If You Don’t Feel Like It, Make Gratitude Pie

Some of you know that H and I broke up. Some of you know that because I posted a blog last week telling the somber, gut-twisting story about how he drove away leaving behind only tire tracks in the snow and how I stood there sobbing in my bathrobe and boots, and how I spent the next hours and days waiting and waiting for the snow to melt, for those tell-tale tracks to disappear, because they kept reminding me of how he exited my life so abruptly.

Some of you also noticed that I took that blog post down. “You should put that post back up,” some of you wrote. “He took advantage of you. He was selfish,” others wrote. One friend wrote, “You should have been much harder on him than you were.”

But my mother’s voice reproached me. “That’s not charitable,” her age-old recording in my head kept reminding me.

Understanding that the definition of charitable is “kind or lenient in one’s attitude towards others,” then yes, my mother was right. I also continued to hear my mom’s other lifelong reproach saying, “You tell people too much.” Based on my blog and my forthcoming memoir, obviously I ignore this voice 99.9 percent of the time. But in my heart I didn’t feel right about the “snow tracks” story. It wasn’t charitable and what happened between H and me didn’t need to be shared so publicly. I took the post down.

A few days later, my sister gave me an early Christmas present. A Gratitude Journal. It was not lost on me that she gave me this “thoughtful gift” in direct response to my excessive complaining to her—mostly about H. “Wah. Wah. Wah,” is all I said over and over. (God, I can be such a whiner!)

The Gratitude Journal contains an introduction discussing how to be happy, how being grateful and expressing that gratitude is a key to feeling good about life. The author states that she wrote in her gratitude journal every day for six weeks and saw positive results, and that she really felt better. About everything.

Well, I wrote in my new gratitude journal one day—just one page—and the results were instantaneous. It was like I was a wind-up toy marching in the wrong direction and someone picked me up by the back of the neck, turned me around and set me moving in the opposite direction, the one away from the negative and instead toward the positive.

Gratitude — and happiness — can be found in the simple things,
like a spectacular winter sunset in Eldon, Iowa.

Of course I am disappointed and down about the sudden unraveling of my relationship with H (one week before Christmas, no less!) And unfortunately the break up dredges up deeper fears: I am afraid I will never find love again. And because I am still grieving Marcus I worry that I will never be a desirable partner to anyone. But now I can and will put a stop all that negative thinking and remember gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for! My loving friends, my close family, my scruffy dogs, my adorable (and affordable) house, my good health, my soon-to-be published book, and so much more. And, really, truly, I am grateful for H—for four months of great snuggling, laughter, hiking, traveling, my introduction to the South (and grits and biscuits), morning dog walks, shared meals, shared stories, wonderful companionship and friendship.

A full moon rising over my favorite cornfield is something to be grateful for.

And so, the blog post of last week will remain sealed in a vault. Moreover, I have told my friend, the one who said I should have been harder on him, “I have no reason to say anything unkind about H. He is a good person and in spite of our relationship not being what I had hoped it could be, he still gave me a lot. And I am grateful.”

Gratitude feels good.

Pie and the Operating Room

I was just in LA for a medical treatment. Nothing major, just a part of a body part needed to be removed. I wouldn’t normally write about such matters (then again, I write about every other private and personal matter), but pie features prominently so I couldn’t pass up sharing this funny tale of my experience on an operating room table.

I was in the pre-op room, dressed in my cotton hospital gown, when a tall, intelligent looking blond nurse came in to attend to me. Small talk ensued and I happened to ask the nurse, Kate, where she was from.

“Keokuk, Iowa,” she answered.

I bolted upright from my gurney, nearly pulling the IV needle out of my hand. “You’re kidding! I’m from Iowa. I live in Eldon.”

“I’m going to move back someday,” Kate said. “I’m from a family of seven kids and they’re all still in the area. I go back a few times a year. All my friends there think I’m so glamorous because I live in LA – they think of Hollywood – but I try to set them straight and remind them it’s still just me.”

My mom, who accompanied me to my appointment, sat there quietly by my bedside, not saying a word. She has no desire to go back to Iowa. She and my dad moved to LA ten years ago, when three out of five of her kids (including me) were living in LA at the time. She loves living in California, loves the people, the energy, and especially the ocean view from their waterfront apartment.

“I loved living in California and I certainly never thought I would end up in Iowa,” I told Kate. “But I am really happy there.”

“You bake pie?” Kate continued. “I love pie. I went on RAGBRAI this past summer and ate pie every day along the bike route. All those church ladies had made so much pie.”

Angela, the fair-skinned beauty who was smearing a sample of my blood onto a microscope slide interrupted and said, “Excuse me. We need to focus on the surgery.”

“Right,” said Kate. “Okay, please confirm your name, birth date, any allergies….” And then, she couldn’t stop herself. She looked up from my chart and asked, “What kind of pies do you like to make?

“Mostly apple,” I said, sneaking a knowing smile up at Angela who gave up on trying to steer our conversation.

Then my doctor appeared from behind the curtain. Dressed in a flannel shirt and a down jacket, he put his hand on my arm and greeted me warmly. I introduced him to my mom. “Mom, this is Dr. D. I’ve been seeing him for over twenty years. This is the most consistent relationship I’ve ever had in my life. He is the reason I flew half way across the country just to have this procedure done. I wouldn’t trust anyone else.” I added, “One of his many attributes is that he doesn’t buy into drama. You tell him you’re in excruciating pain and he just shrugs. “We were just talking about pie,” I told him.

“Apple is my favorite,” he quickly replied. “The Dutch kind with the crumbly topping. The double crust kind just has too much crust.”

“You like the crumble topping because it’s made with brown sugar and butter,” I told him. “My pie teacher [Mary Spellman] always told me, ‘You can’t go wrong with brown sugar and butter.’”
I was eventually wheeled off to the operating room and the last thing I remember saying to Dr. D as the anesthesia was pumped into my veins was “I’ve never seen you in scrubs.” And then, I was out.

About an hour later I was nudged awake in the middle of having a bad dream about H. (You know something is out of balance in your relationship when your subconscious is trying to work things out under the influence of heavy sedatives!) I noticed I was no longer in the operating room, but in a different room. Dr. D was standing by my bed, once again dressed in his flannel shirt and down jacket. “I was having a bad dream about my boyfriend,” I dumbly said in my groggy state.

“Everything went well. You did great. You can get dressed now. Come back in a few months for a follow up and hopefully one of these days I’ll get to have one of your pies.”
I laid there for a while trying to collect my bearings, observing how my body was feeling – surprising fine, as if it hadn’t just been invaded by scalpels and tubes — and imagined how the conversation must have gone between the surgical team as they worked on me:

She bakes pies, she lives in Iowa, she has a book coming out in April, I read the opening pages on her website, interesting story, what’s your favorite pie, my grandmother used to make a really good coconut pie that I loved, how’s her blood pressure, I can’t believe she flew all the way here from Iowa, she should open up a pie shop here, LA needs more pie, I’m going to buy her book, almost done here, just one more stitch, I’m going to tell my sister in Keokuk about her, did you know she lives in that Grant Wood house from American Gothic, that’s so Americana, I really like pie.

Of course I’ll never know what they said. But I do know this: everyone, everywhere I go, lights up when you start talking about pie. And there, in a Santa Monica surgery center on Wilshire Boulevard, it was no exception. What better subject to put a patient at ease, what better way to connect with strangers, like with the doctors and nurses into whose hands you are putting your life. It was as if the conversation transformed the cold and sterile room and instead filled it, warmed it with the scent of butter, apples and cinnamon. It proves the point yet again that even when just talking about it and not even eating it, pie comforts, heals and nourishes the soul. Pie connects people and their stories, their histories, their hearts. Even in the most unusual of times and circumstances, like at 6:30 a.m. in an operating room.

Next time I’m in LA I will definitely be returning to the surgery center and am already greatly looking forward to it. Why? Because next time the surgical team won’t be cutting into me, they’ll be cutting into the apple pies I deliver to them as a thank you. I can already imagine the crumble topping melting in their mouths.

Tire Tracks in the Snow

NOTE: I posted this story twice and took it down twice. But apparently enough people saw it, liked it and even wanted to forward it to their friends, so due to public pressure popular demand I am posting the story again. Third time’s a charm. I would say “Sorry, H,” but H has since admitted he was texting other women, so I feel I have the right to post this without apology. It goes to show you, ALWAYS TRUST YOUR INTUITION.

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This is what it looks like when the man you’ve been dating for the past four months — and living with for the past three — abruptly decides to pack up his chow and his guinea pig and leave in the pre-dawn hours of an Iowa winter morning.

As he drives away you stand there in your boots and your bathrobe, sobbing, wondering what it was you did that caused him to go. Was it because you nagged him too much about doing dishes? You admit that you did badger him about this. You also remember that while he first offered to buy you a dishwasher all he managed in the end was to buy paper plates. Or did he leave because you complained about him watching too much TV? You never wanted TV in your house, but in your effort to accommodate this new relationship you relented. You relented so much that when the cable TV you had installed didn’t offer his favorite sports channel you upgraded to satellite, complete with that little dish mounted to the roof of your house which now interferes with the  view out your bedroom window. Regardless, you wish every time you look out the window that the damn snow would melt so you don’t have to be reminded of how he drove out of your life.

You spend your day so out of sorts you can’t get any work done. All you can do is call everyone you know who will remind you that you are fabulous and smart and funny and beautiful. This is helpful because the man who you lived with, the one you had thought had such potential for a future, the one you thought you were falling in love with, the one who drove off at 5:50 a.m. in the snow, had never once told you that you were fabulous, smart, funny and beautiful. You do remember, however, that he called you “cute” exactly three times and how you responded, “Cute is not the same as beautiful.”

You just want the day to pass, time to pass, you want the damn snow to melt. You want your heart to feel at peace, you want your stomach to stop feeling so sick and knotted. But especially you want to look at his iPhone again, the one with all those text messages from all those women friends of his, the ones he couldn’t bring himself to tell that not only did he have a girlfriend, he was living with her. You’re not sure–because you were in such a panicked state for snooping in the first place (something you vowed you would never stoop so low to do)–but you think you saw an exchange of messages that revealed he was rushing back home to meet up with a woman who couldn’t wait to see him. If only you could read those messages again you could see you were wrong, that it was nothing of the sort, and put your mind at ease. Still, you will never be sure because he is driving to a place 21 hours away and he is never going to let you see his phone again. Moreover, you have the feeling you are never going to see him again.

Your friends continue to call and email and prop you up and tell you it’s for the best that he left, that you rushed into this too fast, that they were never really sure about him anyway.

And though the final outcome has yet to reveal itself, you begin to feel better, more grounded, even a little grateful to have the house to yourself again. You pack up the shampoo bottles he left in the shower and wonder how soon you can cancel the satellite TV. And eventually, thankfully, the snow finally melts.

Guest Blog: Pie Lady Goes South, Part 3 – by H

Pie Lady Visits the Mountain South, Part 3 (and Final Installment) — As Told by H

So…we are now back in the Iowa plains metropolis of Eldon, and it’s time to reflect upon a California Yankee’s introduction to the Southern Appalachians. Of course, I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a match made by anyone associated with heaven. If there was a version of eHarmony that matched people with places, Beth and the Georgia mountains would never even make it to the point where pictures are exchanged. The mountains are too steep and the hollows too confining. And the hunters seem to outnumber the animals (except, of course, inside our cabin.) And then there are the Confederate flags

But we did have some adventurous hikes and see some nice scenery. (Pictured:  Amicalola Falls)

And there were some very nice meals at Cucina Rustica 

And Harvest On Main 

And for the pie baker supreme, there is the fact that Gilmer County Georgia is the apple capital of the South, and the orchards have some superb pie apples.

And where else can you get your picture taken with a stuffed bear (pronounced “barre”) inside a place that sells apple cider donuts, apple fritters, fried pies in 15 flavors, stone ground grits and candy and caramel apples? All this plus a petting zoo and an animated hillbilly on a tractor.

But despite all of these wondrous advantages, Beth is a reluctant visitor to the mountain South. Much as I would be visiting a hippy commune. Mind you, she isn’t a General Sherman who’d like to burn the place off the map, but she just didn’t find a connection to this craggy, homespun region. But then, she didn’t have the same introduction to it that I did.

Shortly after moving to East Tennessee years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. The good (southern) folks at University of Tennessee Medical Center had to carve me up and put me back together again. Then they had to essentially poison all of the cancer out of my body without killing me. I’d never met nicer or more caring people. And in the year after I was released from the hospital I rented a mountain cabin across from a small lake. I’d never seen or experienced such a calm and serene place. It helped me put myself back together and continue on with life. So for me, the mountain South will always tug at my heartstrings despite its shortcomings and throwback ways.

And I won’t give up on getting Beth to look at the area through a different lens, to feel just a little bit of what I feel. For there is always next fall, and the promise of a cabin with 10 or fewer stuffed bears and moose, no “Stairs of Death” and a road that isn’t like living through a daily episode of The Thrillbillies.

Guest Blog: Pie Lady Goes South, Part 1 – by H

The Pie Lady visits the Mountain South 
(Part 1) – as told by H

It was a decidedly rough start to this adventure, as the days immediately before departing on this trip were rough ones for Beth. Her cartoon character terrier Daisy had surgery, was sick afterward, and had to be left in the care of a veterinarian the day before we left. Although the care, rest and limited activity afforded by lodging at the vet’s office was a good option for a post-surgery dog, leaving a dog for over a week (especially an ailing dog) is anathema to Beth’s constitution. It was traumatic with a capital T, as Beth is one of the dog-lovingest individuals anywhere on the planet. A sick Daisy meant that Beth got little sleep in the days before we headed south, so she was stressed and sleep deprived when it came time for our Sunday morning departure. We discussed not going at all, but the cabin was already paid for, and Beth rallied enough to get herself, me, Jack (terrier), Miska (Chow), Naf-Naf (guinea pig) into my car and onto the road.

Twelve hours in the car wasn’t exactly what Beth needed on that particular Sunday, but we both survived the trip, aided by listening to old radio episodes of Suspense on XM Radio. I’ve wanted to take Beth to the South almost from the day I met her. Why, you ask? Because Beth is about as un-southern as a woman can get. The often uttered, “Woman, get me a beer” which is a staple request/order from men throughout Dixie, would be one of the quickest ways I can imagine to get an instantaneous “Fuck off” response from Beth. If I had to label her geographic/cultural makeup, it would be California Yankee. And “CY” is about as far afield from “MS” (Mountain South) as you can get. This is why I knew it would be both fun and amusing to take Beth to the Georgia mountains…

The Happy Chair

Upon arriving, Beth still need a bit of attitude adjustment, so on the banks of the Toccoa River, she was boosted up into the Happy Chair.

I mean, how can you not be happy looking at this scenery?

Beth already has an appreciation for the scenery and outdoor recreational opportunities here. But southern culture? If only I’d taken a picture of the look on her face when the GOB (good ole boy) asked another GOB in the grocery store if he’d shot anything yet. More on this later…

More AGH Video…And My Kohler Sink is the Star

My friend Jo Brown works for Kohler and when she found out I lived in the American Gothic House she suggested I might want an old-fashioned cast iron farm sink, a brand new top-of-the-line one made by Kohler. “Good for all your pie baking,” she said.

“Yes, but only if you come down to see me when they install it,” I insisted. I hadn’t seen Jo in eight years. We had worked together at MSN.com as web producers. She and her husband John came to my wedding — to the ceremony Marcus and I had on a farm outside of Seattle. (It was one of three ceremonies we had, ensuring we were thoroughly married.) Time marched on and with it came life changes. Jo and her husband had moved to Wisconsin and I moved, alone and grieving Marcus, to Iowa.

Jo did come down to Eldon, in late August after the gorgeous new sink was installed, and instead of my kitchen being a construction zone we were in full-blown pie-making mode for the Pitchfork Pie Stand. She pitched right in, rolling dough and peeling apples — while her video crew shot footage of us using the new Kohler apron-front sink. It was a win-win: I got to spend time with Jo — I was reminded of how much I loved her lightness of being, her easy laugh and her wisdom — and she earned points with her bosses for scoring this great PR opp.

While I love, love, love, love, love my new Kohler sink, what I love even more is that this sink brought an old friend back into my life. We won’t let eight more years go by without seeing each other again, of that I am certain.

Thanks again, Jo — and thanks, Kohler.

Click here to see Jo’s version of the story in her blog post on the Kohler website.