Life of Pie

By Amanda Miller

Chocolate, pecan, cherry, pumpkin. Nut, cream, fruit, custard. It can be topped with fluffy meringue, whipped cream, buttery crumble, or a dollop of ice cream, but no matter how it is served, it’s pie. And everyone loves pie.

Multifaceted and many-splendored, pies come in a plethora of types and tastes. Billowy egg whites piled onto a rich lemon curd are just as much a pie as peanut butter crumbs sprinkled above and below layers of cool whip and vanilla pudding; quintessential latticed apple is in the same recipe categorization with unusual bourbon chocolate peanut.

In spite of the limitless possibilities for variation in the filling and topping of this dessert, pies do not come in all shapes and sizes. They are round, and typically within an inch or two of diameter. No one makes tiny square pies, you know.

The other common denominator comprises the actual foundation of the pie — the crust. There is only one style of true pie crust, the traditional pastry dough. It’s the shell within which the rest of the pie is allowed to come into being; that flaky underlying layer is the component tying this dessert category together. Whether it is blind-baked or baked filled, single or double, the crust makes the pie. A pie is literally not a pie without it.

This is where it gets tricky. Although it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to eat pie, those who make them are a bit fewer and farther between. In fact, the mention of entirely homemade pie with crust is often enough to trigger waves of admiration and/or tremors of fear in any baker, nascent or experienced. That standard pie crust is essential and inescapable, an arch-nemesis and a bragging point of home cooks.

I sometimes wonder if the aura of holy trepidation is actually based on reality or more in the socially accepted and perpetuated reputation of elusive perfection. I’m usually too busy happily and harriedly trying to keep the dough chilled and the flour dust contained to ponder on it for long.
I’m so happy muscling my wooden rolling pin over the stiff disc of fresh pastry because I love making pies — maybe even especially the crust. No one else I know likes to make pie crusts; most rarely if ever even attempt it (although maybe I just need to get out more). In contrast, frequently I hear a note of disdain or perhaps bitterness in reference to that one downer in pie-baking. Really, just buy frozen premade crust.

Why am I such an anomaly in the realm of pie-making? It’s one thing to always make your own pie crust, but to even love it …

The secret lies not in my achieving an unfailingly flaky, light pie shell every time, because half the time they’re uncomfortably overbaked, tough, or soggy. It’s not that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into fresh, all-butter pastry, because I awkwardly prefer to eat the filling by itself. It’s not even in some driving hubris to be The Mennonite Domestic, because that’s only part of it. It’s in the source of my first learning how to make pie crust.

My grandma is the one who first walked me through elevating a few basic ingredients into the base of that dessert we all know and love. Even those years ago, her wrinkled hands were not quite dexterous enough and her aged wrists not quite strong enough to roll out the pastry dough into submission, but she pulled her chair up close to our kitchen worktable and talked me through each step.

Grandma’s years of experience negated her needing a recipe to guide her dictation of ingredients I should dump into the bowl. It isn’t meticulous measurements of flour and fat that makes the shell, after all; it’s working with the dough and making the dough work for you. Enough flour, a clump or two of shortening, some cold water (but not too much). She watched me mix, she fingered the crumbs, she helped me adjust it to just right.

As always when I do anything in the kitchen, during this whole process, I made a mess. Flour poofed out as I mixed and patted, ice water sloshed onto the table, sticky flakes of dough sprung off my fingers. My impeccably neat grandmother, tidy to a fault, said nothing as I trashed her standard of housekeeping. Flipping the pastry disc over to continue the rolling process, releasing more white breaths of flour? But no reprimand.

Her wooden rolling pin in my still-practicing hands creaked back and forth, a semi-round shape materializing beneath it. Soon it was big enough for me to carefully fold in half over itself, gingerly place into the awaiting pie plate, reopen to full size, and gently press down. We breathed a collective sigh of relief at successful transfer.

Grandma instructed me to use a butter knife to trim the edges of limp dough hanging lazily over the walls of the pie pan, and to treasure-trove the scraps for baking with cinnamon sugar later. Her fingertips knew exactly what they were doing in ridging the perimeter of the crust, so my thumb and forefingers copied hers as closely as possible as we worked our way around the shell, leaving mismatching teamworked pinches in our wake.

And then we were done. Leaning back, together we smiled our celebration at completion. Sure, flour dusted the front of my shirt, dishes cluttered the table, and dough stuck in my fingernails, but that was all peripheral.

I just learned to make pie crust. Best skill ever.

I don’t even remember what we filled that glorified specimen of a pie shell with that day, but it doesn’t even matter. I’ve modified my method and ingredients since then, always using homemade butter and a pinch of this and that, but it doesn’t matter either.

What matters is that every time I messily cut in that cold butter or capably pinch my way around those pastry edges or cautiously lay those lattice strips over the filling, I remember Grandma. It was just one morning, one baking project together, but it will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Everyone loves pie. But I love pie crust.

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Fallen Reader

pages

By Tamara Shoemaker

Apparently, I’ve been ruined as a reader for all time.

Grrrrr!

Back in the day, I used to sit down with a nice, fresh book from the library. I’d rifle through the pages, inhaling the scent (you fellow book lovers know the scent to which I’m referring — you Kindle lovers who never crack a book will not understand), and I would crawl onto the couch or the bed or the floor or the park bench and settle in for an unparalleled flight of fancy.

The authors never made mistakes. The tone, structure, narrative style never even hit my radar. I simply immersed myself in the story and digested every word with absolute satisfaction.
Fast-forward a few years. I wrote a book, then two, then three, then four, five and six. Every word was studied, every adjective used, then discarded, then used again. Sentence patterns were read, and reread, flipped around, reversed, turned upside-down, then right-side-up. Books were read aloud until my throat ached and my voice rasped. The overuse of adverbs galloped through my nightmares.

Plot lines! Oh, dear goodness, the torture of a hole in my plot line!

A college professor once told me (and perhaps it wasn’t an original quote, but the first time I heard it, it came from him) that to be a good writer, I had to be an avid reader. I took that to heart. Every night for years, after the kids were in bed and I’d closed up shop for the day, I crawled in my bed and cracked open a book. The hour didn’t matter; it might have been midnight or one or two in the morning. I would still read.

Sometimes, I would only make it through two paragraphs. Most often, a chapter. A particularly engrossing book might have kept me awake till four in the morning as I’d tell myself, “Just one more chapter. That’s it.” Until the next cliffhanger, and then I’d burn some more of that midnight oil and keep going.

But the simple, relaxing enjoyment had flown.
Now, I study every adverb, every adjective. “Why did they put ‘slightly’ in there? It would have made a stronger sentence without that word!”

The occasional typo presents itself, and I smirk. “See, I’m not the only one.”
I grow green with envy when a particularly interesting adjective or simile pops up. “Now why couldn’t I have thought of that first?”

I went with my husband to see Catching Fire, the second story in The Hunger Games trilogy. My enjoyment of the movie was tinged with the fact that jealousy ate away at my innards.

Fie on thee, Suzanne Collins! Why must you come up with such an interesting story?

All joking aside, if I had a choice whether or not I would begin this journey again, this relationship with my keyboard, I wouldn’t refuse it.

Yes, it does affect my view of other literature, and yes, it is often frustrating that I can’t simply sit and enjoy.

But on the flip-side, I’ve known few activities more enjoyable than the pleasure of allowing my fantasy unparalleled freedom, of constructing a world in which other keen readers, like myself, can wander freely. Perhaps I will never be another Suzanne Collins, author extraordinaire, but I am Tamara Shoemaker, weaver of ideas.

And I’m fine with that.

Tamara Shoemaker’s books include “Broken Crowns,” “Pretty Little Maids” and “Ashes, Ashes.” She lives in Virginia with her husband, Tim, and their three children.

Mold Time Machine

mold

By Jason Ropp

In a childhood development class I took in college I learned about retention rates — how much we remember. The professor said that if students sit and listen carefully they will retain only 10 percent of whatever the teacher labored over and meticulously presented. This made sense to me. This is why those gimmicky shows like “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” work so well — and why they should probably change their name to, “Did You Bother to Remember Something You Learned 30 Years Ago Better Than This Kid Who Just Did a Report on It?”

There are tricks to improving memory, like group interaction and visualization. Being a guitar teacher, I wish it were a matter of saying something once: “Here kid, the quarter note gets one beat.” We would spend most of our time working on things like hand placement or memorizing Hendrix licks. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that Hey kid, the quarter note gets one beat, will be repeated, demonstrated, and quizzed 75 times over the next six months — at which point I will still be greeted with blank stares every time I ask.

This is both maddening and job security.

But then there are information and events that need no tricks, an event that leaves an immovable reminder. Sometimes it’s traumatic — the kind of scar you might not brag about — perhaps a failed art on wrists that get covered with long sleeves. Other times it’s nostalgic like the raised white lines on the knuckles of little boys, a mark of manhood shown to every girl who will listen, “Yeah, I’ve got a pocket knife.” But either way they stay with us at the forefront.

And then there are also memories more like midnight campfire conversation that lulls in and out of consciousness, free of awkward impatience with silence — no worries about a reasonable bedtime since no one sleeps well while tent camping anyway.

Campfires are social magic. Long talkers who do so because they are afraid of being alone when the conversation ends can finally sit and stare at coals, trusting that if conversation does end that everyone will stay anyway, entertained by dancing orange and guarded by surrounding black.

And so with fat mouths like myself, enamored with electrons hopping from one spectrum to the next, patiently and silently ruminating on some idea or another — the quiet ones find their voice, or rather just room to speak what I perceive to be prophecy, but is really just good editing. After months and years of being interrupted by my machine gun nest of untested (read: unthoughtful) opinions, they’ve carefully itemized their strongest ideas. And since this moment of listening ears may very well be their last, they might as well offer their dying words. And dying words are usually beautiful, if only because of the sacredness of scarcity.

In the same way, good memories know how to sit and wait until they are desperately needed — bringing themselves to the surface rather than being recalled by will. And the best memories don’t come out of hibernation until they are absolutely sure that they won’t be intruded upon by a text message or some silly conjuring of nostalgia for the sake of an interesting blog post.

But when you catch a whiff of that musty attic smell, you sneeze up a picture of yourself, sleeping in an upstairs room in Oklahoma at your cousins’ house. Or rather pretending to be asleep because you know there is something notable and grown up about sleeping in as long as you want. For whatever reason, it is a skill you consider noteworthy. And noteworthy skills are important when it comes to the cousins you are staying with, particularly if there are both boy and girl cousins involved.

Boy cousins on one hand are continually showing off to each other, talking about all the cars they are going to fix up. It becomes a competition of aspiration really. Because when you are a kid you still haven’t learned that most people don’t actually end up doing even half of the things they say they are going to. Instead of that book they were going to write, they got distracted by their wife walking by in a towel, and so all that imagination was directed toward making love, which resulted in the world’s most predictable surprise. But kids don’t know this and so they experience the joy of a ’68 Camaro and then the envy of the fact that their cousin’s ’68 Camaro has a 1200-cubic-inch engine and a 15-inch subwoofer that thumps as they drive on the Autobahn at 175 mph, after they had it shipped over there on their speedboat. You don’t have to worry about getting speeding tickets on the Autobahn. It was cheaper this way.

But girl cousins, they are different. They are both family and the first girls that you find irresistibly beautiful, though not in any erotic sense. In fact it is because of that taboo that we are free to find them beautiful without being severely self conscious. No one is going to tease you for wanting to spend all day with girl cousins. Nor are they, or you, suspicious about your intentions. So even a chubby boy finds acceptance and friendship with girls who would otherwise find him awkward and embarrassing to be seen with. And your parents, they let you stay up talking late into the night, not afraid like they will be when you finally blurt that you have this girl you want to go to the movies with.

In fact, girl cousins serve as a sort of testing ground for boys who are terrified of being rejected. Because family is family, and so the bond is there and permanent. There is no accepting or rejecting to be done; someone else has arranged the terms of relationship for you. And so freed of relational decision making, you become your best self that a kid can and know that a female your age loves you for or in spite of it.

And all of it comes to you in a flash as the correct proportion of mold and dirt hit your olfactory.

The Back Page: Optimistic About Pessimism

Empty glass

By Ben Herr

Speaking only for myself, but expecting others to relate, pessimists are largely a misunderstood, misrepresented group of individuals. Pessimism is viewed as a character flaw at worst, and a bad mood at best. But is it really? Should it be completely written off without often giving it a second thought? Because I believe in pessimism. I believe it is a valuable mindset to society, and has things to offer the individual.

First, the most common, and most quickly dismissed, argument in favor of pessimism: A pessimist’s approach to life is actually more optimistic than an optimist’s. You’ve almost certainly heard this explained in an overly simplistic way.

For example, an optimist and a pessimist start cleaning out the garage at 10 a.m. The optimist says, “If we work hard, we can get done by noon!” The pessimist says, “I doubt it, we will probably finish by 2.” While it may seem like the pessimist has a gloomy approach now, how about when they finish? If done by 12, the optimist’s expectations will merely have been met, while the pessimist will have been wonderfully surprised. Whereas if finished at 2, the optimist will be disappointed, but the pessimist’s expectations will merely have been met. Win-win for the pessimist.

This scenario is, on paper, in favor of the pessimist. Discuss it with a group of people, however, and it depends on the individual as to how beneficial that kind of pessimistic mindset is. Since people are wired differently, they will have different responses to the idea.

The pessimist’s perspective is more, however, than estimating cleaning time. It becomes more strongly optimistic the deeper you go. To me, pessimism is a powerful indicator of hope. Because the moment I stop being pessimistic about the world will be the moment I have given up hope in it. The moment I stop expecting poor performances is the moment I have stopped having standards that I hope to see met. The moment I stop lambasting the flaws of the governmental system is the moment I have given up hope that they might ever be corrected. The moment I stop being pessimistic is the moment I will have given up on optimism, because pessimism is really nothing more than a dirty term for how some people strive to be optimistic.

In this way, pessimism is an indicator of the desire for improvement. Take harsh movie critics. They are typically viewed by the moviegoing public as cranky, unappreciative people who simply love tearing films down. As a fairly harsh movie viewer myself, however, I can vouch that the opposite is often true. I critique because I see wasted potential, because I see ways that things could have easily been improved. Ultimately, when pessimists depict something in a negative light, it is because they want, or expect, it to be done better. Their criticism is an expression of hope that it can be done better in the future.

Finally, pessimists are more likely to give you an honest and frank opinion. They are less concerned with putting things in terms that seem appealing and optimistic, and more concerned with saying things how they see them. If I ever needed dependable input on how a system was working, I would ask a pessimist. Not only for the honesty, but if something is going wrong in a less than obvious way, it will likely be a pessimist who notices it first. That is a kind of feedback that I think is incredibly valuable.

These are just a few reasons to view pessimistic thought in a more positive light. Yet, to try to convert to pessimism if it is not how you are wired would likely be counterproductive. After all, someone could write a piece like this showing the value in optimistic thought.

What I hope to have accomplished is for the word “pessimism” to have become a little less dirty. I hope that people start recognizing the pessimist’s way as an alternative option, rather than an inferior one. I hope that more people will see pessimists as desiring, seeking, and striving for improvement. And most of all, that more people will see these as foundational things that pessimists and optimists alike will agree on.

Ben Herr lives in Lancaster, Pa., where he works as a dorm adviser for international high school students.  He writes short stories, humor, and opinion pieces about whatever current ideas and projects interest him.

Cultural Harmony in English Class

English class

By Amanda Miller

Sunlight streamed through the dusty glass slats of the two windows, illuminating the wrinkles of time in the wooden floor panels. Though stale air lingered in the four cement corners and in the folds of the tied-up curtains, fresh life breathed in the middle of the classroom. A few minutes ago, there was just a motley collection of iron-framed chairs around an embarrassed uneven table. But now I saw the chipped yellow paint on the chairs and the elbow-worn spaces on the table as proof of so much more.

As the students meandered in, they all argued about what time English class was actually supposed to start. Incidentally, everyone but the quietly amused American teacher thought they had arrived in plenty of time. We were encouraged multiple times to give the extra-tardy potentials “just two more minutes.”

As we killed time, the young-adult students explained why the previous week’s class didn’t happen; apparently last Tuesday was a major Muslim holiday. All Somalis here in Nairobi, Kenya, stayed home that day, whether because there was more chance of getting police attention and not having legitimate identification, or because their families were celebrating Eid, or because everyone else would be celebrating and there would be nothing to do anyway. Neither the men nor the women had any idea why they celebrated Eid, just that it was something they’d always done.

Eventually the grace period ended, and class began. The first step was to go around the table and introduce ourselves, from the girl whose eyes were all that escaped from the dark burka, to the young man with a swanky watch and button-down collared shirt, to me in my flip-flops and stifled enthusiasm for being back in a Somali environment. Two of the three women were reserved and hard to hear, while Eyes hid her face much more than her thoughts. The three men were all dressed more Western and confident in their English.    The real excitement in this first section of the lesson was when they found out that I lived on a dairy farm; the previous semi-decorum of the classroom erupted in eager questions. How many cows did we have, did we milk them by hand, what did we do with all the milk? The guy who seemed the ringleader of the students was intently concerned that the milking machines might suck the life out of the cows, and wasn’t necessarily convinced by my asseverations of otherwise.

“I have just one question, even if it’s like a joke.” Eyes held out her hand and commanded attention. “If you take so much milk, why are you not fat?” I shrugged and acknowledged that she’s not the only one with that question.

Class progressed and we moved from general interaction to reading a story together around the table to discussing an American proverb. The story was a traditional Muslim folktale that all the students had heard before but never seen in writing. We took turns sounding out a sentence or two (or more, if they really got on a roll). The teacher would ask the most advanced students to provide a vocabulary word in Somali when the blank intonation betrayed the occasional lack of meaning behind a set of phonics. Often an erudite tone reigned in quickly proffered additional translations, but no one seemed to mind. The room took on an almost sacred aura as history and oral tradition revealed themselves both on the page to the Somalis and in understanding to the Americans.

There was no cultural divide, however, when we came to the proverb of the week. I had incorrectly anticipated some need for exegesis on “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Immediately voices around the lesson table piped up in easy explanation that it’s just like a Somali saying. “When you go where people don’t have eyes…” Naturally.

I have to admit that one of my favorite parts of class were probably the last couple segments. I mean, have you ever heard a motley chorus of burka-ed and accented East Africans jumping in enthusiastically along with a taped chorus of Country Roads? Once they sounded out the lyrics and heard the tune a few times, they sounded just as good as John Denver’s recording. Much more memorable, at any rate. I couldn’t help but wonder how much they longed for the same thing, what they used to call home. Most of the students had left Somalia for Kenya when they were just children, often fleeing for their lives or just looking for a place lacking guns instead of food. And they know they will probably never be able to go back to the place where they belong. It was a hauntingly poignant song, somehow laced with hope.

The dismissal prayer also filled the dusty room with a paradoxical beauty in sorrow. The teacher asked the male ringleader to pray for us, knowing that one of his life goals is to educate people about the Koran without forcing them to convert. He seemed appropriately unsure about praying to Allah in conjunction with the white people sitting beside him, but folded his hands and spoke anyway. Maybe I’m not supposed to be OK with it. Nevertheless, I found it to be a very meaningful and humbling connection. He didn’t pray for anything sacrilegious or destructive or evil. He prayed for needs and desires that are human. He blessed us, these female Western Christians. Socially, culturally, religiously, that is so not supposed to happen.

Class was over then. Throughout the hour, I soaked up the beauty of Somali faces, accents, and personalities as they whirled around me in a flurry of realtime. I feel like my heart had a silly grin the whole time; there is something deep within me that finds joy and life in an environment like this. Not only is there something restoratively right about active peace, but God is truly being glorified by these diametrically different cultures respectfully engaging each other. How can you not feel soul excitement?

I could sit here and type and type about this one ESL class period. I could describe in more detail the intricacies of the atmosphere and personalities, or I could analyze perspectives of different sociological theories and implications. I could get all emotive and express how this made me feel then and now, or I could lay out my confusion about what to actually do with this. I have so much to say — but I’m out of words. I just wanted to share, share who I am and who they are and who we are together, like we all did that day around the worn wooden table.

Amanda Miller lives with her husband in Kansas, and can’t wait for summer to arrive and remind her of Kenyan temperatures. She works at a local train-depot-turned-coffee-shop and is looking forward to gardening this summer. 

Here Comes the T-Rex from the Rear

By Tamara Shoemaker

Don’t you just love the whole atmosphere of a gym? Cardio, fitness, ambition blazing in the sweat-soaked faces of hard-core people bound and determined to burn at least 500 calories in the space of 20 minutes?

I like watching the joggers. Lithe, smooth, graceful. Kind of like gazelles. They push off from one foot, the opposing leg stretching forward in a smooth arc, landing in a light roll from the heel to the toe. Repeat as needed.

I wish I looked like that when I run. A graceful doe bounding at the head of the pack.
I’m more like the T-Rex, lumbering along at the rear. Thud THUD, Thud THUD. Thud THUD. Clear the track! Ponderous heavyweight coming through!

I certainly don’t resemble the majority of gym-enthusiasts who frequent the fitness facilities, muscle tone oozing from every pore of their bodies. “Tone” in my book runs more along the lines of a spot-on musical note. But that’s beside the point.
The point is, I am bound and determined to succeed at health.

But I don’t eat salad every day. Protein smoothies do not constitute a major portion of my life. I even sneak a brownie into the closet now and then out of view of my kids’ prying eyes and attack it like a starving animal.

However, in my slow, determined, lumbering way, I drag myself to the gym (or the track or the street, or to the front of the TV for an aerobics routine) and doggedly burn away those calories.

When the mental fatigue hits (usually about a mile into my run), I think, I can’t do this anymore. My feet plod slower and slower in front of me as I heft my weight from one foot to the other, to the first one, to the second one. Just. One. More. Lap. I. Can. Do. It. No. I. Can’t.

Enter the good guy. The Encourager.

I like to call him that. He’s a regular at the gym at which I often run. He’s always there, pink cheeks glowing from exercise. He wanders around the weight machines, nodding to one person or another, always giving a word of encouragement. “Great job!” “Five more reps, you can do it!”

He usually comes out of the weight room about the same time I’m rounding the curve of the track to cross the mile-marker. My mind has shut down. All I can think of is taking the next step. And the next. And the next. My lungs are burning, oxygen is short, and I won’t be able to sustain even that much effort very long.

Then the grin crosses his face like lightning, shooting a bolt of new energy into my tired muscles. “You’re doing great!” he says. “Keep it up!”

And suddenly, I find I can do one more lap. Sure, why not? What’s a little fatigue when it’s all said and done anyway?

I’ve often watched the other people at the gym, most of them petite, fit and and obviously in better shape than I am. I wonder what they think of me, trotting around the track at a snail’s pace, gasping for air like I’ve just swallowed a gallon of sea-water. I think to myself that I’m doing pretty well, with three young kids at home, a side-career as a writer vegetating in front of a computer, carving out a few extra minutes to get some cardio in. But that pep talk doesn’t even cut it in the throes of fatigue.

What does cut it is that one encouraging word. That extra smile that boosts me for another lap. The smile that says, “We’re all in this together; it doesn’t matter what your body build is or the amount of sweat you drop in a 20-minute period of time.”

So when you hear the tell-tale thunder of Jurassic Park behind you on the track, think about how that person may be watching you with a little admiration, even a little envy, and throw a smile their way.

We can’t all be gazelles.

Tamara Shoemaker is the author of several books, including “Broken Crowns,” “Pretty Little Maids” and the recently released “Ashes, Ashes.” She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, Tim, and their three children.