Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#13 Three family Libras (are we?)

(Yep, posting this a little late, it was part of my October birthday series…but at least the blog is back!)

The Libra period is defined as September 23 through October 23.

Tim’s birthday was the 14th, mine the 19th and my dad’s the 23rd. My childhood perception of the timing had to do with desserts – Tim’s cake was always vanilla, mine varied, and usually we had several days of cake overlap. When my cake got served, Tim’s leftovers were still in the pink plastic cake cover that matched our canister set (it didn’t seem to occur to Mother that screwtops on glass jars or at least tighter lids would keep out the warm-climate flour weevils – that was our cabinet set, for better or worse, and even germ-phobe Mother just sifted out the weevils.

Funny how good that cake tasted leftover – maybe because Mother used margarine, not butter, in the frosting and the “yellow cake” (we always called it that…yep, years before the Iraq invasion), yellow cake seemed to be more descriptive than vanilla. If I hadn’t gotten so snobby in the years since about the taste of margarine versus butter in baked goods I would bake an experiment.

Actually I can’t though – somehow after a teen obsessive episode, type the messy recipes on index cards and do it over and over till there are no typos, I lost Mother’s original recipe card – “Yellow Cake” in her handwriting and later lost the typed version. She was proud of herself for having proven, she thought, that cakes turned out just as well if she dumped all ingredients into the mixer at once, instead of separate egg white beating, butter (margarine) creaming, etc. Of course when I began to bake, almost as obsessive about that I had been with the recipe card thing, I insisted on sifting, creaming and whipping everything in the recipe-recommended stages. Maybe it was our oven but my cakes did not rise properly – if they rose (and they didn’t always), they then fell. I remember Mother, with the same oven, having high fluffy cakes every time. Other than her habit of burning things through distraction (multi -tasking if the dryer buzzed or the doorbell rang) – peas from Grandpa’s garden or pears from Grandpa’s trees boiling dry on the stove – I don’t remember any imperfections ever in her cakes. Maybe that was because she made the same recipes so many times, if something worked she efficiently stuck with it. Her chocolate cake, thriftily made with cocoa and of course all blended at once, had its correspondingly simple frosting – Hershey squares set on the hot cake and spread when they melted.

Mother baked homemade bread at least every couple of months (not to substitute for store bread, but as part of a meal like chili) and was a fairly late adopter of premade piecrusts and Betty Crocker instant potatoes – I remember when we used both for the first time, of course they were instantly adopted – but she was an efficiency expert within her own value system. She had a self-employed husband (he worked 6+days a week and evenings if a customer needed him), 4 children over a 10-year range, a busy church life and aging parents. She took pride in cooking her family’s food and sewing some of her own clothes, and sometimes mine and my sister’s, but took just as much pride in shortcuts that fit her value system. (When the Sears Order Store came to Main Street, sewing declined further.)

My dad was more a fan of pies than cakes and of course after 10 days of cake we were ready for a new dessert, so he got either sweet potato pie – dusty potatoes from, again, Grandpa’s garden at the side of our house – or a cherry pie with canned cherries, not pie filling, and a homemade crust, on which Mother actually wove the strips like in a cookbook photo. Actually Mother adopted the crenelated frozen kind of crust only in her last couple of years, when she and I got addicted to the (also easy) buttermilk pie recipe she got from one of the caregivers of her mother. (I think I have mentioned buttermilk pie before on the blog…we made it a lot during her last few years, and she used to pack slices in my lunch, it was sweet and a little fatty and soft and…like us, I guess.) We also baked the frozen crust and poured instant chocolate pudding into it – yep, that was a pie, Voila!

Not too long after Mother died I was determined to make chocolate pie filling from scratch, I stirred and stirred, cheap aluminum spoon in cheap aluminum pan on aging electric burner – can I blame the equipment? It never thickened, and horribly, the chocolate color hid the burnedness. Too late I realized/gave up but my dad, who always ate my recipe experiments (I perceived it then as more out of thrift than emotional support but it was probably both) ate almost his whole piece of burned-filling pie. My brother David said, this pie is burned, I can’t eat it. Poor Dave, he occasionally spoke very bold truth in our family but I don’t think he was ever responded to affirmatively, or acknowledged in kind. I believe we got permission from even Daddy to put the remaining pie in the trash that night – probably less to do with David’s comment than Daddy’s aftertaste of burned pie.

Only writing this do I connect the memory, one that still makes me shudder (my failure, the dysfunctional family dynamics, especially in our first winter without Mother) with my later expertise in chocolate pie. As an adult cook I successfully made cooked chocolate filling, even keeping the top perfectly sans-wrinkle by laying on Saran Wrap while the custard was still hot, but I soon evolved this, without sacrificing quality (shades of Mother?) into a much simpler version that appeared complex (actually I didn’t make that particular connection to Mother, till now). I created my own version of a baked custard, not like an egg and milk custard pie (raw custard baked with the crust) but with chocolate added to the kind of filling used for pecan pies, that is made thick and velvety by corn syrup (and butter – not margarine). It’s a classic Southern thing but I reinvented it as a Sarah version, based on a pecan pie recipe I got from a Dear Abby column.

I guess as an antidote, a reaction, to the obsessive recipe typing, the recipes I use repeatedly as an adult are scribbled on, through the ingredients list and in the margins. Every time I make this chocolate pie, I can see that the old newsprint, suffering from my pencil and felt-tip pen marks, is deteriorating…but I have so many variations of proportions and baking times (as historical attempts at reducing the pie to an exact science, which I don’t think any recipe for the home cook ever is) that I’m terrified (OK, obsessive) that if I retyped the original with my notes I would lose something. Probably just a historical record, a memory, but it feels like I would lose something vital.

My Aunt Diane’s family has requested my chocolate pie at Thanksgiving – yes, unseasonal, but that’s how loved it is. If I carefully underbake the filling so that it stays really soft and velvety, under fresh whipped cream it tastes and feels highly gourmet and can pass for a traditional top-of-stove cooked filling (or something superior). And yes (like Mother, who got into Dream Whip whipped topping, which at least contained milk, toward the end) I have pushed the envelope and used canned whipped cream – and yes, Cool Whip sometimes – but it’s still good.

I got interested in Zodiac signs partly because it always felt (still does since I carry so much childhood crap) like a bit of a rebellion against my conservative parents. I immediately thought the major trait of weighing (hence the scales symbol) pros, cons and contributing factors sounded so much like my brother Tim and me. Maybe my dad too – I knew he made careful decisions, usually ones I didn’t like and involving delayed gratification: “You can see that movie if it ever comes to town again.” What?! Was the intent for me to never see the movie, or was that too obvious an answer? He wasn’t the most transparent dad. He was smart but (and?) ignored pop culture, on purpose. Was it possible he didn’t realize our town’s one theater with one screen meant the odds were low for a return showing…

I knew we Libras were not quick deciders. During my years of undiagnosed anxiety I used the Libra profile to help explain my high-intensity dithering. It’s hard to make decisions, especially was before anxiety meds, because I keep weighing – and re-weighing, sometimes I assign different weights – the options. I have always prided myself on not being a black & white thinker – first in what I thought was rebellion against my upbringing, then more consciously in accordance with the independent thought patterns that I eventually realized my parents had encouraged.

My brother Tim was wonderfully ____. Well, I have written several words here and crossed them all out. He prided himself on objectivity, probably beyond the point that a human being can be that neutral. But you couldn’t not love his heart and admire his brain for being – for trying to be – this way. One of my favorite memories is a moment – not typical for our somewhat distant, busy lives etc. adult relationship – when I called him, during the work day (we never talked while we were at work) because my newly evangelical coworker R. had gotten to me with her apocryphal threats. (“It’s sad to know that even a nice person you care about will go to hell,” this comment delivered while we were eating sandwiches across the breakroom table from each other.) Tim did a kind of Scholl giggle/groan (which has to be a derivative of how my dad laughs when he hears something embarrassing or mildly upsetting), then shared some historical lore about the alleged author of the Book of Revelation and a bit of Tim’s perspective toward this knowledge. Most of all, best of all, I knew I could count on him to say the opposite – in content and style – of, little sis you are going to hell. He didn’t say I wasn’t, but he put so much perspective, gentle laugh-at-the-zealots orientation into his comments that I felt bolstered in my spiritual position – a position best described as…well, continued questions, independent thought.

Weighing of data points, perspective on emotion… That is who I am – maybe just by genetics and environment, maybe also by the alignment of the planets at my time of birth. Craig’s dad is a Libra too, and when he was married to Craig’s mom we would laugh about the two teams of us, Craig Jr. and his mom the Capricorns (more impulsive, leading others – sometimes straight toward a wall) and Craig Senior and I – the hold on, let’s-consider-this types. I’m not sure Craig Senior spoke in terms of birth signs, but he did put his son and Craig’s mom in the same category behavior-wise (which I kind of think substantiates zodiac traits…maybe). This gave us a cool (workable, sometimes fun) blueprint with which to relate to each other as couples and in-laws.

Several years ago I ordered a birthday zodiac necklace – yes, really. The non-precious but real stones are supposedly (that’s what I paid for, anyway) arranged on the base string in an order and distance that echoes the planetary alignment at my day and time of birth. It’s an interesting piece of jewelry, makes a statement but isn’t such a strong visual – a lot of purple and earth tones, and there’s a silver Libra charm in the front. If you take the time to look – which no one but the wearer would do – you see various planets (colored gemstone beads). I have a printout that explains everything…

Sometimes I remember to wear the necklace on or near my birthday, but not always. Well, I know I am a Libra – I don’t have to prove it.

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