Friday, November 29, 2013

Belly Flop

When I was a kid taking swimming lessons, it took me a long time to learn how to dive. I would stand at the side of the pools, toes curled down on the edge, my arms over my heart with my hands in a prayerful position. I would start to lean over, willing my hands and arms towards the water. But invariably, when I got to the critical "about to go in" phase, I would lift my head up and smack belly first into the pool.

Belly flops, we called them. Young boys thoughts they were great fun and would spend long summer afternoons trying to outdo one another in making the loudest, most painful smacking sound.

I belly flopped recently. No, not in water, but in real life.

I have been intrigued by the rise of massive online open courses (MOOCs). The more I read about them, the more I wanted to sign up for a MOOC. This fall I finally jumped in (so to speak) and signed up for a MOOC on early New England poets, taught by Harvard professor Elisa New.

Four weeks of classes, with new video lectures, readings, and online discussions coming out every Thursday.

Easy peasy, no?

It would have been, in a perfect world. It would have been, if I had been more driven and more focused. It would have been if I could have shut out everyone and everything once a week for, oh, 4-5 hours.

I made it through week 1 and 2, then fled.

When I signed up for the course, I wrote enthusiastically to friends about how much I was looking forward to being in a poetry class again. Now I am scuffing my toe in the dust and mumbling how it didn't go as I had hoped.

When my boys were little, they watched a children's puppet show, Eureeka's Castle. One character was a bat named Batley, who always smacked face first into a wall or door in every episode. Batley would fall to the ground, then rise up, spread his wings, and declare "I meant to do that!"

Well, I didn't. I meant to do all the readings, listen to all the lectures, and engage in discussion with my fellow online students. I meant to gain more insight and understanding into the world of the early immigrants to this country. I meant to dive right into the waters of poetry and come up refreshed and revitalized.

Instead, start to go in, lift up the head, and splat!

Belly flop.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Taste of the Past

There is a small half geode with a dime in its open mouth that sits on my desk. I am not a betting person, but I won that dime fair and square in a bet over a line of poetry.

A few years ago, my friend Marianne and I were having coffee at our local bookstore. Somewhere in our conversation Marianne referred to "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams, only she misquoted the fruit as a dish of peaches.

"Plums," I immediately said.

Marianne was insistent. It was peaches, not plums. "I'll bet you a dime it's peaches," she declared.

I walked over to the poetry section, found an anthology, and showed her the poem:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox 

and which
you were probably
for breakfast 

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold 

Marianne paid up, laughing.

I knew without looking that it was plums for three reasons. First, I have read a lot of William Carlos Williams's work and I know some of the poems well enough to pull out details. Second, I can pull details out because I am a trivia geek, poetry or otherwise.

Finally, even if my first two reasons were invalid, I would remember the plums because chilled canned plums are an indelible part of my childhood food memories.

Grandma Skatzes always (or so it seemed) kept a dish of plums in her refrigerator. These were canned plums, bathed in a heavy purple syrup. As a child, as a youth, I loved to eat them when I was in her kitchen. Sometimes I would walk into the kitchen quietly and hastily drink off some of the syrup.

You grow up, you get older. Tastes change and you forget the special flavors of your childhood.

A few months ago, out of nowhere, canned plums came to mind. I had not eaten them in years, but I suddenly longed for them. But time, as well as taste, moves on. I could not find canned plums in any of the groceries. I finally concluded that they had faded from the American canned fruit scene and gave up on ever eating canned plums again.

Yesterday morning, I ran several errands, one of which was to our local Aldi store. Having found the three items on my list, I turned down the "specials" aisle just in case something caught my eye en route to checkout.

The purple can caught my eye.


Canned plums.

I stopped, I stared, I bought one can. When I got home, I promptly placed the can in the refrigerator for later.

Last night, I opened the can with trembling fingers and tenuous hopes. What if my food memory was flawed? What if canned plums were utterly disgusting? What then of this wisp from my childhood?

The lid came off. The plums were smooth, immersed in the red purple syrup. I tasted the syrup as I dished up a serving. It was cold, it was sweet, it was a draught from the past. I carried the bowl to the sofa, sat, and lifted the first plum to my mouth.

I was 12, I was 10, I was seven years old and sitting at the laminate/chrome kitchen table spooning the plums into my mouth while Grandma Skatzes puttered around.

It was every memory of canned plums I ever had.

I don't know if I will go back and buy more plums. One can alone is a powerful tonic, pulling me swiftly into the past. For now, while they last, I will savor them.

They are delicious, so sweet, and so cold.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pie Memories

Let me make one thing clear before we start. I am not talking about my pie memories.

I don't have a lot of pie memories. My strongest memories of homemade pie are of the pumpkin pies that graced every Thanksgiving meal. My grandmothers did not bake many pies that I recall. Grandma Nelson, who was an amazing cook, had a serious fondness for those frozen cream pies that were a novelty back in the 1960s. Grandma Skatzes did not bake pies that I knew of, although two of her daughters did. My mom baked some pies during my youth, but that was not her dessert of first resort. I know at one point she made her own crusts, because I remember that when pre-made and frozen crusts came on the market, she was in seventh heaven. I don't think I made my first pie until I was in high school.

Memories of cakes and cookies, yes. But pies? Not really.

"Pie memories" is a revelation I had Saturday morning while baking a pie and prepping apples for the freezer.  We were having supper with our good friends Margo and Gerald that evening, and I had promised a pie. Apple was my initial choice and I was ready to peel and slice the apples. But as we were having a typical early November day with sunshine alternating with gray skies and the air flipping between brisk and raw, something said "pumpkin."

I make my pumpkin pies dense and dark, loaded with spices, and while I rolled out and pinched the crust, I thought of pies in literature. There is the Deeper'n Ever pie in the Redwall series and the hot turnovers that Meg and Jo called their "muffs" in Little Women. Dorothy found a "small custard pie" in her dinner bucket that she picked from the tree in Ozma of Oz. Jamie and Claudia, the children who ran away to the Metropolitan Art Museum in E. L. Konigsberg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, surely spent some of their nickels on pie at the automat they frequented.

And let's face it: you cannot read The Little House series without being immersed in pies, including Ma's green pumpkin pie (The Long Winter) and the dried apple pie shared between the Boasts and the Ingalls (On the Shores of Silver Lake). Farmer Boy, the story of Almanzo Wilder's childhood, is one long paean to pie, including this wonderful passage after Almannzo had eaten most of his dinner at the county fair:

Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie.

When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he almost ate a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn't do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more. 

While the pumpkin pie baked, I turned to peeling and slice apples for a future pie. It was while my hands were busy at that task that I had my pie epiphany: When I bake a pie, I want to bake the pie that we know and remember deep in our hearts.

I want to reach in and bring out those pie memories, even for those of us who may not have them.

What does memory taste like? What does that memory taste like when we have no distinct memory of pie from our youth?

How do I bake a memory?

I don't know, but I finally realized that thoughts like these are what guide my hands as I roll the crust and fill it. I fill it with apples, or pumpkin, or sauteed vegetables, but what I am really filling it with is memories.

I have a card about pie. I keep it on the bookshelf (having not gotten around to framing it yet) so I can see it constantly. It reads: There are many types of food, some of which are pies and the rest of which should be pies. 

It is a sentiment I share.

Saturday night, Margo, Gerald, Warren and I all ate a slice of pumpkin pie, thick and dense, topped with whipped cream laced with cinnamon. We had just finished a good and savory meal, then, like Almanzo, drew deep breaths and began to eat pie.