Wednesday, November 30, 2011

3.1428- The Joy of Pie-Making

The mathematical value of pi - it knows no limit, it has no end.  Just like a Grandmother’s love, and nothing says love more than a homemade lemon meringue pie.  Here’s the story, as told to me, about a grandmother, a grandson, an oven and a special weekend. 

By Working Grandma (featuring St. Joe, the Son-in Law)

Working Grandma has a tradition.  Each grandchild spends one 24 hour period of uninterrupted time with her as part of the child’s birthday celebration.  The 24 hours is typically filled with guiltless shopping, gluttonous dining, and a warm shower of limitless attention on the grandchild’s every smile, frown, burp and wisecrack.  Translation – Grandma spoils them.  The tradition begins once the grandchild has reached the age of reason and has therefore earned the right of supervised independence (i.e. they can use a public restroom without being followed by a parent or guardian, and Mommy doesn’t freak out while they are gone).  Thomas, now 13, has been enjoying this tradition for approximately 6 years, and this is the story of his most recent visit.

As Thomas gets older, the adventures with Grandma have changed, but the structure of the weekend has not.  On the appointed Saturday morning, Thomas is packed up and transported to Camp Springs, MD, when he is handed off like a baton in a relay race to his Grandma in the parking lot of the local Checkers.  It is a good halfway meeting place between our house and Grandma’s holiday resort and spa.  Grandma, with the baton secured by a seat belt, then psychoanalyzes the child right there in the parking lot under the pretext of uncovering his interests for the weekend.  To the untrained ear, she is just gauging his likes and dislikes, but we know better.  After the brief therapy session, they could launch north, south, east or west, all dependent on little grandchild’s whims and obsessions for the day.  Shopping for toys?  Groceries?  Sightseeing?  The sky, and Grandma’s patience, is the limit on this special day.

Grandma insists that her grandchildren experience a lot of hands-on stuff during the visit.  She gently describes these activities as being of the "don't try this at home" variety.  This is a sneaky way of saying that responsible parents would never allow their child to be exposed to such fun and danger on their watch – you know, using sharp knives or washing hands under scalding water for less than the required 20 seconds after touching raw pork. 

Last year’s excursion wasn’t too risky.  Thomas fed and pet some emus (“Did you wash your hands?”), gave chewing gum to a llama (“When was your last tetanus shot?”), and dodged butting goats.  A regular Southern Maryland safari, without the firearms.  After the safari, they wound up at Dr. Samuel Mudd's house, but thankfully not for treatment.  Dr. Mudd was a co-conspirator with John Wilkes Booth back in 1865, and paid the ultimate price for harboring Mr. Booth after Mr. Booth ruined a perfectly good play. 

When they arrived at the Mudd house, the front gate was locked.  Time to teach the grandson lesson in risk taking.  Grandma would not to be deterred by a simple roadblock like a locked gate.  Gates are meant for the young, and those rules do not apply to card carrying AARP members.  Besides, the museum was advertised to be open for another 15 minutes, and it was important that Thomas learn the lesson that you can never close earlier than advertised.  That would be lying, and that is wrong.  So when Thomas spotted a vehicle leaving the grounds about a half mile away, Grandma felt justified in putting pedal to metal and risking life and limb at high speed to get young Thomas his just due – a walk through history.

With the dogged determination (stubbornness?) that we only tolerate from those in their late 60s, Grandma careened through the back entrance and knocked on the locked museum door.  A man older than Grandma, but not from the actual period, answered in full costume, insisting the last tour was ending.  It was too late.  Without a touch of irony, Grandma coaxed Thomas to shed a pretend tear, and punctuated with a whimper and Grandma's glib tongue, they were quickly allowed to join the tour in progress.  Booth was quite an actor in his day, but he’s got nothing on Grandma and Thomas.  Acting, by the way, is not lying.

Paramount in planning for the weekend is the final menu.  Thomas is quite clear each year on his preferences.  After all, this is the kid who has said since infancy that his goal is life is to become a “cooker” (aka a chef).  Given his Third World physique (he is translucent in the sunlight), his love of cooking and food seems like a dream unfulfilled, but on these annual Grandma visits, the kid eats pretty darn good.  With minor variations year to year, the proposed fare usually includes shrimp and some interpretation of Tex-Mex.  This year will be different. 

For 2011, Thomas has become obsessed with one particular food - a homemade lemon meringue pie.  We are sure he knows why.  For the rest of us, it is a mystery.  He was cautioned by his mother this was one of Grandma's specialties and that it takes a whole lot of prep time.  If there is one thing young Thomas has in abundance it is patience.  He is unwavering.  Bring him the lemons!

The problem with Thomas’ understanding of cooking, however, is that his sense of time is completely distorted by his favorite show, Chopped.  On Chopped, any and every meal is meticulously prepared and served within the competition’s time limit of 30 minutes.  On Chopped, you can combine oysters, grape juice, kale and banana skins into a gourmet dish all before the first commercial break.  Time and reality are suspended on this show for 30 minutes, so it’s interesting that the genre is called “reality TV”.  Chopped skips some steps in the food prep process, but it has taught him that cooking is fun.

Thomas has a yen for chopping up things for cooking.  Unfortunately, his favorite show did not demo such life skills as how one gets zest from lemons, how to separate egg yolks from egg white, how many lemons it takes for 1/3rd cup of juice, how one gets meringue to peak…to name a few. 

One day with Grandma, and Thomas now knows why lemon pie is so yellow, how many skinned knuckles it takes to get two teaspoons of lemon zest, how to keep seeds out of the pie, how to get hot pie filling into cold yolks without curdling them, how to roll out a pie crust, pan it and crimp the edges.  Next visit, Thomas can work on speed.  Poking the uncooked crust with a fork takes about 30 seconds, but when Thomas is on the job, it takes 30 minutes.  He’s nothing if not meticulous.  He accepted all coaching with patience and an open mind, outmatched only by Grandma.  He is now ready to go on Chopped and show those folks what real crimping looks like. 

Possibly his most fun part of the visit was making the meringue peaks.  He has completed his pie goal with no hands-on help from Grandma except for brief demonstrations of technique.  The good news is that she never once slapped his hands (at least, they were no visible bruises).

Two hours later, while meringue peaks were browning, Thomas entered the recipe into his email using Grandma's ultra-modern gaming console, the iPad.  When the rest of the family arrived on Sunday to reclaim the baton and dine on his select menu, the poor boy looks like he’s aged a whole day.  His mother is awe-struck by the finished pie and all of the steps that went into making it.  Not to be left out, his mother questions everything he did.  “You could have used an egg separator, you could have used a food processor...why did you do everything the hard way?  Grandma does everything the old way and does not own such culinary tools that help you cheat”.  A daughter questioning her mother?  Shocking.  Grandma may not own an egg separator, but the woman’s got an iPad.  Lighten up, Mommy.

In between baking prep, Thomas and Grandma found time to make lunch for 20.  Unfortunately, there would only be 6 for lunch.  His lunch entree was fried rice.  The great thing about fried rice for a future cooker is that it calls for hours of chopping with a sharp knife and then stir frying for hours with hot oil.  Danger everywhere.  Grandma spotted a little clumsiness with the big chopping knife and wondered what skills Thomas was learning from Chopped.  Clearly, cutting was under-demonstrated.  Seven helpless vegetables got his undivided attention for most of the morning.  They never stood a chance.

He was very pleased with the outcome and only asked twice for Grandma to take over the stir fry part.  He proudly served his family his creation, made from scratch.  

Thomas served up the food.  Grandma served up the pride in her grandson, The Cooker.

Carol M. Porto, MA, LCADC, MAC

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