Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Pumpkin Pie

Forget turkey. Pumpkin pie is what defines the Thanksgiving table. Its orange ochre silkiness and notes of nutmeg evoke an anthem of autumnal comfort.

This year, for 9 minutes, we stopped to watch the parade balloons inflate. Then, we escaped the tourist-laden streets to have drinks with a friend. After drinks, we went on our pie-seeking way. We headed to the bakery ranked 3rd for the best pumpkin pie in the city. Why 3rd!? Well, numbers 1 and 2 were on the East side, or below 14th St, and the sun was setting fast on Thanksgiving eve. We rushed into the bakery flushed with hasty holiday warmth and anticipation. “We only have the big pies left”, they told us. Our gluttonous minds momentarily fixated on the words big pies, “ We’ll take one!”

On Thanksgiving Thursday, before turkey, and way before any actual conscious giving of thanks, we woke to coffee and a piece of this upper west side tertiary pie. The coffee was, as always, satisfying and delightful. The pie was—to my chagrinnot. Its disappointingly dense body rested in an overly buttery, almost greasy, un-crust. Our mouths considered it, but our hearts didn’t. We mumbled something, blamed ourselves for settling for 3rd, got dressed, and went to my Mother’s for the official celebration.

The meal concluded. And with perfectly cooked turkey behind us, we hunkered down for what we had really come for. My brother had made a pie from scratch, so we left the sub-par pie at home. Now this pie, my brother’s pie, was really something.

It looked as if the filling would spill out all over the table when sliced into, but it didn’t. The first piece I removed stood there on the plate, miraculously contained and regal. It would be a model for all pumpkin pies to come. To be precise, the filling was both pumpkin and yam. And the crust was an expression of ephemeral flakiness. My brother—who I always thought would have made a fine scientist—made the crust with vodka instead of water. The vodka wets the crust mixture at the right time but then evaporates completely when cooking, leaving no trace of vodka flavor, no sugary gluten, only a perfect pie crust in its wake.

With a dollop of lightly-sweetened whipped cream on top, we had what was probably the best, the lightest and most sublime pumpkin pie, ever. As we ate this pie together, we incidentally paused in silence. I know its flavor memory will flirt with our senses for Thanksgivings to come.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Out at the Beach

This September, we went back, even though some of us had never been there before. The place was Rockaway Beach, NY, the date September 25th and the mood, optimistic.

My parents met each other when they were about 9 years old. My father's parents owned a bungalow on Rockaway beach in Queens, my mother's family rented. Each summer, on Memorial day they packed up the big old American cars and drove from East Harlem, and from Corona, out to the beach. They stayed until Labor day. Almost every single summer was spent out there until the early 70's. By then, all three of my older brothers had been born. My mother and my aunts swam with flowered bathing caps, my dad rowed in peace with only the dog in the boat, they watched jets from Idlewild Airport roar overhead and pranced around with the confidence that comes with having fun.

What happened during those summers at the beach was, I am sure, typical of many middle class New York families during that time. But to me, it has always seemed other-wordly and not only because I wasn't there. You see, my family isn't the most festive bunch. They don't allow themselves to embrace many things. Most activities, events and life decisions are met with, what I would call, extreme trepidation. But not the beach. When they talk about the beach, their eyes shine with something else. Its the most happy and the most sad that they will ever be. I know it. My dad's beach bungalow was burned down by vandals. My eldest brother remembers seeing all the items in the house that had been stored for the winter burned in the middle of the living room, and the fiberglass boat melted. They never went back. It was too painful and time was rough on the old neighborhood.

Until this year. My mom read an article about a woman who was organizing a beach cleanup on Rockaway in an effort to preserve the beach and its unique wildlife. She suggested we all go and help. We sat on our comfy suburban couch and wondered if she was serious. But she was. And we all went. My husband and I took the A train all the way out there, getting a full view of the expanse of beach as the train passed through someone else's memories. My parents and brothers met us out there.

We broke up into two teams. We put on gloves and picked up trash. We recorded what we collected. The purpose of the cleanup is to keep a record of the items dumped on the beach in an effort to correct the litter problem and to monitor its effect on the local environment. My brother (who remembers the melted boat) and I, walked further away from everyone else, cleaning steadily. We were met with a wall of extremely tall reeds and grasses. It was well over our heads. My brother walked straight in. I followed. I worried about ticks as I was repeatedly tickled by what was probably fairly dirty beach grass. We kept walking. I didn't know when we would emerge. But I followed my brother. Suddenly, I looked up to the tops of the grasses to see the largest cluster of monarch butterflies that I had ever seen. They fluttered liberally. It was pretty darn close to something childlike and magical. Below our feet, hoards of hermit crabs rushed around with somewhere important to go.

We eventually did emerge from our beachy-natureland, into a diverse pile of garbage; shoes, candy wrappers, couch foam, styrofoam, car bumpers, soda cans, you name it.

When we were done that day, my dad tried to take us to a restaurant that had been there last time he was there. It was gone. So, we drove further into Queens, all stuffed in the car together, tired and dirty. We eventually sat together and ate, but we didn't talk about what really happened that day. That day, my family made a small portion of peace with the past, and this time, I was lucky enough to be with them, out at the beach.

Click here to link to an article about the coastal cleanup. My parents are pictured in the image with the caption that reads, “At Beach 35 Street, recyclables had to be separated before bagging them", my mom is in the hat holding the garbage bag open, my dad is off to the left holding what looks like the moon in his hand.