Thursday, December 29, 2011

Grief: A Progress Report

Eldon, Iowa's McHaffey Opera House Thrift Store transforms
into a magical "Winter Wanderland" at Christmas --
but what did they do with all of Marcus' clothes?
With the holidays here again (my, how fast a year goes by!) and H gone for good, I’ve been experiencing a collision of past and present. As I try to make sense of what the hell my 4-month relationship with H was all about and how all that is left of it is…nothing, I have been simultaneously reflecting on my life at this same time last year.

This time last year I blogged about bicycling in the basement, about how my grief was stored in my cells and how physical exertion dislodged the sorrow that was burrowing in my cellular membranes, to the point I couldn’t exercise anywhere but in the safety of my house. I wrote about clearing space in the basement to set up the bike track stand and how that effort resulted in me letting go of a few of Marcus’ beautiful pieces of clothing. I didn’t handle the letting go with grace. I couldn’t even get to the post office without having a complete meltdown – as if sending Marcus’ cashmere coat to my brother in Seattle was reliving Marcus’ death itself.

With the smoke still clearing from the detonation of H, I have made the surprising discovery that grief – as if it were an entity of its own – is no longer dominating my life. (For the record, it has been 2-1/3 years since Marcus died.)

It only just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my grief in a while. That’s because when H was here, living in my “teeny house in the middle of nowhere” (as he put it) for the past three months, there was not time nor space for shedding my daily tears over my late husband or writing letters to him in my journal or looking through our photo albums of our weddings, our European motorcycle trips, our life in Mexico, and our wilderness adventures. There was no privacy for expressing my sadness over losing Marcus, and certainly no blogging about the subject for god’s sake, not with a tall strapping man around.

With H around I didn’t ride my bike in the basement (How could I indulge in that, especially when I had even started calling it my “Crying Machine?!”) Instead, H and I spent long afternoons riding the beach cruiser bikes on the flat gravel roads -- with our destination a barn, where we fed carrots to a family of goats. (Happiness is feeling the wind in your face – and admiring the sexy ass of the guy on the bike next to you.)

And really, there was no need to cry, no ability to feel sad, when there was nightly entertainment in my living room. Letting H’s guinea pig out of his cage resulted in hilarious circus-like performances of guinea pig, H’s Chow and my two terriers chasing each other around and under the furniture. Seeing how a little one-pound rodent could intimidate three dogs made us howl with laughter. The only tears were the ones from laughing too hard.

It is also of note that when H first arrived, in my attempt to make him feel at home – and in my attempt to make room for new love in my life (both literally and figuratively) – I took down my shrine of Marcus’ framed photos in my living room and next to my bed. I also loaded up the rest of Marcus’ belongings (minus a few very special items, like his Lederhosen, Geiger sweater, Haferl boots, and German hunting boots) and hauled them off to Eldon’s thrift store at the McHaffey Opera House. I even donated the clothes that still held his scent – I had sealed them in a plastic garbage bag and because H was standing next to me when I put them in the washing machine I didn’t get to bury my nose in Marcus’ shirts and breathe in his scent one last time. It was an impetuous, “just get it over with” move and though I felt sick about it, I kept my mind on the future – I was making room for new love, damn it! – and pretended to H that I was fine with letting go. “I’m ready to give away his stuff,” I told H, while secretly trying to convince myself it was true. If only I could have just smelled his shirts one last time…

My relationship with H ended a week before Christmas. One could consider this to be bad timing. But it worked out well for me. True, being alone for the holidays could have sent me into a panic. I could have felt the need to run away from Eldon for fear of feeling isolated in my “teeny house in the middle of nowhere” (insert eye rolling here). Or I could have embraced being home and simply hibernated like I did last year. But here’s the thing: The weather has been unseasonably, freakishly warm and sunny. It feels more like May than December. And that has made all the difference.

With balmy weather beckoning me out, not only did I spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day making the rounds to several friends’ houses, I also did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I went for a run. Outside.

Just this morning, I laced up my sneakers and hit the gravel road, following the Des Moines River downstream. It felt so good to move, to breathe in the country air, to feel the sun on my face that I ran at least six miles. I didn’t break down in tears. I didn’t feel the weight of grief bearing down on me. I didn’t have to walk home carrying a heavy load of sadness. It’s hard to be sad when it’s 50 degrees and sunny on a late December Iowa morning and you still have the strength and athleticism to go for a long run after an extended absence from the sport. And it’s especially hard to be sad when you are accompanied by a view of bald eagles soaring over the river.

The weather will inevitably turn cold. January will surely bring snow and ice. But I am ready for it. I am no longer riding my bike in the basement. I moved the bike and its track stand upstairs to the top floor. It’s in what I call my “dressing room,” in front of the “other” Gothic window that mirrors the famous one on the opposite end of the house. It’s another step away from the darkness and toward the light. The back window has a beautiful view of my big yard, several rows of pine trees, and open sky. But instead of staying inside, I know now that I can also put on my fleece tights and gloves, and keep running – snow or not – outside. And that is significant progress.

Part of Marcus' mini shrine
I don’t have anything more of Marcus’ that I will be taking to the post office or thrift store. It took over two years, and H moving in, but I have let go of the bulk of his belongings. Whatever is left I am keeping. Including an unwashed bath towel of Marcus’ packed in one of his boxes. (You didn’t think I was that stoic, did you?! I knew there was still something to sniff when I loaded that washing machine.) When I need a hit of his scent I know where to get it. And whenever I want to look at his pictures, well, I just have to look across my desk. With H gone, Marcus' shrine has been resurrected. Albeit a scaled down version, proving further progress.

As for making sense of H, I can already see how that relationship served as therapy, stripping away yet another layer of grief. Time heals, they say. And if that time was filled with someone who helped keep me from indulging in the daily sadness, someone who kept me from focusing on the past, someone who helped me to laugh again, then yes, absolutely, spending four months with H was worth whatever disappointment and confusion he left behind.

Still, it’s not as if my grief packed up and drove off with H. It’s just that I can see now how it has lessened, how even though grief is still present (and I understand that it will be for the rest of my life) it doesn’t have to hold me back. Oh, I still cry over Marcus. Even when H was here I still had my moments where I hid in my closet and let the tears flow. But the tears don’t debilitate me like they used to.

And so, with past and present now thoroughly examined, the nuclear fusion contained and wrapped up as if in a pretty Christmas package, it’s time to look to the future. Bring on the New Year. I have a feeling it’s going to be a good one.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Unveiling my Book Cover!

Here it is, the final design for the hard cover book jacket of "Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie."

But wait, there's more. Check out the back!
It reads: “Beth Howard describes with warmth and wit how the bitter events in life are set off by the sweet ones — much like the ingredients of a good recipe. Making Piece is a moving account of love and loss.”

   –Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle

Yes, that's right! Jeannette Walls, after reading an advance copy, said something nice about my book! I am beyond thrilled and, yes, grateful for her kind and generous words and the fact those words will now grace my book cover.

Oh, and here's my new author head shot, which will be on the inside book flap. Thanks to photographer Kathryn Gamble for making look waaaaay more glamorous in the photo than I look in real life. In real life I am either dressed in my overalls with my hair in braids and no makeup or worse, when the pie stand is closed, I don't bother getting dressed at all!

The publishing date is April 1, 2012, but the book will actually be on shelves March 27. Three more months to go. You can pre-order it now from several booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books a Million. Thanks (in advance) for buying a copy!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Even If You Don’t Feel Like It, Make Gratitude Pie

Some of you know that H and I broke up. Some of you know that because I posted a blog last week telling the somber, gut-twisting story about how he drove away leaving behind only tire tracks in the snow and how I stood there sobbing in my bathrobe and boots, and how I spent the next hours and days waiting and waiting for the snow to melt, for those tell-tale tracks to disappear, because they kept reminding me of how he exited my life so abruptly.

Some of you also noticed that I took that blog post down. “You should put that post back up,” some of you wrote. “He took advantage of you. He was selfish,” others wrote. One friend wrote, “You should have been much harder on him than you were.”

But my mother’s voice reproached me. “That’s not charitable,” her age-old recording in my head kept reminding me.

Understanding that the definition of charitable is “kind or lenient in one's attitude towards others,” then yes, my mother was right. I also continued to hear my mom’s other lifelong reproach saying, “You tell people too much.” Based on my blog and my forthcoming memoir, obviously I ignore this voice 99.9 percent of the time. But in my heart I didn’t feel right about the “snow tracks” story. It wasn’t charitable and what happened between H and me didn’t need to be shared so publicly. I took the post down.

A few days later, my sister gave me an early Christmas present. A Gratitude Journal. It was not lost on me that she gave me this “thoughtful gift” in direct response to my excessive complaining to her—mostly about H. "Wah. Wah. Wah," is all I said over and over. (God, I can be such a whiner!)

The Gratitude Journal contains an introduction discussing how to be happy, how being grateful and expressing that gratitude is a key to feeling good about life. The author states that she wrote in her gratitude journal every day for six weeks and saw positive results, and that she really felt better. About everything.

Well, I wrote in my new gratitude journal one day—just one page—and the results were instantaneous. It was like I was a wind-up toy marching in the wrong direction and someone picked me up by the back of the neck, turned me around and set me moving in the opposite direction, the one away from the negative and instead toward the positive.
Gratitude -- and happiness -- can be found in the simple things,
like a spectacular winter sunset in Eldon, Iowa.
Of course I am disappointed and down about the sudden unraveling of my relationship with H (one week before Christmas, no less!) And unfortunately the break up dredges up deeper fears: I am afraid I will never find love again. And because I am still grieving Marcus I worry that I will never be a desirable partner to anyone. But now I can and will put a stop all that negative thinking and remember gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for! My loving friends, my close family, my scruffy dogs, my adorable (and affordable) house, my good health, my soon-to-be published book, and so much more. And, really, truly, I am grateful for H—for four months of great snuggling, laughter, hiking, traveling, my introduction to the South (and grits and biscuits), morning dog walks, shared meals, shared stories, wonderful companionship and friendship.
A full moon rising over my favorite cornfield is something to be grateful for.
And so, the blog post of last week will remain sealed in a vault. Moreover, I have told my friend, the one who said I should have been harder on him, “I have no reason to say anything unkind about H. He is a good person and in spite of our relationship not being what I had hoped it could be, he still gave me a lot. And I am grateful.”

Gratitude feels good.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pie and the Operating Room

I was just in LA for a medical treatment. Nothing major, just a part of a body part needed to be removed. I wouldn’t normally write about such matters (then again, I write about every other private and personal matter), but pie features prominently so I couldn’t pass up sharing this funny tale of my experience on an operating room table.

I was in the pre-op room, dressed in my cotton hospital gown, when a tall, intelligent looking blond nurse came in to attend to me. Small talk ensued and I happened to ask the nurse, Kate, where she was from.

“Keokuk, Iowa,” she answered.

I bolted upright from my gurney, nearly pulling the IV needle out of my hand. “You’re kidding! I’m from Iowa. I live in Eldon.”

“I’m going to move back someday,” Kate said. “I’m from a family of seven kids and they’re all still in the area. I go back a few times a year. All my friends there think I’m so glamorous because I live in LA – they think of Hollywood – but I try to set them straight and remind them it’s still just me.”

My mom, who accompanied me to my appointment, sat there quietly by my bedside, not saying a word. She has no desire to go back to Iowa. She and my dad moved to LA ten years ago, when three out of five of her kids (including me) were living in LA at the time. She loves living in California, loves the people, the energy, and especially the ocean view from their waterfront apartment.

“I loved living in California and I certainly never thought I would end up in Iowa,” I told Kate. “But I am really happy there.”

“You bake pie?” Kate continued. “I love pie. I went on RAGBRAI this past summer and ate pie every day along the bike route. All those church ladies had made so much pie.”

Angela, the fair-skinned beauty who was smearing a sample of my blood onto a microscope slide interrupted and said, “Excuse me. We need to focus on the surgery.”

“Right,” said Kate. “Okay, please confirm your name, birth date, any allergies….” And then, she couldn’t stop herself. She looked up from my chart and asked, “What kind of pies do you like to make?

“Mostly apple,” I said, sneaking a knowing smile up at Angela who gave up on trying to steer our conversation.

Then my doctor appeared from behind the curtain. Dressed in a flannel shirt and a down jacket, he put his hand on my arm and greeted me warmly. I introduced him to my mom. “Mom, this is Dr. D. I’ve been seeing him for over twenty years. This is the most consistent relationship I’ve ever had in my life. He is the reason I flew half way across the country just to have this procedure done. I wouldn’t trust anyone else.” I added, “One of his many attributes is that he doesn’t buy into drama. You tell him you’re in excruciating pain and he just shrugs. “We were just talking about pie,” I told him.

“Apple is my favorite,” he quickly replied. “The Dutch kind with the crumbly topping. The double crust kind just has too much crust.”

“You like the crumble topping because it’s made with brown sugar and butter,” I told him. “My pie teacher [Mary Spellman] always told me, ‘You can’t go wrong with brown sugar and butter.’”
I was eventually wheeled off to the operating room and the last thing I remember saying to Dr. D as the anesthesia was pumped into my veins was “I’ve never seen you in scrubs.” And then, I was out.

About an hour later I was nudged awake in the middle of having a bad dream about H. (You know something is out of balance in your relationship when your subconscious is trying to work things out under the influence of heavy sedatives!) I noticed I was no longer in the operating room, but in a different room. Dr. D was standing by my bed, once again dressed in his flannel shirt and down jacket. “I was having a bad dream about my boyfriend,” I dumbly said in my groggy state.

“Everything went well. You did great. You can get dressed now. Come back in a few months for a follow up and hopefully one of these days I’ll get to have one of your pies.”
I laid there for a while trying to collect my bearings, observing how my body was feeling – surprising fine, as if it hadn’t just been invaded by scalpels and tubes -- and imagined how the conversation must have gone between the surgical team as they worked on me:

She bakes pies, she lives in Iowa, she has a book coming out in April, I read the opening pages on her website, interesting story, what’s your favorite pie, my grandmother used to make a really good coconut pie that I loved, how’s her blood pressure, I can’t believe she flew all the way here from Iowa, she should open up a pie shop here, LA needs more pie, I’m going to buy her book, almost done here, just one more stitch, I’m going to tell my sister in Keokuk about her, did you know she lives in that Grant Wood house from American Gothic, that’s so Americana, I really like pie.

Of course I’ll never know what they said. But I do know this: everyone, everywhere I go, lights up when you start talking about pie. And there, in a Santa Monica surgery center on Wilshire Boulevard, it was no exception. What better subject to put a patient at ease, what better way to connect with strangers, like with the doctors and nurses into whose hands you are putting your life. It was as if the conversation transformed the cold and sterile room and instead filled it, warmed it with the scent of butter, apples and cinnamon. It proves the point yet again that even when just talking about it and not even eating it, pie comforts, heals and nourishes the soul. Pie connects people and their stories, their histories, their hearts. Even in the most unusual of times and circumstances, like at 6:30 a.m. in an operating room.

Next time I’m in LA I will definitely be returning to the surgery center and am already greatly looking forward to it. Why? Because next time the surgical team won’t be cutting into me, they’ll be cutting into the apple pies I deliver to them as a thank you. I can already imagine the crumble topping melting in their mouths.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

All I Need to Keep Me Warm

My boyfriend left town, but not to worry. I don't need no stinkin' man to keep me warm. How is that, you ask? Because someone else has already moved into the American Gothic House. He's strong, solid, heavy, hardworking and black. And, oh baby, he is hot.

"He" is a Vermont Castings gas stove.
In the same way that Kohler was excited about putting in a new-but-made-to-look-old cast iron apron-front sink in my kitchen, Vermont Castings jumped at the chance to install one of their stoves. And I jumped back because I had been lamenting ever since I moved into the Gothic House a year and a half ago that what this house really needs is a fireplace or a wood burning stove. That's how the house was originally heated, back in 1882, though the chimney has long since been sealed. But hey, I'll take gas. No problem.

One little catch (two if you count having to ask my landlord for permission) is that they had to drill a little hole in the original wood plank floor of the house to run a gas line up from the basement. To watch them removing the inch-wide round plug of wood -- a piece of American history! -- made my hackles go up. They might has well have been using white-out on the Declaration of Independence. Or giving the Statue of Liberty a nose job. (Though as far as I know, both of things might have actually been done.) But once the blue and yellow flames sprung to life and the heat started permeating the drafty old house, I didn't give another thought to tampering with a national historic site.

Vermont Castings sent their Stardance model, the smaller of their vent-free stoves. Short and squatty, black iron with a dull finish, it looks so authentically old it might as well have come straight off the set from "Little House on the Prairie." Except that it's brand new. And it runs on gas. And it heats my house to the point it feels like the tropics. I function best in 80 degree weather.
With my new stove, my fingers don't get cold when I type at my computer for hours on end. And it gets so hot upstairs in my bedroom, I don't miss having a man next to me. (Okay, I admit, that's not completely true.) I've also noticed my two terriers are spending more time in my office with me, taking longer naps. In front of the stove.

Bring on the winter, I say. It may be a long one, but at least it's going to be a cozy one.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tire Tracks in the Snow

NOTE: I posted this story twice and took it down twice. But apparently enough people saw it, liked it and even wanted to forward it to their friends, so due to public pressure popular demand I am posting the story again. Third time's a charm. I would say "Sorry, H," but H has since admitted he was texting other women, so I feel I have the right to post this without apology. It goes to show you, ALWAYS TRUST YOUR INTUITION.

-- -- -- -- -- 

This is what it looks like when the man you've been dating for the past four months -- and living with for the past three -- abruptly decides to pack up his chow and his guinea pig and leave in the pre-dawn hours of an Iowa winter morning.
As he drives away you stand there in your boots and your bathrobe, sobbing, wondering what it was you did that caused him to go. Was it because you nagged him too much about doing dishes? You admit that you did badger him about this. You also remember that while he first offered to buy you a dishwasher all he managed in the end was to buy paper plates. Or did he leave because you complained about him watching too much TV? You never wanted TV in your house, but in your effort to accommodate this new relationship you relented. You relented so much that when the cable TV you had installed didn't offer his favorite sports channel you upgraded to satellite, complete with that little dish mounted to the roof of your house which now interferes with the  view out your bedroom window. Regardless, you wish every time you look out the window that the damn snow would melt so you don't have to be reminded of how he drove out of your life.
You spend your day so out of sorts you can't get any work done. All you can do is call everyone you know who will remind you that you are fabulous and smart and funny and beautiful. This is helpful because the man who you lived with, the one you had thought had such potential for a future, the one you thought you were falling in love with, the one who drove off at 5:50 a.m. in the snow, had never once told you that you were fabulous, smart, funny and beautiful. You do remember, however, that he called you "cute" exactly three times and how you responded, "Cute is not the same as beautiful."
You just want the day to pass, time to pass, you want the damn snow to melt. You want your heart to feel at peace, you want your stomach to stop feeling so sick and knotted. But especially you want to look at his iPhone again, the one with all those text messages from all those women friends of his, the ones he couldn't bring himself to tell that not only did he have a girlfriend, he was living with her. You're not sure--because you were in such a panicked state for snooping in the first place (something you vowed you would never stoop so low to do)--but you think you saw an exchange of messages that revealed he was rushing back home to meet up with a woman who couldn't wait to see him. If only you could read those messages again you could see you were wrong, that it was nothing of the sort, and put your mind at ease. Still, you will never be sure because he is driving to a place 21 hours away and he is never going to let you see his phone again. Moreover, you have the feeling you are never going to see him again.
Your friends continue to call and email and prop you up and tell you it's for the best that he left, that you rushed into this too fast, that they were never really sure about him anyway.
And though the final outcome has yet to reveal itself, you begin to feel better, more grounded, even a little grateful to have the house to yourself again. You pack up the shampoo bottles he left in the shower and wonder how soon you can cancel the satellite TV. And eventually, thankfully, the snow finally melts.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Unlikely Return to Catholic School...To Teach a Pie Class

Meg and Me, From pleated plaid skirts to pie T-shirts
My friend Meg asked me if I would teach a pie class as an auction prize donated for her kids' Catholic school. I could have considered the cons -- that I nearly got kicked out of Catholic high school and no longer consider myself a Catholic (I'm waaaaay too much a feminist for that!) -- and that I would have to drive an hour and a half each way to Des Moines for the class. But it was Meg asking. Meg and I went to high school together (yes, the Catholic one). We came of age in our pleated plaid skirts and knee socks. We ditched classes and in spite of the closed-campus policy -- detentions be damned -- skipped out to McDonald's for French fries and milk shakes. We religiously attended cheerleading camp and keg parties. Fast forward 35 (THIRTY-FIVE, really?!?!?) years: Meg so generously hosted me (and my two terriers) for an entire month last summer during my pie judging gig at the Iowa State Fair -- after not having even seen her since our 25th class reunion five years earlier. One cannot, under any circumstances, say no to a friend as generous as that!

This is how I came to give a pie lesson to 10 women, all mothers of students attending the Sacred Heart School.

I don't know which of the women actually gave the winning bid on the pie class, all I know is that Meg and I honed in on a date, Meg secured use of the school's commercial kitchen (OMG, now I REALLY want a commercial kitchen for the Pitchfork Pie Stand!!!), Meg got 50 pounds of apples donated by fellow school parent Larry Lofreddo, I drove up from Eldon, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Every evening pie class is assisted by alcohol. Even ones held in Catholic schools. Just like old times. :-)
While the ladies (pictured above: Meg, Stacie, Jill and Katherine) were more than happy to have a night away from their kids, they also couldn't wait to get home with their freshly baked pies. More so, it was the kids who were impatient. Their teen and pre-teen offspring sent text messages throughout the evening asking, "Is the pie ready yet? When are you coming home with the pie?"
Tavé, above, was all smiles after learning that she really could master making pie dough when she rolled out a perfect-looking crust. But don't think I didn't remind them (repeatedly): Pie is not about perfection!
This is Jill with her pie ready for the oven. It's the boost in baking confidence and the excitement over their gorgeous creations, visible here in Jill's big smile, that make me enjoy teaching pie baking so much. It's that "pie it forward" thing again.
We had enough dough and apples leftover to make some mini pies. Note a few are "free form" rustic-style. Because these little ones finished baking before the big ones, we were able to sample the goods. And we were not disappointed!
A little brown, but still beautiful.
The convection oven was one of industrial size -- and strength. Not realizing the oven was turbo-charged, the normal 20 minute browning stage took half the time. We should have checked the progress sooner. The upshot was that we shaved a good half hour off the total baking time so everyone could get home a little earlier. It was a school night, after all. And as for me, I still had to drive back to Eldon.
Every pie class ends with a Victory Shot. And victorious, they were.
I left energized and content, satisfied that I had done a good deed. If only those nuns from our old Catholic high school could see me now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guest Blog: Pie Lady Goes South, Part 3 - by H

Pie Lady Visits the Mountain South, Part 3 (and Final Installment) -- As Told by H

So...we are now back in the Iowa plains metropolis of Eldon, and it’s time to reflect upon a California Yankee’s introduction to the Southern Appalachians. Of course, I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a match made by anyone associated with heaven. If there was a version of eHarmony that matched people with places, Beth and the Georgia mountains would never even make it to the point where pictures are exchanged. The mountains are too steep and the hollows too confining. And the hunters seem to outnumber the animals (except, of course, inside our cabin.) And then there are the Confederate flags...
But we did have some adventurous hikes and see some nice scenery. (Pictured:  Amicalola Falls)
And there were some very nice meals at Cucina Rustica 

And Harvest On Main 

And for the pie baker supreme, there is the fact that Gilmer County Georgia is the apple capital of the South, and the orchards have some superb pie apples.
And where else can you get your picture taken with a stuffed bear (pronounced “barre”) inside a place that sells apple cider donuts, apple fritters, fried pies in 15 flavors, stone ground grits and candy and caramel apples? All this plus a petting zoo and an animated hillbilly on a tractor.

But despite all of these wondrous advantages, Beth is a reluctant visitor to the mountain South. Much as I would be visiting a hippy commune. Mind you, she isn’t a General Sherman who’d like to burn the place off the map, but she just didn’t find a connection to this craggy, homespun region. But then, she didn’t have the same introduction to it that I did.

Shortly after moving to East Tennessee years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. The good (southern) folks at University of Tennessee Medical Center had to carve me up and put me back together again. Then they had to essentially poison all of the cancer out of my body without killing me. I’d never met nicer or more caring people. And in the year after I was released from the hospital I rented a mountain cabin across from a small lake. I’d never seen or experienced such a calm and serene place. It helped me put myself back together and continue on with life. So for me, the mountain South will always tug at my heartstrings despite its shortcomings and throwback ways.

And I won’t give up on getting Beth to look at the area through a different lens, to feel just a little bit of what I feel. For there is always next fall, and the promise of a cabin with 10 or fewer stuffed bears and moose, no “Stairs of Death” and a road that isn’t like living through a daily episode of The Thrillbillies.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guest Blog: Pie Lady Goes South, Part 2 - by H



The Pie Lady Visits the Mountain South -- (Part 2) – as told by H

If you replaced “banjo” with “gunshots” this would perfectly represent Beth’s sentiments about hiking in these parts. It’s the height of deer season here in Georgia, and at times it sounds like the civil war is still ongoing. Although Beth and I share our Midwestern roots (Beth Iowa, me Ohio), I have lived south of the Mason-Dixon line for over 20 years, and I am well acquainted with the Southern Appalachians. I even lived in Top O’World Tennessee at one point, a place where a neighbor once showed up at my door with a large jar of canned bear meat.

Beth however, (in-spite of her many world travels) is pretty much a neophyte in Dixie. She gaped in slack-jawed horror at the 30-foot-long confederate flag waving in the breeze over the local Rebel Market and gas station. I explained that the owner of this establishment would likely explain to her that the flag is an expression of “heritage not hate,” but to say that she remained unconvinced would be a notable understatement...

But...Beth is quickly finding that there are good as well as gun-toting rebel elements in N. GA. Yesterday I took her to breakfast at a place I was clued into by a local several years ago. It’s a small country store with a restaurant of sorts tucked back into one corner. One GOB (good ole boy) cooks and serves. If you do something silly like not ordering any meat, he’ll put some of his homemade sausage on your plate anyway. And you don’t get a ticket when you’re finished, you just amble over to the cash register and tell the lady what all it was that you ate and drank. Beth was dubious when I set a plate down in front of her that contained a huge halved biscuit smothered in gravy, two fried eggs and a piece of sausage.
But now? Now she is asking me when we are going back.

She is not, however, asking me when we are coming back to this particular cabin. This cabin affords privacy and a nice view but it has some notable drawbacks. One would be a death defying road that leads up to the place. It’s steep enough to be a bobsled run, has places with ruts big enough to swallow a SMART car whole, and has a blind hill that the stars of the FUEL TV series “Thrillbillies” would shirk in terror from. And if you survive the road up here, there is an equally deadly feature that awaits you inside of the cabin. Through reading the cabin guest book, we found that this wooden horror has a name. Behold, the Stairs of Death...
If you’ve ever been to the amusement park Cedar Point in Ohio, just think of the ride named “Demon Drop” as this is merely a non-mechanical version of it.

There is another feature of this cabin that while not dangerous, is nonetheless somewhat horrifying: the décor. One family wrote in the guest book that they tried for days to count all of the assorted bears inside the cabin, but it was simply too exhausting and mind numbing. After about 5 minutes on the inside, Beth declared, “No, I can’t take it” and proceeded to apprehend armloads of stuffed bears, bear statues and a moose or two and jam them into closets. We have one closet that now looks like a décor bear version of Gitmo. They will stay incarcerated until freed by the cleaning service after our departure.

But today it is sunny and nice and we are going horseback riding in the mountains. We may not make it back up the road to the cabin, but up until that point it will be a great day.

Note to readers: Daisy is doing much better. We will probably leave here a day or two early so she can be part of the early release program at the kennel.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Blog: Pie Lady Goes South, Part 1 - by H

The Pie Lady visits the Mountain South 
(Part 1) – as told by H

It was a decidedly rough start to this adventure, as the days immediately before departing on this trip were rough ones for Beth. Her cartoon character terrier Daisy had surgery, was sick afterward, and had to be left in the care of a veterinarian the day before we left. Although the care, rest and limited activity afforded by lodging at the vet’s office was a good option for a post-surgery dog, leaving a dog for over a week (especially an ailing dog) is anathema to Beth’s constitution. It was traumatic with a capital T, as Beth is one of the dog-lovingest individuals anywhere on the planet. A sick Daisy meant that Beth got little sleep in the days before we headed south, so she was stressed and sleep deprived when it came time for our Sunday morning departure. We discussed not going at all, but the cabin was already paid for, and Beth rallied enough to get herself, me, Jack (terrier), Miska (Chow), Naf-Naf (guinea pig) into my car and onto the road.

Twelve hours in the car wasn’t exactly what Beth needed on that particular Sunday, but we both survived the trip, aided by listening to old radio episodes of Suspense on XM Radio. I’ve wanted to take Beth to the South almost from the day I met her. Why, you ask? Because Beth is about as un-southern as a woman can get. The often uttered, “Woman, get me a beer” which is a staple request/order from men throughout Dixie, would be one of the quickest ways I can imagine to get an instantaneous “Fuck off” response from Beth. If I had to label her geographic/cultural makeup, it would be California Yankee. And “CY” is about as far afield from “MS” (Mountain South) as you can get. This is why I knew it would be both fun and amusing to take Beth to the Georgia mountains...

The Happy Chair

Upon arriving, Beth still need a bit of attitude adjustment, so on the banks of the Toccoa River, she was boosted up into the Happy Chair.

I mean, how can you not be happy looking at this scenery?
Beth already has an appreciation for the scenery and outdoor recreational opportunities here. But southern culture? If only I’d taken a picture of the look on her face when the GOB (good ole boy) asked another GOB in the grocery store if he’d shot anything yet. More on this later...

More AGH Video...And My Kohler Sink is the Star



My friend Jo Brown works for Kohler and when she found out I lived in the American Gothic House she suggested I might want an old-fashioned cast iron farm sink, a brand new top-of-the-line one made by Kohler. "Good for all your pie baking," she said.

"Yes, but only if you come down to see me when they install it," I insisted. I hadn't seen Jo in eight years. We had worked together at MSN.com as web producers. She and her husband John came to my wedding -- to the ceremony Marcus and I had on a farm outside of Seattle. (It was one of three ceremonies we had, ensuring we were thoroughly married.) Time marched on and with it came life changes. Jo and her husband had moved to Wisconsin and I moved, alone and grieving Marcus, to Iowa.
Jo did come down to Eldon, in late August after the gorgeous new sink was installed, and instead of my kitchen being a construction zone we were in full-blown pie-making mode for the Pitchfork Pie Stand. She pitched right in, rolling dough and peeling apples -- while her video crew shot footage of us using the new Kohler apron-front sink. It was a win-win: I got to spend time with Jo -- I was reminded of how much I loved her lightness of being, her easy laugh and her wisdom -- and she earned points with her bosses for scoring this great PR opp.
While I love, love, love, love, love my new Kohler sink, what I love even more is that this sink brought an old friend back into my life. We won't let eight more years go by without seeing each other again, of that I am certain.

Thanks again, Jo -- and thanks, Kohler.

Click here to see Jo's version of the story in her blog post on the Kohler website.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Seeing Orange: As in Pumpkin Pie

Since I know you've all been wondering (yeah, right) about how the Pumpkin Pie Palooza turned out, I am finally posting the pictures from the event. Yes, I realize it's been twelve days since my pie stand was open for that final day of the season. And yes, I realize I have posted nothing since then. I also realize time has marched on so far that the sunny Indian Summer days have given way to snow. Alas, since this blog is about pie and documenting my adventures based around "America's quintessential comfort food" and the Pumpkin Pie Palooza is about as pie-centric of a story as you can get, I figure better late than never.

So there we were, Saturday, October 29, on an unseasonably warm and sunny day...  It was so warm, in fact, we did something Iowa weather doesn't normally permit: we moved the pie stand outside into the side yard.

I baked all the pies myself this time -- all 50 of them. My trusty pie assistant, Dakota McElderry, had returned to high school and given that he wasn't available for the weekday prep, I found myself alone in the kitchen for the first time in many months. I had forgotten how much I like -- even prefer -- working solo. With my iPhone earbuds securely in place, my apron tied around my waist, and my rolling pin at the ready, I found my rhythm, the trance-like one that had soothed my broken heart during that first year after Marcus died. I had forgotten how moving quietly, methodically, peacefully around my workspace, dusting my table with flour, rolling out dough, whisking eggs by the bowlful -- and not barking orders at Dakota or whoever else was helping with the pie stand -- allowed me the space and the time for my thoughts to wander, my ideas to flow, my nerves to calm. It was luxurious. And it reminded me of how much I still love making pie. A lot of pie.

And then, after two and a half days of baking, the pies all made and set out for display, it was show time.
Shirley Stacey, Eldon's ace mayor (who was THANKFULLY  just re-elected
 for another term!) was one of my first customers of the day.
Seeing it was a Halloween-based event, I took the time to create a makeshift costume. What better fitting attire for the Pitchfork Pie Stand than a...why yes, a costume that revolves around a pitchfork. I got the devil horns and matching tail for a dollar each at the Dollar Store. Can't beat that!
The ever-helpful Dakota McElderry
Seeing it was a Saturday -- a school-free day -- Dakota was able to work at the pie stand. He borrowed my bottle of fake blood to fashion a little beard for himself -- as his costume. He also crafted a "scary" prop out of a pie box and stuck it on the end of a pitchfork. Which I thought was very clever.

We did not, however, send home customer pies in blood-covered boxes.

My costume had some competition from a toddler. I couldn't help but think of one of those celebrity magazines with the red carpet photos of actresses caught wearing the same dress (oh, the horror!), you know that photo-driven column, "Who Wore it Better." In this case, I'm sure the little guy would have won. Especially with the devilish mustache, beard and eyebrows drawn on his face. Why didn't I think of that?!

Costumes and decorations aside, it was still the pies -- pumpkin, apple and apple crumble -- that were the showcase of the day.

I had a surprise visit from a woman who goes to the same college I attended -- The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. A long way from (her) home, Sarah and her mom (who hails from Iowa) stopped by for a slice of pie and brought me a gift -- a vintage pie tin along with a needle-pointed logo of my alma mater, handcrafted by Sarah herself.


Last but not least, my BFF in Eldon, Patti, showed up late in the afternoon -- also in costume. She was dressed up as....me! She had the outfit wired, down to the pigtails and overalls (which she had had to borrow for the occasion). I laughed so hard I nearly cried. Should I have been flattered? I mean, she finished off the outfit with a witch's hat after all. Was she trying to tell me something?
Some of you asked if we had any leftover pie. Yes. A few pumpkin pies were left. And that made me very happy. Why? Because pumpkin pie freezes well, which means that for the past twelve days I've been able to have a rare stash on hand and indulge in my favorite food.

Really, I had such a good time with the Pumpkin Pie Palooza I'm wondering if I really can wait until Memorial Day to open up the pie stand again.

Pecan Pie Palooza anyone?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pumpkin Pie Palooza Kicks Off With...Pumpkins

This was all H's idea. As for me, after a verrrry long summer of pie slavery, I mean pie baking, I was quite relieved that the Pitchfork Pie Stand was closed for the season. But no. Halloween is H's favorite holiday. And apparently pumpkin pie is one of his favorite pies, because no sooner did I hang the "Sorry, We're Closed" sign on my door, H suggested, "Hey, let's have a Pumpkin Pie Palooza." Yeah, sure, okay, I replied in my love-struck state.

And so it begins, the preparation for one last pie-making hurrah of 2011. It's the same routine of the summer -- shopping for mass amounts of ingredients, rolling industrial-quantities of dough, boiling over pie filling in the oven clouding my kitchen with smoke -- except that it will be condensed into the next three days.

H has been very sweet and supportive about the whole thing though. We kicked off pumpkin pie season a few weeks ago when we went on a local "farm crawl." The first farm we stopped at was Pierce's Pumpkin Patch...
...where we stocked up on pumpkins that have been adorning the backyard of the American Gothic House ever since. One of the pumpkins even found its way onto the clothesline post -- as the head of the scarecrow. Which was also H's idea. (Seems that spending time in rural Iowa is bringing out his creative side.)

I had my own creative ideas for decorating the backyard (below). After all, October is not only about Halloween, it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But I digress...
H also bought me a pumpkin pie sign. It's adorable. And thoughtful. And reminds what a great guy H is. Not that I need reminding.
But really, H outdid himself today. While I was home getting caught up on work, he went to the grocery store --Aldi, of course -- and bought all the remaining ingredients I needed to get started. He sent me this photo from the parking lot:
And now...it's my turn to step in. Tonight I'll be making dough. Tomorrow I'll be rolling it. Friday I'll mix gallons of pumpkin custard and peel 60 pounds of apples, since we'll also offer apple pie. And on Saturday, I'll get up early to bake. And bake. And bake.
And finally, this Saturday from 12 to 4, we'll have pie for sale at the Pitchfork Pie Stand. We won't be open again until Memorial Day -- I swear -- so please come by for this Saturday's one-day event. The weather report is for 60 degrees and sun so we'll set up the pie stand outside in the yard. And even though I occasionally grumble about what hard work it is to run a pie stand, I'm really looking forward to a crispy fall day with the cinnamon scent of pie permeating the air. And not to just selling pie, but to eating some too!

Meanwhile, since so many of you come to my blog looking for recipes, let me fill you in on my "secret recipe" pumpkin pie. It's straight off the Libby's canned pumpkin label. Uh, yeah. There you have it. Hardly a secret. It's tried and true, it doesn't call for nutmeg (which I abhor for its overpowering taste), and -- always a prerequisite for me -- it's easy.

Happy Halloween, everyone. And Happy Pumpkin Pie season.

PUMPKIN PIE RECIPE (From the Libby’s label)

Ingredients:
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 oz.) canned pumpkin
1 can (12 fl. oz.) evaporated Milk
1 unbaked 9-inch (4-cup volume) deep-dish pie shell
Whipped cream (optional)

Directions:
MIX sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger and cloves in small bowl. Beat eggs in large bowl. Stir in pumpkin and sugar-spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk.
POUR into pie shell.

BAKE in preheated 425° F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350° F; bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours. Serve immediately or refrigerate. Top with whipped cream before serving.