Friday, July 24, 2009

Buttermilk Pie – at the Big Bend Motor Inn Café

In my search for a UPS pick-up spot to ship a birthday present with overnight delivery from Terlingua, Texas to a friend in Washington, D.C. I went from the Terlingua Trading Company to the Cottonwood Convenience Store to the Lajitas Horse Stables and finally to the Big Bend Motor Café. None of the people in any of these places had a clue as to how to ship my package, but during my otherwise fruitless search I did discover that Big Bend Motor Café has pie. Under “Dessert Special” on the chalkboard menu it read: “Homemade Pie $2.25.” Naturally, I inquired. “What kind of pie do you have?” I asked the cashier behind the counter.

“Today we just have Buttermilk,” she answered. “We usually have other kinds but we’re out.”

“What is Buttermilk Pie?” I asked. I may know pie but this one was unfamiliar to me.

“It’s like custard,” she replied. I glanced at her name badge and noted her name was Eva.

I couldn’t control my curiosity. “Who makes your pie?”

“I do,” Eva replied. “When I have time. It depends on how long I have to work out front and how much energy I have left at the end of the shift.” In the 104-degree days of summer my energy guess was “not much” and therefore not many pies were getting made.

Because I had also noted while poking around the Big Bend Motor Inn Café that they offered free wireless and a quiet, uncrowded, air conditioned room in which I would certainly be more comfortable working than in my 100-degree house, I returned the next day. I set up my laptop and I ordered a piece of the Buttermilk Pie. After all, a pie baker must always scope out the competition.

The custard was a combination of egg, vanilla and way too much sugar. The crust? Definitely store-bought. Blech! I left the fluted edge of it on my plate.

C.J., an artist who was working for Mimi when I arrived in May, stopped by my table to chat. “Are you going to eat that?” he asked, pointing to the abandoned crust. I don’t know if he smokes pot, but he sure looked stoned to me. One would have to have those kind of pot-induced munchies to want to eat this tasteless-cardboard excuse for pie dough. (I’m so sorry, Eva! I don’t mean to be such an ungrateful customer! Your service was excellent, your wireless signal strong, your drip coffee drinkable.)

“No, go ahead,” I told C.J. “You can have it.”

Satisfied that my pie sales at Mimi’s café were untouchable by the competition – and having caught up on my Internet surfing -- I paid my tab and left. When I reached the parking lot what did I see parked out front? Big and brown and hooked up to the gas tank hose, it was the UPS truck! I had just mailed my package via the Post Office’s Express Mail service that morning – paying the premium price for overnight service, which, by Terlingua standards translates to two days. (“Manage your expectations” is always a good rule to live by in these parts. I managed. I had already missed my friend’s birthday, what was one more day going to hurt.)

I knocked on the side of the UPS truck and a gray-haired man poked his head out. “Hi,” I said. “I was just wondering…in the future…I mean…how I can send a package by UPS from here?”

“You new around here? Where do you live?” he first wanted to know.

“Yes. I live in one of Betty Moore’s guest houses. I’m Beth.”

“Oh, sure. I know Betty. I’ve delivered to her house before. My name’s Jerry.” His smiled beamed and his eyes twinkled behind his wire-rimmed glasses and I suddenly had the feeling I was living out a scene from “The Andy Griffith Show.” “You just call 1-800-PICK-UPS,” he continued. “The company will let me know, and I’ll come get your package.”

And that’s just one more story (however loosely related to pie) about this funny, crazy, wonderful little life in Terlingua, Texas.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rhubarb Pie: A Community Effort

This is a story of how it takes a whole community to make a pie. I want to thank everyone for their generosity, help and enthusiasm – especially Jim Carrico for being the connector and catalyst. With the care that has gone into it, this is sure to be one delicious pie!

It was only a week ago when Betty delivered the news that Jim Carrico would be sending me fresh rhubarb from his garden in Colorado all the way to Far West Texas. “Sure, sure,” I thought. “It’s a sweet thought but I doubt he’ll follow through.” This afternoon I was on my way up to Mimi’s house to collect her empty pie plates – the glass ones that keep getting passed back and forth as I bake my pies for her shop and she returns them for me to refill yet again – when I heard my name being called across the cactus fields. I was being summoned back to my house by Betty, who I could see even from the distance, had a visitor with her. The visitor was holding a large plastic bag. Rhubarb delivery!

Jocelyn, a tall strawberry blond young woman, had just driven 750 miles from Colorado and brought with her a huge bundle of the promised stalky red-green celery-like vegetable. How did anyone ever identify this as a good ingredient for pie?!
Out of small-town courtesy, Jocelyn stayed for a few minutes to exchange stories. (Besides, there’s no hurry in Terlingua.) “Two months now,” I answered when she asked how long I’d lived here. “Two years,” she answered when I asked how long she’d been away from our darling desert town. I pumped her with questions about her round-the-world travels through Asia, Antarctica, and beyond from which she had just returned. Even after exploring the big, bold, beautiful world, she is happy to be back in this funny little corner of the planet. That’s one thing we have in common: our love for Terlingua. That and Jim Carrico, our faithful rhubarb provider.

When I set off for Mimi’s I had been planning on making apple pie. This was in spite of Mimi’s comment: “Can’t you make anything else?”
“Sure,” I said. “If you want to pay the premium price for imported fruit. It’s not like you can get any locally grown ingredients around here.” I couldn’t help but reflect back on my year in Portland – a pie baker’s paradise – where I picked pounds and pounds of blueberries, marionberries, blackberries, raspberries, and peaches in the summer, and, in the fall, apples. “Apples are easy to get and they’re pretty durable in this climate.”
“Okay,” Mimi replied. “But I just think we should have some variety.”
Ask and you shall receive. Enter: Rhubarb. I still had to go up to Mimi’s to get the pie plates, which was timely as I now needed to borrow her cookbook to find a rhubarb pie recipe. She was thrilled with the news that her very first menu in her new weekly dinner series would feature what she planned to name “Jim Carrico’s Special Rhubarb Pie.”

I returned home with pie plates, recipes in hand, and rhubarb waiting to be washed. Just as I was settling into pie baking mode (complete by donning the prerequisite and decidedly unglamorous outfit of apron, head scarf and sports watch/timer) with my iPod cranked full volume I had my second visitor of the day. (It’s such a rare occurrence to even SPEAK to another human being during my days here, let alone have people VISIT my house!) Tommy, a neighbor/massage therapist/cabinet maker, stopped by to drop off yet another rogue pie plate (per Mimi’s instructions, so he said). Regardless of his motivation, he was just in time to help. I buttered him up by offering him a beer first, then dropped the bomb: “Would you mind cleaning and peeling the rhubarb while I made the pie dough?” He was happy to oblige – until he tried three of my knives and found each of them to be unacceptably dull. “Do you mind if I go home and get my knife sharpener?” he asked.
“Hell, no,” I said. “Go right ahead!”
Tommy not only did a superb job cleaning and chopping the rhubarb for the pie, he also left me with a drawer-full of sharpened knives.

I followed the rhubarb pie recipe from the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook (the 1953 edition) for a Rhubarb Cream Pie. I have no idea how it’s going to taste, but at least it looks edible. I’ll let the rest of the Terlingua community be the judge of that. For anyone interested, dinner – and Jim Carrico’s Special Rhubarb Pie for dessert – will be served at Espresso y Poco Mas tonight at seven.

Combine 1 and ½ cups sugar, ¼ cup all-purpose flour, and ¾ tsp nutmeg (I used cinnamon). Beat into 3 slightly beaten eggs. Add 4 cups 1-inch slices rhubarb (I used 5 cups). Line 9-inch pie plate with pastry; fill. Dot with 2 Tbsp butter. Top with lattice crust. Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) for 50 to 60 minutes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The "Pie Sauna" & Other Spa Treatments of Terlingua

Between the pie baking during these hot summer afternoons and the subsequent body-cooling trips to Terlingua Creek, I've realized is that I'm living in the world's biggest outdoor spa, surrounded by natural treatments -- and all for free. Here's the list so far.

1. Sauna: Bake pies in your kitchen during the height of the afternoon when it’s already 100 degrees in the house. Turning on the oven to the necessary baking temperature of 425 will ensure sweat flows freely out of your pores, just like in the cedar-lined heated rooms of Sweden. Downside: There’s no cold plunge pool to balance out your body heat -- the closest is 10 miles away. Add to that, Terlingua’s cold tap water heats up as the day progresses, so by afternoon the “cold” comes out of the tap the same temperature as the hot.
2. Exfoliation: Head over to Terlingua Creek (pictured above) where the tiny little fish will nibble off your dead skin. By the size of their appetite you figure you must really need the body scrub! Downside: You never know when and where the fish will bite next. Also, they have a preference for arm pits, which can be very ticklish.
3. Hair Highlights: Go outside (right outside your door is fine), stand in the scorching sun for thirty minutes a day, and your hair will get naturally highlighted by the intense rays. Downside: Your skin will burn too until eventually it resembles beef jerky and you will likely become dehydrated, but by god your hair will be blond! 4. Massage: Hike to Cattail Falls in Big Bend National Park and stand under the waterfall (as I did just last week, above). The pounding of water pouring down from 100 feet above will do wonders for your tired shoulder muscles. Downside: It’s illegal to enter the water. “Sorry, officer, I didn’t see the sign.”
5. Mud mask: This one is easy. We have lots of mud here – it’s more like clay -- full of natural minerals, and, of course, it’s free. For this you just roll around on the banks of the Rio Grande River and -- voila! – your skin will be purified! Downside: The mud doesn’t come off easily, your swimsuit will never be clean again, and you’ll have to wash your hair at least 3 times to remove the residual dirt.
6. Acupuncture: Just go for a run through the cactus and you will come out with perfectly placed, deeply imbedded thorns that look just like acupuncture needles. (The pic above shows a good example.) You will feel very relaxed afterward – after the severe pain has subsided. Downside: The “needles” are not sterilized and must be self-inflicted.