As I write this, I am sitting in a crowded café on the ground floor of our hostel in Xi’An, a city exactly 7,674 miles from home. At home, seven thousand miles away, Jesse’s mom and sister are moving most of their belongings into a house they’ve rented about ten minutes from our house. When we return in two weeks, it will be the first time we have lived that close to anyone we’ve been related to in almost a decade.
This past week, we spent two nights in a city just south of Beijing. Renqiu is not a place tourists visit. There isn’t a restored temple there, nothing old to show off, nothing sparkly or shiny. No markets of souvenirs await Western pocketbooks. It’s a town of 300,000—a “small town,” our friend Faye calls it, though it is several times larger than the city we live in—and most people there work for the Petrol companies. We passed several flocks of sheep on our way into town.
In the apartment complex where Faye’s parents live are both of Faye’s aunts and uncles. In the apartment complex next door, a short walk away, live Faye’s grandparents. We spent the afternoon with Faye’s grandparents, playing mah jong, listening as Faye’s grandfather played traditional Chinese music. And then, as he whipped out a harmonica and started playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Faye’s grandmother let me help make dumplings. We crowded around a small table—Faye, her sister, mother, aunt, father, and I—and spooned meat and vegetable filling into delicate dough rounds. We pinched them closed, and Faye’s family was too polite to make fun of my clumsy offerings, which sat next to their perfect ones. These people have been making dumplings their whole life, and I thought then of my grandmother and her pie crusts, the way she knows the exact right measurements, the way she knows the texture the dough needs to be by touch, the way her fingertips have been trained by decades and decades to know how to make it perfect.
I thought of my mother making buttermilk biscuits. By sight, by memory, by touch. Perfect every time.
I wonder what I will perfect over the course of my life. What dishes will become my staples? If I have children, what food will they remember me by?
I am loving almost every moment of China, but the one thing I am looking forward to about coming back—above all others—is living close to family. Knowing that ten minutes away will be people who are connected to us by blood and history.
Now, I just need you to help me convince my parents to move to Wilmington.
But until then, I will think of my mother’s buttermilk biscuits and my grandmother’s pie crusts, and I will come home from China in two weeks, and I will try to recreate these dumplings myself.
“Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.
What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.
Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.
A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.
But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.
When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’
I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who has six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.
They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty it was, or handsome.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Nine years ago, Jesse and I–still newlyweds, married eleven months–packed everything we owned into two cars and a U-Haul and moved 568 miles from the city we both grew up in, the little city where we’d met in elementary school. Five hundred and sixty-eight miles, a ten-hour drive from the state we’d called home most of our lives. A day trip away from all of our family: my parents, his parents, his sister, his mother’s sisters, his aunts and uncles, his cousins, his grandfather, my grandmother, who all lived within about an hour’s drive.
I’d gotten accepted to grad school in Wilmington, North Carolina. And we were ready to leave Florida, ready to leave the long, humid summers, the mosquitoes, the theme parks and tourists. We were ready to strike out on our own, to make a little life for ourselves where neither of us had ever lived.
Our families helped us move, and we all rolled across the bridge to town on June 6, 2005, in a summer downpour, our little caravan–Dad driving the U-Haul, Mom and I in her car, Jesse in his car, his mother and sister in their family van, and Tom driving my Mustang.
After dropping things off at our new apartment, we all went to dinner at Flaming Amy’s, a local burrito joint where the walls are decorated with pictures of Elvis and Hendrix, and where pink plastic flamingos flock. I remember that moment so well. The big chocolate chip cookie we ate. The light coming out after the rain, the pink light and warm yellow reflections on the puddles in the parking lot. Everything had changed, and everything was exciting.
We planned to stay in Wilmington three years, long enough for me to finish school and for us to figure out where we really wanted to be.
Fast forward to 2014. Tom is gone. Our families are still ten hours away. And we are still here. A little older now. I am often longing for those theme parks, for the intensity of the Florida sun, for the bright colors and pulse and hum of the bugs and the feeling I get when I see a building I looked at when I was seven years old. What I really miss, though, when I miss Florida, is being with people who have known us all our lives. I miss Tom. I miss my parents. I miss the family Jesse has left.
Every Thursday night here in Wilmington, we have dinner with our friends Warren and Sharon, and their two kids. In a stroke of good fortune, they live in our neighborhood. When it’s warm, we can walk. Or, they’ll pile their kids in a wagon and walk to us. Or, S.–who is now almost six, I can hardly believe it–will get on her scooter, the strap of her pink helmet firmly fastened beneath her chin, and she’ll show up on our doorstep a few paces ahead of her little brother and parents. And she’ll grin at me, and everything in that moment is just right.
We eat dinner together, and it’s rarely fancy–it’s what we have on hand, it’s often pasta or something I can throw together quickly. (Sharon makes more elaborate and beautiful things.) Sharon will make a beautiful dessert, something sinful and chocolatey, or we’ll just make break-and-bake cookies. I am almost always dressed in yoga pants. I don’t think the kids know I wear anything but yoga pants. And we talk, and talk, and talk. And S. will usually tell us about her day at school. D. will wax poetic about whatever it is that toddlers murmur about. We will catch up on the week, and whatever we’re thinking about, whatever dreams we’re afraid won’t come true, or what we’re disappointed in, or what we’re thrilled about. We’ll talk about how much we love summer nights. We’ll talk about football. We’ll talk about nothing.
This past week, we grilled chicken and ate green beans and baked sweet potatoes from our weekly produce box. We drank ciders. I perched myself on the swing set and chatted idly with Sharon as Warren finished the chicken on the grill and Jesse helped S. and D. defeat evildoers with lasers.
It was one of those moments I realized I was home, after all. Yes, six hundred miles away, but home nonetheless.
This weekend, Becki and Vicki visited for Easter. We went to church Sunday and saw a dear friend we hadn’t expected to see. After services were over, we all went to lunch–pizza, because apparently everything else is closed on Easter, who knew? Vicki, Becki, and Jesse ordered Mexican food, because, you know, all bets are off when you’re at a pizza joint for Easter dinner. My friend, her significant other, and I split a pizza. It was raining outside, one of those cold, drizzly, miserable rains. But we were all inside and warm and enjoying our food, and we laughed and forgot the weather for a bit.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about family, about extended family, and about food–specifically, sharing food. Sharing a meal. There is something very primal about it, about sitting around a table with people and sharing something so basic, so elemental, so human, as a meal. There is the family you are born into, and there is the family you collect. Jesse and I were both so lucky to be born into loving, safe, supportive families. And we have been lucky still to have collected a tight little group of people we consider our extended family, and while genetics do not connect us, we are still inextricably linked. We share food with them, we laugh, we tell them our dreams, and we listen to theirs. They have held us together in our darkest moments.
And so, this Easter weekend, I am thankful for our family, for the people who are connected to us by blood, and for the people we have chosen, and who have chosen us.
My grandmother will turn 95 this June. How can I sum her up for those of you who haven’t met her? Last Mother’s Day, my aunt had brought her a beautiful cake, covered with lovely pink roses. We were taking pictures of Granny holding the cake. At one point, Granny joked that the cake was so pretty she could take a bite right out it. We laughed and said, “Go ahead!” So she did. She brought the cake to her mouth and took a big chunk right out of a rose. Even though we’d all told her to do it, we never thought she would. But we should have known. Granny does what she wants, when she wants. And she’s earned it.
When she was a child, her father was killed in the mines when her mother was pregnant with her little sister. She lived through the Great Depression, extremely poor. She was 51 before she lived in a house with air conditioning. She’d had four children before she lived in a house with an indoor bathroom.
When she was pregnant with her first baby, she lived in a house without indoor plumbing; she had to go down a flight of seventeen outdoor steps and across a street to get water at a nearby house. On her twenty-first birthday, when she was five months pregnant, she had a pot of beans on the stove and went out to get more water. She fell on the steps. She fell all the way down the hill. The pot of beans burned. The baby died the next day. She had to deliver the stillborn baby, her first delivery.
She would go on to have five children, three boys and two girls. Two of those were twin boys—both nine pounds at birth—and by the end of that pregnancy, she was so big she couldn’t reach the sink to do dishes.
Granny is strong, sweet, playful, resilient, stubborn, lively. She’s outlived her husband, her siblings, most of her friends. In her lifetime, we’ve discovered or invented penicillin, the atom bomb, the toaster, Band-Aids, insulin, frozen food, the traffic light, spiral-bound notebooks, television, bubble gum, radar, nylon. Not to mention the Internet. The iPhone. Blogs.
When I asked her which invention was her favorite, she said TV and the microwave. Of course, she went forever not using microwaves, and she doesn’t really need one now. My grandmother can cook anything. But she’s most famous for her pies. Her pie crusts are perfect, and she could make them blindfolded. (In fact, she hates her current glasses and can’t see well out of them. So, she was practically blindfolded when we made this pie. That didn’t hurt her one bit. Spoiler alert: the pie was amazing.)
Since it’s spring break, we’re getting some extra time to spend with family. Last night, we all gathered at Vicki’s house for taco lasagna (Vicki’s specialty) and salad. Granny, Mom, and I made a chocolate pie, and since we just got a new camera, Jesse decided to film it. Since we’re including the video here, I’m forced to confess: Granny made the pie. Mom helped and watched. And I mostly pestered Mom. It was a lovely evening, and a lovely pie, and a heck of a lot of fun to make. And to eat.
While we’re making confessions, I have to tell you the crust is made with Crisco. You should know that going into it. My mom, a very good cook herself, is also a health nut, a slow-food foodie, a person who buys almost all her food from local farms. She drinks raw milk, makes her own yogurt, bakes bread with flour from wheat she grinds herself. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t anything she likes less than Crisco. But, I told her we would make the pie the way Granny wanted it made, and so Crisco it was.
And, while I haven’t had Crisco in my house since…well, maybe since ever, I have to admit that this crust was perfect. Wonderful to work with and even better to eat. Flaky, light. So, Crisco. Crisco. Of all things.
Did I mention my grandmother is 94? Going on 95? And makes her pie crusts with Crisco.
That’s all I’m going to say about that.
Here’s the video. And below, the recipe.
2 c flour
¼ t (or a little less) salt
1 T sugar
2/3 c Crisco
Ice water (6 T)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add shortening and mix with your hands until the lumps are the size of peas. Add ice water a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. Flour your work surface and gently roll out the crust. Put the crust in the pie pan, prick with a fork. Make the edges as cute as you can.
For the chocolate pie, bake the crust by itself in the oven. If you’re Granny, you can get away without using pie weights, but if it had been me by myself, I would have had to use dried beans or pie weights, because try as I might, I can’t get my crusts not to bubble up. Take the risks you feel are appropriate for you.
Bake until done, about 15-20 minutes. Check the crust until it’s nicely browned in spots. Let it cool slightly before filling it.
Chocolate filling and meringue:
2.5 ounces chocolate
1 ½ c milk
½ c sugar (we were supposed to add more, but it was plenty sweet the way it was)
3 T flour
1 T cornstarch or arrowroot powder
¼ t salt
3 egg yolks (save the egg whites for meringue)
1 T butter
Vanilla (Granny said a teaspoon, but it looked like more to me)
Separate yolks and whites. Set aside the whites for meringue and beat the yolks. Set aside. Melt chocolate with the milk on medium heat, then let cool slightly. In a double boiler (or in a pot in another pot with boiling water) combine sugar, flour, and cornstarch; mix with a wooden spoon. Gradually blend in the chocolate milk. Whisk or stir until thickened. You’re looking for the consistency of pudding. Temper the egg yolks and combine with the chocolate mixture. Add vanilla and butter and continue to stir.
Make the meringue. Beat three egg whites until soft peaks form. Start adding the sugar a tablespoon at a time, while beating. It’s finished when six tablespoons of sugar are incorporated and the meringue has a pretty, shiny look.
Now, put it all together. Fill the piecrust with the chocolate filling and top with the meringue. Make sure the meringue covers all the chocolate filling. Pop the pie back in the oven until the top is nicely browned. (Again, do it the Granny way: just keep an eye on it, and when it looks good, get it out of there.)
Let the pie cool as long as you can stand it. We didn’t let it cool long enough, which meant it kind of went everywhere when we cut into it and ate it.
But life is short. So, eat the pie whenever you feel like it. Like Granny would.
And if you want to take a bite of the roses on the top of your Mother’s Day cake without sharing with anyone, go ahead and do that too.
“I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” M.F.K. Fisher