Blogging The Harper Way 2: Through Your Eyes (Chapter 1)
Hello, bakin' bits!
What's the best thing about a good, homemade, apple pie? Like, what's the magical component that makes you wanna keep shoveling it in, in perpetuity, and with little to no regard for your own wellbeing? Is it a buttery, flaky crust? Maybe the marriage of the perfectly-balanced cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg, with that beautiful hint of vanilla? Is it the apples themselves?
I mean, after all, different types of apples produce different types of pies. Granny Smiths give you a firmer, more tart filling, whereas, say, a Red Delicious-based filling will veer more toward the sweet, mushy side of things. Or maybe it's something more ethereal than the actual pie that attracts you. Something you can't touch. I know it is for me.
It's the simple act of cooking... in a broader sense.
As I've likely said more times than I can count, the moment I was old enough to be in the kitchen with my Mom, I was. Every single time we could be. She had hundreds of recipes, both original and borrowed, and she wanted nothing more than to pass them all on to me. I was, of course, super into learning them, and even though I was incredibly small and excitable, Mom matched every bit of my exuberance. She was brought up to believe that if you could talk and walk on your own, you were ready to learn the basics of cooking. Starting with the joys of baking.
Strictly supervised, obviously.
We started with cookies - first no bakes, then oatmeal, plain ol' sugar, chocolate chip, and then moved on to more complex ones, like molasses and gingerbread. I had a super hard time with my measurements at first, as I was trying so hard to mimic Mom, and she eyeballed literally everything. To me, it looked like she was just dumping stuff into the bowls, so that's what I did.
"Oh, Lib! Sorry, that's my fault!" she'd say, scooping out the excess. Then she'd fight her very fucking nature and use measuring utensils, solely so I could see and learn the proper amounts. She would scoop out, say, the correct measurement of flour, pour it in a plastic bag and say "This is what two-and-a-half cups feels like" or whatever as she handled it off to me. Then she'd have me dump it in a bowl and say "and that's what it looks like", hoping to get me on the right track to eyeballing like she did.
Eventually, I started getting really good at it, then we moved on to what I was waiting for... pies. Sweet, tasty pies. Smiley pies. You see, Mom had a habit of putting smiley faces on all her sweet baked goods, she'd either frost, carve, or bake them in by drawing them in butter, but they were always there. All her treats were absolutely fucking stoked to spend their final moments of existence in your mouth.
The very first pie we made was, in my eyes, the crème de la crème of pies.
I woke up the morning before Thanksgiving, 1988, to the sound of Mom singing "Pies, pies, pies, ye-ah!" (to the tune of the Thompson Twins "Lies", naturally), as she danced around with a spiffy, new, turtle-printed apron, just for me. It wasn't Ninja Turtles like she'd wanted, but she hoped that the purple and green color scheme would make up for the lack of licensed, turtley goodness. It did.
"Good mooooor-niiiiiing!" Mom sang out when she noticed I'd finally opened my eyes. "What day is it?"
"Pie day?" I quietly, anxiously replied.
"PIE DAY!" she cheered.
"KEEP IT DOWN, GODDAMN IT." Dad yelled from his office. He was only playing around, but Mom did what he said anyway.
"Pie day!" she quietly exclaimed, scooping me up out of bed. "Let's go get those teeth brushed and those paws washed!"
So, we did. And once all that boring, grooming bullshit was out of the way, she led me down to the kitchen. On the table was a vast array of baking ingredients – flour, white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, vanilla beans, pumpkin, pumpkin spice, evaporated milk, and apples. Lord, the apples. They were all shiny, clean, and ready for peeling. She had two types, Granny Smith and Red Delicious, and I was ready to eat them.
Instead, Mom let me lead the charge, so to speak.
"Okay, my little Libby, what would you like to make?" she asked. "A green apple pie, a red apple pie, or a combination?"
"A COMBINATIOM!" I bellowed. I had a bit of a hard time with word ending 'Ms' and 'Ns' back then. Like, I even called M&Ms M&Ns.
"Alrighty! I'll peel by hand, and you'll use the corer." she said, plopping it down in front of me. "Ya' remember how to use it, right?"
"YES!" I screamed.
I couldn't contain my excitement. I fucking loved the apple corer/peeler. You stabbed the apple in the little butt part, then turned the crank to peel it in one, long ribbon. I could've done it all day long, man, I swear. It was fun. It was a real treat. Maybe even more so than the pie! And we never wasted the peels. Mom would cut them into strips and lightly bake them in cinnamon and sugar for Dad, because it was something his Mom used to do.
So, Mom and I peeled the hell out of our apples, chatting about everything and nothing. She'd sing along to the radio, and I'd try to join her, even when I didn't know the song... and I thought it was so cool watching her peel her apples, because she was doing them in a long ribbon as well, but was just using her hands and a knife.
She peeled potatoes the same way.
Anyway, after that, we sliced the apples. She had me slowly, carefully cut them all in fourths, then did the finer slicing from there herself. She said I wasn't quite ready for those more refined kinds of knife maneuvers yet, which initially bummed me out a bit, but, honestly, I realized that she was trusting me to do a lot of other stuff that was pretty high level for a four year old, so I got over it pretty quickly.
Once the peeling/slicing was out of the way, she got a big mixing bowl down from the cabinet, and we plunked all the apple slices into it. Then Mom reached in and mixed them up a bit in order to get a more even distribution between the two types of apples. When she was done with that, she handed me the cinnamon (already open on the shaker side) and slid the apple bowl in front of me.
"Ready for a little fun?" she asked, grinning from ear to ear like I wasn't already having a blast. I was having such a blast, in fact, that I just nodded and bugged my eyes out. I couldn't find any words for her. Just shallow, excited breaths. It was probably a lot like the [heavy breathing] cat, quite honestly.
"I want you to shake that thing into those apples like a crazy person 'til I tell ya' to stop, okay?" Mom beamed.
"OKAY!" I squealed, standing up on the chair, almost immediately starting to shake.
"WAIT! WAIT!" Mom demanded, stopping me in my tracks. "Wait 'til I say!"
I looked her in the eyes, squinting like Clint fucking Eastwood, and she just cocked one eyebrow, slowly raising her hand in the air.
"Readyyyyyyy!" she drawled.
I snapped my attention back to the apples.
"Seeeeeeeeeet!" she continued.
I gripped the cinnamon shaker with both hands like I was trying to strangle the life out of it. I'm surprised I didn't pop the top right off the fucking thing.
"GO!" Mom bellowed, whipping her arm down like a racing flag.
And go I did indeed.
I shook that damn thing as hard and fast as my little arms could manage, but not all that much came out. Clearly Mom knew that would be the case, but she just wanted to have the game as much as I did.
"Okaaaaaaayyy..." she started, trailing off and focusing on the little ant hill of cinnamon I was building. "STOP!"
"Alrighty, Lib. Put that down, and study that pile." Mom ordered.
I did as I was told, soaking in as many details about it as I could – its relative height to the pile of apples, to the bowl itself, how big around it was at the bottom, and how it sort of thinned out like a traffic cone as it built to its tip.
"For a full pie's worth of apples, you want exactly that much cinnamon every time, okay? No more, no less." she said.
"Okay!" I agreed.
We played that game for the nutmeg and both kinds of sugar, and each time, she'd stop me and have me examine how much of each thing I'd added. Sometimes she'd say 'no more, no less', and sometimes she'd say 'a little more won't kill anyone' in her usual sweet snicker. She'd also let me mix each ingredient in before I added the next. I mean, looking back, she was giving me way more freedom than I felt like I'd earned.
Anyway, finally, it was time to make the crust.
"Okay, sweetie, I want ya' to pay extra close attention to what Mommy's doing." Mom said.
I agreed, then she showed me step by step how to put together the perfect pie crust. However, I won't be getting into that, because it's a family secret. I'll just say that the special ingredient was always love, and leave it at that for now, okay? Okay.
After she walked me through building a second crust (hers was for the pumpkin pie), we then played rock, paper, scissors, cross to see who got to add the smiley face to which pie. I have to mention that the cross was something she and her brother used to use when they'd play rock, paper, scissors, because it 'trumped all other objects with its holy might' - Mom's words. They had a rule that they each could only use the cross once every five games, because it was basically an instant win.
Back on track, our game that morning determined that I got the apple pie, and she got the pumpkin (though I suspect she purposefully threw the game in my favor). Before we set the top crust on the apple pie, however, she kneaded out the dough and showed me how to carve my smiley face into it, should that be my choice. And though I enjoyed (and absolutely logged) that method, I told her I wanted to bake in mine.
So, she showed me how to pinch the crusts closed, then, on a spare pieces of dough, she showed me how to butter it juuuust right so that my artwork would show up through the baking, stressing that I should try to keep it simple. Then, I did my drawing in secret (she wasn't allowed to see it), and we placed our perfectly produced pies in the oven to bake. Dad and I handled watching them as, again, Mom wasn't allowed to see the pie face until it was ready to eat, and she respected my wishes, though I did catch her trying to take a peek a couple of times.
And what was the face, you may ask?
It was a screaming, scared face, with boogers coming out of its nose and tears coming out of its eyes, of course. Mom laughed about it pretty much all weekend, taking a bunch of pictures of it and making extra sure that all of our guests got to see it in real time before she cut into it.
So, somewhat needless to say, I got pretty good at cooking/baking fairly early on, but was always, always, always supervised, much to my chagrin. This was because I'd still sometimes manage to make a few dumb, little kid mistakes.
For instance (and this is way off track from apple pie, but whatever), one morning, just a couple weeks after Pie Day, I snuck downstairs to attempt to make Mom's French toast (which I need to stress is probably the singular, most important thing Mom would make, and is the thing I'm happiest to've learned). And I got it all almost perfect, but when it came time to add the powdered sugar, I kinda fucked up and may have used baking powder instead. Also, since the world is a dark and cruel place, I only had enough of that 'powdered sugar' for one plate, and that plate went to Mom (Dad preferred his without the sugar, and I was happy to make the sacrifice for Mom).
I didn't catch my mistake though, obviously, otherwise there'd be no point in telling you this story. Nope, I just gathered our plates to start setting the table like everything was peachy fucking keen. When I turned, I saw Dad sitting at his usual place (the one with the best view of every way in and out of the room), reading the paper. Well, pretending to, anyway. He was actually watching me like a hawk.
You don't get away with shit with a detective Dad.
"G'MORNING!" I bellowed, sliding one of the plain plates in front of him.
"Good morning." Dad replied, folding his paper and slapping it down on the counter space closest to him. "Why the hell're you cooking all alone?"
"I... I wanted to make breakfast for everyone." I said, my voice shrinking as I spoke.
Dad looked understandably miffed, but before he could really read me the riot act, Mom popped into the kitchen. She was still in wakeup mode. She didn't even have her glasses on, so her eyes looked really tiny and squinty and adorable, like a little cartoon mole (or, as I would've said back then, 'cartoom').
"What smells so yummyyyyy?" Mom asked, her words morphing into a yawn.
"Elizabeth made breakfast." Dad replied.
"All by yourself!?" Mom gasped, bugging her eyes out at me.
"YUP!" I beamed.
She looked over at her doting husband.
"I was here the whole time." Dad defended. "Almost."
Mom just grinned and looked over the spread on the table - Each of us had two, full pieces of toast (cut diagonally, because triangles are the superior sliced bread formation), two sausage links, a modest pile of scrambled eggs, and a glass of Tang. We had Tang because Mom couldn't have orange juice. The acidity would fuck her guts up. I don't think I had real orange juice until I was, like, ten or something.
Anyhow, she was so proud of the work I did that she just gawked for a while, practically frozen in place.
"Well? Don't let it get cold, damn it!" I squawked.
"Sorry, Lib!" Mom snickered, beaming ash she took her usual seat. "I. Am. Impressed!"
"Thank you, Mommy!" I cheered, already digging in.
Before she ate a bite, Mom bowed her head in silent prayer, as always, then started in on her food. She cut off a fairly decent sized chunk of toast and packed it in. As she chewed and swallowed it, she made sort of a funny face, then she cleared her throat and took a large gulp from her glass of Tang.
"Reg, taste it with the sugar." Mom said, forking a piece at Dad. He obliged, but (unlike Mom) didn't change his appearance one bit. That man's poker face is unmatched. "Isn't it great!?"
"I might have to start taking mine with sugar." Dad replied, shooting me a wink as he reached over to take Mom's plate. Trying to spare her the wretched breakfast she had in front of her.
"Uh uh. Hands off, buster!" Mom chided, flicking his hand. "This one's mine!"
"Suit yourself." Dad said, shrugging slightly.
"Lib, honey, can you please pass me the syrup?" Mom asked.
Of course, I gleefully obliged, and she applied a very generous amount then proceeded to eat every single fucking bite of that horror show French toast. No. Calling that atrocity French toast is an insult to Mom, to all toast, and to the French people. It was... I dunno, Fronch toest, maybe? We'll go with that. It sounds disgusting enough.
After we ate, I set about cleaning up.
Mom tried to help but I told her to back the fuck off, because it was my job to clean up the mess I made, and no-one else's - something both my parents drilled into me as long as I could remember. And it was while I cleaned that mess that I realized my mistake. When I went to toss the little bag, I noticed that it said 'baking powder' on it, not 'powdered sugar'. I must've just seen the word 'powder' and assumed like a jackass.
Now, in my defense, Mom always bagged the majority of her baking ingredients and wrote in the date and contents herself. The only things that stayed in their original containers were things that had shakers built in or things that needed a box. Everything else was bagged.
The point is that I royally fucking borked that otherwise perfect breakfast, and Mom never once let on that she knew. She just choked it down because she didn't want to hurt my feelings, proving once again that this shitty fucking world didn't deserve Maryanne Harper one bit.
Anyway, I made a pact with myself to impart the same cooking lessons in the hearts and minds of my own children one day, and that's exactly what I've done... though my little Natty-Z knows the differences between all the white powders in the cabinet. Even the anthrax I got for her Dad.
Don't test me, Sean.