ON RHUBARB PIE

ON RHUBARB PIE

Hands up if you’ve ever had rhubarb pie. It’s been a favorite of mine for years, a sweet-tart combination that creates cravings for seconds. I made two for Father’s Day, per my Dad’s request. He’s an old Iowa farm boy at heart, and has a predilection for things cooked in lard, ”salads” that have nary a leaf of lettuce in them, and of course, pie. I was surprised by two things; the first was that no one else in my extended family had ever had rhubarb cooked in any fashion, let alone in a pie, and secondly how difficult rhubarb was to find in a store.

This unfamiliarity could be for a couple of reasons. Let’s face it, I bet you thought, “That must be a weird pie,” when you read the title of this week’s musing. Rhubarb does have an old-timey feel to it, like it might show up in the same place you’d try sarsaparilla soda for the first time. Or black licorice, or jujubes. Secondly, it’s a poisonous plant. Not the part I put in my pie, of course. The leaves are spectacularly poisonous though, and if you ate a bunch of them you’d give yourself kidney failure. So, you know, not the kind of thing you plant if you have kids around. Or adults that don’t read enough. However, if you are from the upper Midwest, you know rhubarb well. It used to show up on the dessert table at the spreads my Great Aunt Carrie would put on for the after-church Sunday supper, alongside of ubiquitous apple, and blueberry when it was in season. All lattice-work, double-crust, 9”, and 100% homemade, I might add. Fancy pies, served out of glass pie plates that had been handed down.

Rhubarb grew like a weed where I grew up near the banks of the mighty Mississippi river in Iowa. A bed of it occupied the very lowest portion of our yard, and every summer the tall, red stalks with their very poisonous leaves would crop up, even if the grapes and tomatoes had a bad year. Rhubarb didn’t care if the winter had been harsh, or the spring dry. It just cracked its knuckles and asked us to hold its beer while it grew and grew and grew.

We had an extensive garden that sloped downhill from our rental house. We grew both flowers and vegetables. The rhubarb had been there before we took over the place, and is probably there to this day. One year my father tried to dig it out so we could plant lettuces, but it muscled its way back the following spring. Equally tough were the blackberries on the back fence. They grew fast and attracted blackbirds from miles around as they ripened. The birds would sit in the trees above, discontented bundles of black feathers, puffing themselves up to squawk at you when you were sent out with a bucket and gloves to gather the ripe ones. You really needed the gloves, the thorns on blackberry vines are long and sharp.

At the very top of this backyard was a narrow strip of land that dad would freeze over so we could ice skate back there when winter came, hard and long as it does in Iowa. The slope down the rest of the property was steep enough that we sledded on it in the winter. At the very bottom of the yard was an old barbed-wire fence (the one the blackberries grew on), rusted to a red patina, eager to give you tetanus if you’d let it. On the far side of that fence was a large piece of land given entirely over to apple trees. The neighbor who owned it had a dim view of a pack kindergarten-aged children raiding his apple trees daily, but even his vigorous waving of a pellet gun and an occasional firing of it didn’t deter us.

How I ever survived childhood is a mystery.

Here’s the easy recipe for rhubarb pie I used. It’s 3 ingredients, and comes from an old Iowa Methodist Women’s cookbook from the 1950’s. Back then, they used lard for everything, including the pie crusts. Crisco might make an appearance if they were progressives. Lard is simply rendered hog fat, and it lived on the back of the stove in an old coffee can, ready to scoop out as needed. I was taught to bake using lard. I’ve mended my ways now. For the Father’s Day pies, I saved myself the aggravation of making crust, and just used ready-made. If you also choose that option, you’ll have made homemade pie in less than an hour, which impresses people. It can be our little secret that we both cheated.

Before you start:

Pro Tip #1: Rhubarb is a weed. It is not worth $8 per pound as one elite market had it priced this past week. I don’t care how organic it was. $1 per pound is about right. 1 pound is about one cup, and you want the stalks that are a bit more bendy and tender, even if they shade to mottled green at the bottom of the stalks. I do try and select some deep red stalks, as they get your pie to an authentic color without resorting to food coloring. Pro Tip #2: Be sure to NOT have any of the green leafy part in your chop, as I mentioned above, its poisonous. Who figured that one out, I wonder? The dead guy, probably.

This is for a single 9” pie. You should double it and make two pies, because people who have never had rhubarb pie will first ask for a small piece, as they are being polite and trying your weird pie. Then they want seconds because it’s absolutely delicious.

RHUBARB PIE

4 ½ cups chopped rhubarb. Big chop, little chop, doesn’t matter.

1 1/3 cups sugar

6 Tablespoons flour

Optional: 1 T butter, dotted on top before top crust put on.

Preheat oven to 450. Put bottom crust in a pie tin. Mix sugar and flour together, and put 1/3 of the mixture on bottom of the pie. Put in your chopped rhubarb. Pour the rest of the flour/sugar mix on top, and dot with cut up butter if you wish. Put top of pie on, seal edges, do some slashes so steam can come out. If you are being fancy, do a lattice top weave, and then you don’t need to worry about slashes.

I know you want to mix the rhubarb with the flour/sugar mix, but don’t. That will give you soggy pie. Done as directed, the sugar caramelizes on the top and bottom, and stops soggy crust.

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Put your pie pan on a baking sheet, as it will always bubble over, and you don’t want that sticky mess inside your oven. Bake at 450 on lowest rack of oven for 15 minutes. Turn heat down to 350 and bake for another 40-45 minutes. You MAY need to put foil on the edges of crust, so they don’t burn towards the end, just take a peek and see if you need to about 15 minutes before pie is done.

Rhubarb pie can sit out on your counter with no danger of it going bad. I think its best at room temperature. And a scoop of vanilla ice cream alongside it is a very positive choice. Enjoy!

On George Mason and Traveling Mercies

On George Mason and Traveling Mercies

In my last entry I made a grave error. In talking about visiting the monument to the “forgotten patriot” George Mason I forgot what his name was mangled his name, and called him James Madison. Madison was of course the 4th President of the USA. Yes, I had to look that up.

In penance for my transgression, here is a brief overview: Mason was a Virginia landowner of vast estates who had a hot temper and loved wine. He was the father of nine living children, and one of the oldest politicians at the Continental Congress. The main reason he was “forgotten” is because he’s one of three men at the Continental Congress to refuse to sign the Constitution. He felt it didn’t go far enough, and wanted an end to slavery right away. His work on amending the constitution eventually became the basis of our current Bill of Rights. He completely pissed off his once good friend and neighbor George Washington because of his refusal to sign, and both men were pig-headed enough to never reconcile. His writing on individual human rights also greatly influenced Lafayette’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” early in the French Revolution – in fact, the resemblance is so close, you could call plagiarism and not be off the mark. There’s a bas-relief of Mason in the chamber of the US House of Representatives. It’s located above and to the right of the speaker’s chair; he and Jefferson are the only Americans recognized there, in company with great lawmakers across the ages.

So, mea culpa, Mr. George Mason. You do have one of those names though… just saying.

Now as promised in my last blog, on to our misadventures with VRBO and Airbnb. Disclaimer: Prior to this trip, I’ve never had issues with either.

Here’s what happened:

Our first DC rental through VRBO was a gorgeous brownstone off Logan Circle. Great location, three stories, built in 1879, renovated with style. Plenty of room for the six of us, and a claw-foot bathtub. I’d booked it as soon as we found out the cancelled 2020 GWU graduation might happen in May of 2021. So I reserved it 10 months ahead of time. Paid the deposit. All good.

Then came May of 2021, 15 days out from our arrival. We paid the balance due. All good. I communicated with the host via email to check and see if there was a blender on the property. Got a nice reply of “well if there isn’t one, we’ll get you one.” Wonderful!

Then.

SIX DAYS before we were to arrive, (and all six of us had our plane tickets of course), BING my phone indicates an email has arrived. I look at it, look at it again, and burst into hysterics. Why? Because the HOST HAD PULLED THE UNIT FROM THE RENTAL PROGRAM.

Yep. I didn’t know they could do that either if all your money was paid. I checked. Oh, yes they can. VRBO returned our money, and even suggested (bad suggestions) two places we could squeeze the six of us into. But we were in trouble. Even though at this point GWU had postponed their in-person graduation again, lots of other colleges with thousands of kids graduating in the DC area hadn’t. And the Smithsonian museums picked that weekend to start reopening. There weren’t a lot of places for six people to stay on such short notice.

Our son found one, however, which leads me to my next horror story, this one about Airbnb, specifically a company who uses the platform, called Namastay.  I recommend you Namastay away. They own lots of apartments. Don’t use them.

Here’s why: They don’t care about you.

Granted, we had to book quickly, or we would’ve seen the 1-star reviews buried in the comments.

This particular Airbnb was in an apartment building in a changing area, quite close to Union Station in DC. It had a handy Walmart at the base of the building. I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it actually was handy having the Walmart downstairs.

This recently renovated apartment building had a fob to get in the door and make the elevator work. Room keys were electronic. We’d noticed in the comments that Namastay only provided one key and one fob to their unit, no matter that it accommodated six people, who might presumably have different schedules. We were kind of hoping this might’ve changed. No. Oh no. It was worse.

My husband and I arrived in the lobby at 4pm. We said hello to the very lovely front desk receptionist, and let her know we were checking into room 102.

“Oh, that’s Namastay,” she said. “We have so much trouble with them.” If our lives had a handy soundtrack, the music would have gotten scary and dark at this point.

She goes and checks the key/fob situation, as Namastay told us those would be located at the front desk. The receptionist comes back and tells us, “There’s no keys here for that unit.”

Two hours later, pacing the lobby, on the phone with Namastay, who first claim ‘there are a keys, the receptionist hasn’t looked hard enough.’ Then the story changes to ‘the cleaners must have taken it with them,’ and no, they can’t get a hold of them, it’s after 5pm now, and they’re shutting their office. Then the story changes that ‘maybe the cleaners left them in the apartment.’ So the receptionist has to go upstairs and look. No keys.

At this point I’ve pulled up “hotels near me” to see if we can squeeze in somewhere. Not having a lot of luck, as it’s graduation weekend in DC, which of course I KNOW, and why I’d booked our original lodging TEN MONTHS AHEAD OF TIME.

Namastay stops communicating altogether, since you know, they don’t care if we can get into the unit or not. Namastay’s offices are in Memphis, and its drinks time there. The receptionist is about to go off duty. Now there are four of us loitering in the lobby with our suitcases, unsure of what we will do next.

Here’s the good part of this story. The receptionist says, “You know what, DC is my town, and we don’t treat people like this. Hold on.”

She goes in back, has a conversation with the owner of the apartment building, who agrees with her that it’s just rotten that Namastay is doing nothing to help. She comes back with two brown-paper wrapped key cards. “These are what our maintenance men use. We’re going to trust you with them until the Airbnb people can straighten this out.”

So there it is. We ended up having a great time in DC on this trip. We experienced travelling mercies in the form of a kind, thoughtful, vacation-saving receptionist. But now you know why we will be hard pressed to ever chance VRBO or Airbnb again. I bet if George Mason had been around, he would’ve given them each a sound tongue-thrashing and a thump of his cane.

On Eating and Walking in Washington, DC

On Eating and Walking in Washington, DC

This past week my family and I flew into DC for our son’s graduation from his Master’s Program at GWU. Just like last year for his undergrad degree, there was no actual ceremony, but we gathered all the same, getting an Airbnb that was problematic but in a good location. More on the dangers of renting on VRBO or Airbnb in another post. Suffice it to say that NEVER AGAIN will we rent from either one, and that had it not been for the kind intervention of a lobby receptionist, we would have been scrambling for a place to stay.

After our rocky start, it was a wonderful odyssey of being together while eating and walking, with the occasional Metro ride or Lyft thrown in the mix. We’ve all been to DC multiple times and its one of our favorite cities; the monuments and museums, the diversity of neighborhoods, and of course the great restaurants.

A highlight of the trip was being some of the first to step back into the National Portrait Gallery and the American Museum of Art. They have huge collections thoughtfully curated. I always appreciate plenty of cushy places to sit down and contemplate art, and these museums (they are attached and flow into one another) have plenty. In the center of the two is a huge rectangular atrium with flowing water and lots of orchids. Do try and make your way up to the third floor where the conservationists work behind glass, like a zoo exhibit.

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This trip we walked from the Mall around the tidal basin, and saw the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials, along with the “forgotten” patriot, James Madison. They were right, I didn’t know who he was – without really saying so, the memorial lets you know that Mr. Jefferson cribbed a lot of his material from Mr. Madison. I found the Jefferson to be disappointing. As one of our party said, it seems to be last on the list to get repaired. There’s a small museum underneath the giant rotunda. You take a very slow, creepy elevator down. It takes so long that you start to wonder if you will end up trapped and entombed there yourself. The museum (when the elevator door finally opens) is dingy, sparse, with a sad little gift shop. The poor clerk in there was so happy to see people. We bought magnets out of pity.

The FDR monument is fantastic. It is completely outdoors, and is built with giant blocks of stone. Water was planned to move through the whole thing, but that seemed to be a repair that has been indefinitely on hold as well. Bronze statues and carved paragraphs highlight the events and words (All we have to fear is fear itself) of his four terms in office. I was struck by something Eleanor said about him – that it was his disease that gave him both the compassion and the resilience to become the President we needed.

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MLKs monument makes it look like he is striding out of a mountain and it has his wonderful words and thoughts carved into the walls surrounding it. The whole walk around the basin was pleasant and not too strenuous. That said, we were walking an average of 20,000+ steps a day (roughly 10 miles a day) so you might want to take that last sentence with a grain of salt.

Another jaunt was to Georgetown and the oodles of cute townhouses all snugged up against one another, painted in various colors. The waterfront was enjoyable, if a bit stinky, and I finally got to cross off a bucket list item – climbing up the 75 steep “Exorcist Stairs.”

Taken by my son Steven, who had run up ahead of me. Show off.

We had our share of coffees and snacks as we did our walks, and ate at local faves such as the Old Ebbitt Grill by the White House. It’s a stuffy dark wood place where I had a great Caesar Salad. We also popped up to Union Market where you can get your choice of street food. My kids opted for Miso soup and a tasty breakfast, while my husband and I shared a really good eggplant parm sandwich.

Other tasty places were Poets and Busboys (hint: get the Vegan Nachos and share – they are pictured at up top) and the fun Fisher’s Farmers Bakers by the waterfront where I had the most delicious sandwich of Brie, Avocado, and Roasted Veggies on a fantastic apple walnut raisin bread. I did not share. Don’t forget to grab some chocolate there too – they sell it by the half pound. However, highlights of the eating portion of this trip were all found by our graduate. He picked several winners. The first was chef Jose Andres’ Zaytinya, which featured Mediterranean mezze plates and fortified sangria. We shared plates, ate, and talked for three hours as the staff whisked away empty plates and replaced them with more tasty bites and an endless supply of flatbread. I’ll dream of the lemon sorbet for a long time.

The second was located just off of the DuPont Metro stop, Mission, which had a fun bar scene vibe, and lots of outdoor seating if you wished it. The food was tasty tacos (the vegan mushroom ones were outstanding) as well as some good sizzling fajita platters. You are not going there for the service, or the comfortable seating, so just enjoy your tangy margaritas and the company.

The topper for me was our final fancy meal, at Rasika. It’s Indian food to the nth degree. Stunningly delicious food and impeccable service made this my favorite meal. I even hopped off my vegetarian diet to have the Halibut Malai in creamy yellow curry as my main dish. I love a good curry, and this was by far the best I’ve ever eaten. It came with its own side of fluffy basmati rice. The kids all had super spicy dishes that made my nostrils quiver, such as Lamb Mirchi Korma, and Chicken Tikka Masala. Sides included delicious truffle Naan and a variety of chutneys. If you go you MUST get the side dish of the crispy spinach called Palak Chaat.* Palak, I learned from our quirky waiter, is a type of spinach you can find at Asian markets. I’d fly back to DC just for that dish. We went all out on the desserts here, sampling a black rice pudding with an edible silver garnish (ooo lala) and a spectacular apple/cardamom sorbet.

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Needless to say, with all that eating, it was a good thing we clocked about 60 miles of walking on our 6-day trip. Side note: folks seem ready to travel, the planes and airports were packed. And even though we had our shot cards laminated and ready to show if asked, nobody did.

*Here is a version of the Chaat from THE CURRY GUY: just click the link to get to it.

 Spinach Chaat | Crispy Spinach Snack THE CURRY GUY (greatcurryrecipes.net)

On Perfect Moments and New Phones

On Perfect Moments and New Phones

My new phone is passive aggressive. It supposedly uses facial technology to open. Or that’s the idea anyway. Sometimes it “recognizes me,” but mostly I get “no match” when I stare into its heartless little lens for facial recognition. Doesn’t matter if I give it a stink-eye either. Time after time I’m forced to plug in my PIN to get access to this possession that seems to own me, rather than the other way around.

I am overly dependent on my phone. The landline was cut long ago, and my computer is also being uncooperative these days, so I’m forced to use the phone and all its glorious apps for multiple things. Interestingly, I hardly ever use my phone as an actual phone. I take more pictures with it than calls. Once it grudgingly opens, the suspicious little phone takes lovely snaps, but there are days that I miss the delayed gratification of taking a picture and not knowing if it turned out okay until I take ALL the pictures on the roll, then get it to a developer.

When the kids were small, 15 or so years ago, we’d take our film to Costco to be developed and get doubles of everything, not knowing what would be good and what would not be, and to include the better extras in letters (!) to my parents. Even back then, ruffling through the giant bin of developed photos belonging to multiple people, I marveled at the trust inherent in that just-leave-it-out process. I mean, I could’ve grabbed someone else’s photos no problem, and the same could have happened to us, but there was never an issue. We didn’t want those other people’s photos, just ours thanks.

I’ve been attempting to purposely break free from technology since the start of the year. Maybe the phone knows this, and its non-admittance is its form of a sit-in. Long walks and swims help, but I still find myself called back to the screen more often than is properly healthy. I did have a perfect moment of peace the other day. I was sitting on our couch in the late afternoon with a cup of tea, reading a mindless novel (oh okay, you will totally judge me for this but it’s Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer, the whole Twilight saga from Edward’s point of view.) I was neither tired nor hungry nor thirsty, nor hot or cold. The window was open, and a cool breeze lightly ruffled the fluffy edges of our single blanket that survived The Fire four years and two weeks ago.* I could hear the light tinkle of the neighbor’s wind chimes. Someone had started cooking their curry for dinner, that wonderful scent just a whisper in the air.  At my feet my old dog, who is still hanging in there, was snoring in her contented old-dog way. In our own kitchen, I could hear the sounds of our youngest son prepping to make dinner, the dim music from his earbuds leaking through as he pulled out pots and pans. I breathed in, and out, and watched the edges of the blanket move gently in the breeze, and for that bit of time, all was well.  I recognized it for what it was, an exquisite moment from the gift of life and savored it. I remembered a bit from the classic play “Our Town” where the dead warn Emily to pick an ordinary day to return to, not an important one, that the pain of the beauty of an ordinary day would be almost too much to bear. I hadn’t fully understood that warning before, but in that moment, I did.

I pay a price for them, though. Soon after they happen I am gripped with anxiety that something in that peaceful picture will be ripped away from me soon. It’s the aftermath of The Fire, this belief that at all good things will be taken away. It comes along less often than it used to. Time does heal. Maybe it’s time I take a cue from my phone, and when those thoughts arise, firmly state, “No Match,” and refuse to let them in. Not even if they give me the stink-eye.

*ON SALE! You can read in detail about The Fire and donate to animal shelters at the same time! “On Rescue Dogs and Losing Everything is available on Amazon in both kindle and paperback – its part of Kindle Unlimited at the moment and discounted too!

 Amazon.com: On Rescue Dogs and Losing Everything: Uncovering Resilience and Finding Joy after Disaster Strikes eBook: Upton Bracey, Stacey: Kindle Store