On Valentine’s Day Then and Now 

Growing up in the 60s and 70s in the Midwest meant that my friends and I had childhoods unfettered by screens. There were only three television channels until PBS came along. No such thing as home computers for a decade or so yet, and phones were attached to the wall.

Not to wax too nostalgic, but it felt to me as if there was more time and more freedom for us at a younger age. I was judged to be old enough to walk to school by myself at the start of first grade. It was just seven short blocks down to the grade school and the Junior High (as we called it then) was right next to it. Some days I’d walk home for lunch. 

For three years in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, I was pulled out of that easy walk to go to a different school, an accelerated learning program or ALC school that was a bit further away, next to the community pool that only charged 25 cents to get in and 25 cents for a locker and a place to stay cool and wet during the long summer days in Wichita, Kansas. It was also around the corner from where the BTK killer nabbed some of his victims, but we didn’t know about such things back then. 

I had a red Schwinn bike with basket panniers on the back that I rode to get to school at the ALC, which would take me about 15 minutes. I’d ride three blocks on a side street, take the “bumpty sidewalk,” so called for all the trees that had nudged their roots under the cement, down two blocks to the main street, then a left and up a couple more blocks to the big intersection. Back then there was a grocery store on one side where I’d buy a Marathon bar or a Bit O’Honey when I had enough change scrounged up. Across from that was the Sinclair gas station with a green Brontosaurus for their sign. The attendants came out to fill your car and wipe down the windows for you. I don’t remember what the third corner was, and on the fourth were grassy fields and a barn with horses. Riding past all that another long block or two was the school. I rode back home for lunch many days for chicken and stars soup. We must have had an hour for lunch, I don’t know how I’d have made it otherwise. 

The ALC was a small group of 20 or so “smart kids” nested into a larger population of “normal kids,” which led to some fairly fraught encounters on the playground. I made lifetime friends in ALC, and still communicate with many of them. We had great teachers, read Homer in 4th grade, learned to type, went on spectacular field trips, learned Spanish from a teacher most of us detested, and ran around the backstops as part of gym class, which most of us also detested. 

Valentine’s Day at that school was also fraught with tension for me. We made pockets out of manila folders and decorated them with our name on them. These were taped below the chalkboard (oh, the smell of chalk! And the squeak of chalk!) at the front of the class about a week before Valentine’s Day. The envelopes were supposed to be for all the Valentine’s cards and candy our classmates gave us. We’d have a party with punch and cookies and open them. 

You could make the Valentines, or you could buy them at the store. By 6th grade, most were buying them. My mom came from England, and didn’t quite understand the idea that we could just buy pre-made valentines, so I ended up making mine every year. Being an egalitarian-leaning person even back then, perhaps fueled by my own deep understanding of loneliness and being left out, I always made one for everyone. I’d get red and pink and white construction paper and big white paper doilies and cut them into triple hearts with “lacy” edging scavanged from the doilies and write something nice on them. One for everyone. Maybe even glue a red dye #2 hard candy heart (wrapped in cellophane) to the center of it too. 

I was always sure I wouldn’t get anything in my envelope. It was awful, seeing other kids’ containers filling up while mine stayed pretty flat as the week rolled around. My good friends came through, of course, with cards, as well as some of the kids whose parents made them do a Valentine for everyone. 

My dear friend Laura, who saved my sanity throughout those ALC years, and continues to do so to this day, sent me a Valentine this year. I love it. 

Valentine’s Day has lost its power to make me feel less than these days. My husband and I got married ten days after Valentine’s Day, and that has replaced the “romantic” February celebration. These days I like to bake for the family to celebrate the day. I made sugar cookies this year. I’ve given you the recipe before, but here it is again. It makes a sturdy cookie that is close to shortbread in flavor and delicate mouth crumble. If you want just plain cookies, be sure to sprinkle sugar on them the moment they come out of the oven, and press it in while the cookies are still warm. I prefer to putter about with royal icing, recipe for that is below as well. As for the dubious artistry, well, it really is the thought that counts, right?

 

THICK SUGAR COOKIE RECIPE 

This makes somewhere between 18-24 cookies, depending on how big your cutter is, and how thick your cookies are. I aim for about a quarter inch thick. It gives the cookies a good strong base for the icing. 

3 cups flour 

½ teaspoon salt 

1 cup butter, room temperature 

1 cup sugar 

1 large egg, room temperature 

1 heaping teaspoon baking powder 

1 Tablespoon vanilla, it’s okay if a little more splashes in there. 

Cream the butter and sugar together until creamy, add the egg and vanilla and mix. Sift the flour and salt together and add in three batches. The dough will be a bit crumbly at first. Knead and shape into a disk. Put in fridge overnight or at least 4 hours before rolling out. I take mine out about a half hour before I want to roll it. 

Bake at 375 for 10-11 minutes (turn sheet midway), the edges will just be looking slightly golden. Cool on sheet for 5 minutes and then on a rack.  

ROYAL ICING 

Make sure your cookies are completely cool. Sift together 4 cups of confectioner’s sugar, 3 Tablespoons of Meringue Powder (it’s a magic ingredient, no more separating egg whites!) and about 3-4 Tablespoons of warm water. Mix to get a thick paste with a fork, and then beat with a mixer, roughly 10 minutes on high. Add water or confectioner’s sugar to get the consistency you want for icing. I use Americolor gel paste for my colors. A little goes a long way. Your hands might become a bit colorful for a while, but it washes off after 4-5 good scrubs. 

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.

.

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!