On First Jobs and Marigolds

I love the cheery faces of marigolds. They don’t seem to mind the sweltering heat that has decided to stay for a while here in Texas (and I think everywhere else on the planet).

I plant marigolds whenever I can, either as just pops of yellow and gold decoration in a planter, or as a bug deterrent next to tomato plants. It really does seem to work. Pests like whiteflies and disgusting tomato worms seem to not like the strong, peppery scent marigolds give off. They also keep your soil healthy. I am a gardener at heart.

I’ve occasionally eaten marigolds in salads, but always with a slight tinge of guilt. They are our allies, after all.

My very first job at eight years old was snapping the dead heads off of marigolds in front of my father’s downtown office. If you snap off the dead heads, they continue to grow and produce more flowers. The same thing is true of basil, by the way. If you want delicious leaves to add to your meals or make into pesto, don’t let the little white blossom heads linger, just snap ‘em off. The plant seems happier too.

I have vivid memories of taking a large white bucket and wearing a sun hat and working in those front beds in the early morning hours while it was still relatively cool. The clods of dark earth usually had plenty of worms, but they’ve never bothered me. It was relaxing, moving from flower to flower, taking off the finished blooms, leaving the rest to flourish. That peppery scent, the satisfying snap as another dead head came away. I think my dad paid me a dollar an hour, and it seemed as if I was making all the money in the world.

He thought I might be game to pluck the disgusting, writhing bagworms off of our evergreen hedges for the same price, but not a chance. This girl has her standards. Ugh, it still gives me the heebie-jeebies thinking about them.

I had other under-the-table “first jobs” as well. I started out babysitting at eleven and continued that right up through college in Chicago. Back then, there was a “jobs board” in the dorm, and local parents would drive to fetch you so they could have a night out. I think back then the going rate was $7 or $8 an hour.

I had one family who became regulars. They lived in an enormous, rambling house up on the North Shore. The kind that has a welcoming porch and polished hardwood floors and good art. I sat for them for a couple of years. They had three kids. The oldest was a girl named Oona, who was four when I started sitting for them. She had big dark eyes and an old-soul vibe. She told me on our first meeting that she’d told her mother her name in the womb, and that she was the reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin’s last wife. All the hairs on my arms stood up when she told me this. I believed her.

Her little brother was maybe three, and a terror. He was a climber. One time I was making supper for the kids, and I swear he translocated to the top of the refrigerator in less than five seconds. It was a big fridge. I got him down okay, but I think that was when my first grey hair sprouted. Later in life, I had a climber myself, but was ready for it with this early training.

The youngest was a sweet little baby boy, maybe six months old when I first started sitting for them. He always smelled like sweet cereal milk, the last slurp in the bowl of Lucky Charms. He also had enormous brown eyes, but he never got around to telling me if he’d told his mother his name in the womb.

I loved babysitting those kids, once or twice a month, on a Friday or Saturday night if I wasn’t in a show. The dad would come fetch me and make awkward conversation as he drove me up to the house. The mom was one of those effortlessly elegant women who couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative. I thought of the parents as being old back then, but now that I think back, they were probably early 30-somethings. I’d bring my homework (all analog, no computers yet, you wrote your essays longhand, and then typed them out) to do when the kids were asleep.

The parents would head out around five-thirty. I’d feed the kids dinner, let them play with their toys for a while, and then at 7pm, it was story time. The parents had ALL the books, so we read “Frog and Toad,” and “Babar the Elephant,” as well as the Berenstain Bears, and Dr. Seuss stories. Then came my secret sauce. I’d let them tell me what they’d like a story about, and I’d make a new one up just for them. They loved it, I loved it. I’d hold the baby on my lap, while the other two leaned in on either side of me under a soft Afghan on the big leather couch in their den.

They’d head to bed by 8, not without a bit of a tussle. Water at the bedside, nightlights on, the baby monitor on, doors cracked so that if they needed to, they could call out and I’d be there. I’d do the dinner dishes, and then settle in to do homework until midnight or so when the parents would come home in a swirl of perfume and alcohol. The mom always told me I was the kid’s favorite babysitter, that felt good. They always paid me well, $80 for the night, and then the dad would drive me back to campus, letting out jaw-cracking yawns.

I’ve wondered at times what happened to Oona and her brother and the baby. After graduating, I lost touch with the family. I like to think perhaps the three all grew up healthy and happy, and that they tell their own children stories on big sofas, wrapped up warm and safe.

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!