On Family Gatherings and Eating Out of Cans

We gather at my parent’s home these days, bringing the food in to them. They are both quite elderly, and their cooking skills/inclination to use the stove have declined along with their health. I can see vestiges of this starting for myself already. After years of shopping lists, menu planning and cooking meat/veg/starch meals for a family of five, I’m more apt to just bake a potato. Or open a can of soup.

I’m partial to both tomato and chicken noodle soups from Campbells. I used to love Chicken and Stars, but the stars are too small now, and it’s often hard to find. Yes, I enjoy making my own soup, especially in the fall and winter, but sometimes it’s just nice to open a can. They even have those pop-top ones now, as if the soup was masquerading as a can of soda.

My fondness for Campbells stems from the hot lunches mom would give me when I walked home for lunch during grade school back a million years ago. She wasn’t much of a cook back then. I got meals from a can often. If my parents went out to dinner, they’d give me Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli or Beefaroni. On especially special evenings, it would be Ravioli-o’s or even Dinty Moore beef stew.

I didn’t mind, really. It was clear, even at a young age, that cooking wasn’t on my mom’s list of things she enjoyed. She’d been an ice skater with Holiday on Ice, and toured the world, so ate everything out of a can heated over a hotplate herself. We often ate the same dinner four or five times a week when I grew up as she marched through the freezer. Dad would regularly buy a quarter of a cow from the 4H club, so I grew up eating beef, beef, and more beef. Salad with oil and vinegar dressing, rice or potatoes, and the meat.

Dad would cook dinner sometimes on the weekend. He came from his mother’s style of cooking which was to toss meat into a big cast-iron skillet with a chunk of the lard they kept on the back of the stove in an old coffee can and fry it until it was black and “done.” Everything else was boiled to death, or from a jar in the cellar that’d been put up the summer before. Corn, peas, beans. But at the end of the meal, there was always pie or cake or sometimes hand-cranked ice cream. No wonder he grew up loving sweets and bakeries.

I’ve inherited those loves, along with my grandmother’s knack for baking.

I also admit to tossing things in a big pan and cooking them, but there are more vegetables involved. Usually.

This past Sunday was a celebration of some good work news for one of our number, and a farewell to two others. Our younger son and his girlfriend are moving to Washington, DC in mid-May, but there are lots of things in between, so Sunday lunch was really the only space they had to let my parents know what was happening.

Dementia is slowly wending its way through both of them, so we’ve found its best to keep things as status quo as long as we can before telling them anything is going to change in their world.

Then we tell them again as often as we need to. It’s just the way of things now.

So, we all brought the food in, a brunch of eggs and bacon and fruit and croissants and coffee. We bring our coffee pot over along with beans and a grinder because dad hates coffee. “Vile black boiled water,” he’ll say. He gives a guttural ugh sound to go with it every time. Mom, again going back to being on the road for years, likes instant coffee best. Two spoonfuls in a cup, and then hot water from the tap is her start of every day.

It’s kind of nice and easy, really. Everyone brings something and we clean up after. The folks are good for about two hours of people and conversation, but then they are worn out, and it’s time for us to go.

This past Sunday we continued our time with the boys and their gals after the meal at my parent’s house at the farmer’s market here in Dallas. It was cool and breezy and threatening rain. We didn’t care; we had a nice time wandering and looking and talking to people with dogs. We miss our dog. Sat inside and had a beverage and talked some more.

I’ll miss our son and his girlfriend when they go, and I’m not-so-secretly jealous of their move to DC, but I know we’ll continue to have meals together as we can. We’ll cook for them for a long time to come. Feeding people is our love language. But we promise to keep what comes out of cans to a minimum.

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!