I didn’t grow up a pie lover. Offered the choice between pie for dessert and no dessert at all, I’d usually opt for the latter. Who are these strange people who long for pie, I’d wonder. Have they been deposited here by aliens who actually like fruit in their desserts? Have they never experienced a gooey brownie?
The pies of my youth were especially unappealing. No one offered me blueberry pie, or cherry pie, both of which looked awesome in Family Circle pictures but apparently couldn’t be had in upstate New York. Instead, we got Quebecois meat pie, which might have been good but was for dinner, not dessert, or, cruelest of all, mincemeat pie, a concoction of all the things kids feel, at best, tepid about. Raisins? Figs? Ginger? Suet? For dessert?! Sorry, I have homework to do.
My grandmother also made something called “tarte au sucre,” or sugar pie, which is, basically, a strong-tasting brown sugar bomb in a shell. In Canada, it was either that or a dry biscuit that was probably OK with coffee, but wasn’t particularly good otherwise. I’d eat sugar pie, though, because it didn’t contain any fruit.
Lately, I’ve emerged from those dark, pieless days thanks to my son, who has demonstrated, via near-daily consumption, the wonders of warm pie with ice cream. Apple pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, or blueberry pie, heated in the microwave until oozing and steamy, with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, is now, in my opinion, a tier-one dessert. This means it ranks up there with chocolate chunk cookies, Texas cake, and my mother’s best (though not original) concoction: caramel brownies.
I can make my way around a kitchen passably when there are mouths to feed, but I’m no chef and readily admit to lacking certain basic competences that French Canadian farmers of my grandmother’s generation would have acquired by the time they turned 13. I excel at pizzas and one-pot meals because they don’t require me to time several different dishes and get them onto plates before my guests have either drunk too much to care about comradely tact, or have already fallen asleep (or both). Roasting a large, dry bird is, relatively speaking, more complicated.
Despite this, I have been put in charge of Thanksgiving dinner once again, a job that I both relish for its challenge, and dread for its high odds of failure. I undergo vigorous mental preparation upon learning that I’m to be the Thanksgiving cook, reflecting upon the highs and lows of my several past efforts, and calling on my Irish Coast Guard training, which advocates keeping the liquor cabinet stocked in case one screws up the most important meal of the year.
Meat thermometers have failed me over the years, so this time I went out and purchased one that cost nearly $30 and has a remote alarm feature that can travel with me up to 200 feet from the roasting bird. If I’m 200 feet from the turkey, I’m in someone else’s house, so I’m not likely to need this feature, but buying it seemed better than doing what I’ve done in the past – sticking several different thermometers into the bird such that it looks like an acupuncturist’s practice cadaver.
Ironically, this year’s Thanksgiving battle is occurring in the middle of yet another of my occasional attacks of anosmia, and I can’t smell a damned thing. Being an anosmic cook is not quite analogous to being, say, a deaf audio engineer, but when you’re only so-so in the kitchen, it sure doesn’t help. With any luck, the disorder will correct itself by the time I need to sniff the milk before adding it to mashed potatoes. If not, I’ll give that job to my son.
If you are what you eat, then I am what I crave: granola and yogurt; espresso; toasted multigrain bread with good olive oil; dark chocolate; cheese of every variety; rich red wine. I give into at least one of these cravings daily, enriching my life for about as long it takes to get the victuals across the tongue and into the stomach.
Other things I long for include a certain sporting activity of the leisurely sort, followed by an effervescent, chilled beverage (or three). This craving is the symptom of a middle-aged male affliction, in which the patient continually imagines being able to break 90 from the blue tees, and then requires solace when, inevitably, he doesn’t.
This past summer, I stopped for fuel on a trip back from Maine, and found myself inexplicably drawn to a packet of teriyaki-flavored jerky hanging on a hook in the snacks section. As I stared down this packet of jerky, I dreamed of what it would taste like, concluding that it would be similar to Slim Jim – a food I hankered for as a kid – but, somehow, even better. I surrendered, plunking down 5 or so dollars for the packaged meat. It was, unfortunately, a mostly dull experience, lacking in something (salt, maybe?).
Still, somewhere deep inside me, a jerky eater is waiting to emerge. If it does, I will have company: during a recent trip to my hometown for a funeral that coincided with my 30th high school reunion, an old friend divulged that he bought his son – an athletic character who sought out high-protein, low-fat nourishment – “a hundred fifty dollars’ worth of jerky.” The purchase included packages of venison jerky, wild boar jerky, and, for good measure, kangaroo jerky.
Perhaps my friend has gone jerky crazy, but I would point out that jerky consumption is on the rise; in fact, this past June 12th was declared to be “National Jerky Day” by Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. It’s entirely possible that, by the time next year’s Day of Jerky is announced, jerky will become a craving I regularly feed.
I’ve spent all of my adult voting years in the greater Boston area, where most candidates for national office either run unopposed or get challenged by hapless, no-name conservatives. Still, though you might know the outcome of an election in advance, how an individual votes is intended to be kept secret, notwithstanding the people openly trumpeting their leanings by posting yard signs or throwing boozy “meet the candidate” parties.
For years, my various polling stations all used huge mechanical devices for voting, where you’d step in and throw a lever to enclose yourself behind a curtain, cast your ballot, and then, if you had a few minutes to kill, could play with the controls and project a fiery Wizard with a huge skull onto the wall to freak out your fellow citizens.
The voting booth, as I recall it
Then came Florida, 2000, with its hanging chads and tossed-out votes. Though Boston’s machines seemed to work just fine, they were dismissed in favor of paper ballots, and so was the clandestine nature of the vote. No need for Toto to pull back the curtain, as curtains were done away with in favor of open-air triangular booths that expose the voter to a nearby line of observers, who wonder why one would study the full text of ballot questions that had been available for months online. Afterward, with two completed 11 by 17 inch ballots of candidates and initiatives in hand, the voter is instructed to put the ballots into “secrecy covers” that are -- no kidding -- half the size of the ballots themselves.
In my case, I brought my half-exposed ballots to the reading machine, where I was met by two volunteers, one of whom was a neighbor from 5 doors down, who "helped" me insert the ballots into the machine.
Secret ballot, it ain't.