Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tomato Sandwiches and Fried Pies

THIS PAST WEEK WAS FILLED WITH LOSS, leaving me feeling empty. My only sibling and older sister passed away. People seem to always ask if it was an unexpected death. I’m not sure if it matters. When anyone you have known all your life leaves you it’s difficult to comprehend. Sorrow aside, it’s always an occasion for remembering.

Obviously food is a big part of my life and much of my adulthood shared with my sister involved eating or cooking. Until she left home, her favorite food was a tomato sandwich with Miracle Whip and Velveeta. Even at age 8 Miracle Whip and Velveeta weren’t in my food pyramid.

As a child my sister’s taste in food was predictable for her age. However, her interest in fashion and style was another matter. She taught me the meaning of the word flair if not flamboyant. I remember in sixth grade when she colored her hair chartreuse using Rit fabric dye.

Her given name, Betty Curd, was embarrassing to her—suitable for a cocker spaniel but not for her. After moving to Madison in the late 50s, she attended Edgewood High School. One day, our dad doing his duty transported a couple of the nuns who were Betty’s teachers to the dentist. In the car, they kept espousing how much they enjoyed having Penelope in their classes. Our father assumed they had the wrong parent confused with the wrong student. But, when her first report card arrived, it was for Penelope Curd. This would not be the last time she would change her name. Several years ago, she finally settled on Chyrelle Chasen, suggested by a shaman in Sedona, Arizona. To her eternal chagrin, I will always remember her as Betty.

Growing up, we seldom agreed upon anything. She liked vanilla Cokes (gross) and I liked Grapette. She wanted to watch Dobby Gillis (boring) and I loved Lucy. She swooned over Elvis (weird) and I memorized lyrics from show tunes. She was her father’s girl and I was my mother’s boy.

Married, she and her husband bought an old farm house in Stoughton which they renovated, doing all the work themselves. I’m sure the first arrival of her family, especially our mother and her white gloves, was a traumatic event. Our mother had low expectations since her daughter had never demonstrated—to her disapproval— any interest or skills related to homemaking. Unfortunately, lack of expectations never quelled our mother’s propensity for criticism.

Our mother’s taste ran to split-level ranch complete with wall-to-wall carpet even in the bathroom, but she could not deny her daughter’s spectacular success in transforming this once disheveled hovel. Nor, when Betty served the first dinner, fondue—cheese, beef and chocolate. This was our first encounter with this dip-into-the-pot meal; its unfamiliarity seemed to make it all the more enjoyable. Ironically, fondue would become one of our mother’s favorites, long after Betty and I had forsaken it as passĂ©.

This was an era when my sister made bread and wine, butchered meat and canned everything; when most yearned for one of the new microwave ovens. That’s not to imply she wasn’t interested in different ways of doing things. Her large vegetable garden evolved into one of the area’s first commercial organic farms. She gave me my first Cuisnart and my favorite cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs.

In 1972, I moved to Madison to attend graduate school. For a year or so I lived with my sister in Stoughton. I had always liked to eat, but when I spent my junior year of college in Europe, it inspired me to learn how to cook. Betty was more than willing to let me to show off what I had learned. From the beginning I was determined to be the world’s best pie maker. In my family, pies were ever present and the ability to make pastry the hallmark of a good cook. My sister liked pie as much as I did and encouraged me.

Our Kentucky grandmother was a fabulous cook and famous for her pies, biscuits and fried chicken. She also made fried pies—biscuit dough filled with cooked and pureed dried apricots, then pan fried. It sounds simple enough but biscuit dough properly made is hard to handle and frying … if the temperature isn’t just right the pies will turn out greasy and inedible. Betty loved fried pies and craved them: She hadn’t savored one since our grandmother had died.

Biscuit making was a new experience and fried pies a challenge especially since our grandmother left no written recipes. I cannot begin to tell you how many batches of fried pies I made, none just quite right, before my sister later confessed that in fact they had all been delicious.

About this same time, we decided we wanted to open a restaurant in a large Victorian house then for sale. We both were enticed by the restaurant business… something about the sparkle of glassware … the clink of cutlery … a room full of ohhing and ahhing happy diners. We would be the hosts of a glorious dinner party every night of the week! Well. In a rare moment of judiciousness we agreed we would both attend restaurant management classes at MATC before taking the plunge.

Disillusionment quickly followed. Accepting that running a restaurant was hard work and that we lacked the motive to be successful—knowing how to run a business and make a profit—was our damnation (or salvation, depending upon your point of view). Nonetheless, we turned to Plan B: Catering. Betty was much impressed and influenced by James Beard who began his career in food as a caterer with virtually no professional training or experience.

We started hosting afternoon teas … making miniature cream puffs stuffed with crabmeat, frilly sandwiches filled with smoked salmon and pretty petit fours. Oh, how we both loved to make petit fours! My sister had a talent for confectionary that I couldn’t and still can’t master. She could throw the ingredients for batch of candy into a saucepan and leave it unattended on the stove overnight. Next morning: VoilĂ ! She would have a batch of perfect fudge. She especially liked to make fondant, the finicky icing used to cover petit fours that I couldn’t make if my life depended upon it. But, since I got to make the cake and do the decorating we were both very happy. Unfortunately, the demand for teas in Stoughton was limited to say the least.

Though we both went our separate ways, when we would get together food always dominated the conversation: restaurants, recipes and reminiscence. Our last happy time together was when we went to lunch at The Old Fashioned, enjoying a double order of nostalgia. It will be impossible to go there ever again and not think of her. Nor eat barbecue, fried chicken or country ham. Though I haven’t done so in many years, I think it might be time to make some fried pies.


booboo said...

Oh Dan, you are such a beautiful writer. What an incredible tribute to your sister, and equally fascinating to read, and feel a tiny bit like I have been given an opportunity to know her. I adore the picture of both you.

VermontValleyBluffFarm said...

What a lovely tribute to Betty. While reading it, I laughed, I cried and I could even taste the wonderful tomatoes and green beans from the "Great Garden on Williams Drive",which my Mother bellered as she walked into the house after spending the better part of an afternoon "stopping by to pick up a few tomatoes"
Betty taught me to eat radish sandwiches with butter on her wonderful homebaked bread.
Betty had me try some Eggplant Parmesean she had made with those beautiful purple orbs she grew in that fabulous garden, and as a 12 or 13 year old kid I quite skeptical of it, but I fell in love with it that day. To this day Eggplant Parm is one of my very favorite things to eat as well as make. It has also become one of my specialities that everyone wants me to make for them.
Betty and I canned many many vegetables together and one December I was very fortunate and she taught me to make chocolates in her big country kitchen.
Betty and I became fast friends after I began to regularly go out to visit/help her, after my Mother would offer me up as a "Volunteer Mother's Helper". Little did Mother know what a great time I had when Betty and I would "hang out" for an entire afternoons. Betty moved and I grew up and moved from Stoughton. Through this I lost touch with Betty and her Family. However, I thought of her often when the harvest from my own gardens would come in or I would make my own cookies or chocolates at Christmastime.
I had not seen Betty in probably over 15yrs. The last time I saw her, I had to regroup for a moment after I was reintroduced to her. I could barely see that beautiful woman in mud and overalls with Baby Holly on her hip in the new face I had before me. Sure, she was lovely woman. But, the Betty I knew had become quite polished and was nothing like the Betty I had known when I was a teenager.

Dan, My thoughts are with you during this trying time. Regardless of who you are, it will never be easy to endure being the one left behind when someone you love leaves this earth. It never feels fair or without heartache. So sorry for your loss.
Betty will be missed.

artisland said...

I was so sorry to hear about your sister. I've loved your stories about her over the years, especially for how they revealed what fun it must have been to grow up with you as her little brother.
"Tomato Sandwiches and Fried Pies" is about as sweet and beautiful a tribute as I've ever read. It will stay in thoughts. And you, of course, are in my heart.
Much love, Dan.