As I write, I’m in Maine. I drove up to the little house owned by my mom and Charley on Friday after work. They are out of town and needed someone to water their plants. It’s only an hour away. I wanted somewhere to write.
I’m sitting at the picnic table in their back yard. It’s warm out, but not too warm. Ants are crawling along the wooden boards; the occasional wasp buzzes by my head. I can see the Piscataqua River, fast-moving to my left. It’s windy, getting windier by the minute. The leaves are rattling in the trees. Rain, I think, is moving in. The air smells briny and damp.
The last time I was up here in Maine was Memorial Day weekend. My brother, Ben, and his girlfriend, Ashley, had joined us from New York. It was fun. My mom made us go kayaking. My brother made us a little drunk. I cooked. Fully embracing the occasion that Saturday night, I went for the traditional: Burgers. Salad. Strawberry-rhubarb pie.
I’ve written about this particular strawberry-rhubarb pie before. It’s the pie that I developed for the New York Times when they ran an article about my book, just about a year ago. When I was developing this recipe, I made a lot of pies. So many pies that by the time I clicked “send” on the email to the editor containing the recipe, I was pretty sure that I would never want to eat pie—or anything else, for that matter—ever again. Surprise, surprise: I was wrong.
I love this pie. It’s all warm and spicy with fresh, crystallized, and powdered ginger; covered in a crunchy streusel topping; and filled with a mixture of fruit that isn’t too sweet. Generally, strawberry-rhubarb pies are a fierce reminder of my grandmother, of my mother, of myself as a child. They taste like the past. But because I revamped this recipe, updated it, prodded and poked and tested it, this pie tastes new. Making it, eating it, I am entirely present. Sometimes, that’s exactly what I want.
(Just don’t forget your pie plate when you bake this pie. Over Memorial Day weekend, I didn’t realize that we were missing this key piece of equipment until I had already made, chilled, and rolled the pie dough. This is why I baked the pie in a cake pan, as you can see in this photograph, below. It kind of worked. It kind of didn’t. The pie looked strange, but it tasted damn good.)
Right now, in Maine, this time alone, the sun is beginning to set. I’ve moved inside, and am watching the ominous sky, which is practically shimmering with the threat of rain. A seagull just flew past the window, screaming, a drape of seaweed hanging from its mouth.
Lately, I’ve been reading a backlog of the advice columns that Cheryl Strayed writes for The Rumpus called "Dear Sugar." They aren’t typical advice columns. They’re strong and sassy, straight-to-the-point and written with an almost vicious beauty. Strayed is the author of WILD, the book chosen by Oprah for her revived book club, a book that is getting a lot of play. I haven’t read this book. But I want to. Because if Strayed’s book is anything like her advice columns, dudes, it’s probably great.
In these columns, Strayed writes a lot about things that I’ve been thinking about, that we’re all probably thinking about in one way or another: love, trust, sex, money, children, identity, writing.
I’ve been thinking a lot my own writing. The future direction of my writing. What I want. What I might someday want. Who I am. Who I will be. (Yowza!) Maybe this is all because I’ve recently finished a big project, a book project, for the publishing house where I currently work. Maybe it’s because the paperback version of my baby, my book, is out in the world. Maybe that’s just what happens when you throw your life up into the air, like confetti, and try and catch the pieces—not all of the pieces, just some of the pieces, the important one—as they fall back down.
Strayed responded to a letter from a young woman writer named Elissa Bassist in August of 2010. Now, I can identify with some of the things that this woman wrote in her letter, though certainly not all of them. And Strayed and I have obviously had different experiences and taken different paths. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a writer, to call oneself a capital-W writer, to write, to publish, to continue to write and publish, to feel like you have stories welling up within you, whether those stories come from within or from the world around you. What does it mean to be a woman in the professional world? What does it mean to be a woman writer? What does it mean to have talent, or to have luck, or to simply have the resolve to work your ass off?
I like what Strayed says, here:
“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
I also like what Strayed says, here, this line that has become a "Dear Sugar" tagline:
“So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
That’s why I came to Maine today, really. Not to water the plants. Or spend some time by the water. But to write. Like a motherfucker.
Gingered Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
From me, and the New York Times
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
FOR THE CRUST:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into 10 pieces
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening, chilled
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 large egg, beaten, for glazing rim
FOR THE FILLING:
4 cups rhubarb (about 5 large stalks), halved lengthwise and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pint strawberries, sliced
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
FOR THE STREUSEL:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus additional as needed
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
8 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut in pieces
3 tablespoons candied ginger, minced
1/2 cup pecans, lightly toasted, chopped fine
Vanilla ice cream, for serving.
1. To make the crust: In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/4 cups flour with the salt and sugar. Add the butter and shortening and quickly break the large chunks apart with your fingers until the mixture resembles very coarse meal. Stir in the fresh ginger. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons ice water over the dough and mix the dough with your hands, without over-handling, until it comes together. If too dry, add another tablespoon or 2 of water. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.
2. To make the filling: Mix the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, 1/3 cup flour and orange zest.
3. To make the streusel: Mix 1/2 cup flour with the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and ginger. Add the butter and mix with your fingertips until it is broken into tiny pebbles. Mix in the candied ginger and chopped pecans.
4. Heat the oven to 475 degrees with a rack in the middle. Cover a rimmed sheet pan with foil. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough with a floured rolling pin into a disk about 1/4-inch thick and a few inches larger than the pie pan, pressing together if it breaks apart. Fold the disk in half and gently place across the center of a 9-inch pie plate. Unfold. Crimp the edges of the dough so that it ends along the rim. Press down around the edge with the tines of a fork.
5. Mound the filling in the center and spread the streusel evenly on top, pressing down lightly. Brush the exposed crust with beaten egg and place on the prepared pan. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake until golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes more, checking the pie as it bakes. If the crust begins to look too brown, wrap a strip of foil around its edge. Cool for at least 20 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream.
Yield: one 9-inch pie (8 to 10 servings).