Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pies of Christmas

December 20, 2009

I just posted this at my other blog, "Finding Myself in Hoboken" and felt the readers here might like to see it too. It actually belongs on my food blog, but I think I've done enough with it.

Apple pie is appearing here and there in my life these days. My daughter is an expert baker of them, and Christmas with her and her family promises that I'll get a couple of chances to taste them. I have my own recipe; she has hers. My favorite was baked by the cook employed by a family friend in Alabama years ago. It had a lattice top, and seemed to us the perfect ratio of cinnamon to brown sugar. I find that in the North people are less likely to use quite enough of either for my taste, but I've spent a lifetime trying to duplicate that one I had so many years ago.

My favorite apple pie story came from Jim Adshead, my husband who died nine years ago. He was a G.I. in World War II, fighting in France and harbored in farmhouses, basements and barns with his buddies when the need arose. It must have been Christmas of 1944 that the guys were being sheltered by a sympathetic French farm family.

They were roused by the family with joyous cries in French that it was Christmas Day, and, although none of the boys could speak French, they knew they were being invited to the family's only day of celebration for years. It was a hungry and grateful group that joined the family to see the pride of the best feast they could scrape up, which was an apple pie. They could tell the mother, who was the cook, had prepared it especially for them, knowing that apple pie was an American favorite. They were thrilled to get any food at all, but the apple pie they were served was certainly not like any they'd ever seen in the States.

When Jim first told me the story he said it was a pathetic excuse for an apple pie, obviously made from dried apples and very little sugar--much less cinnamon, butter, or the spices they expected from an apple pie. But the boys were so touched by the gesture, and their hearts so warmed by the work involved, that they were effusive in their thanks and their gratitude for home-baked food was genuine and heartfelt.

Some forty years later Jim and I were living in Geneva and we were often exposed to the French version of apple pie. He then realized that this was the pie he was served that Christmas Day so long before--not, as it had appeared, made with dried apples, but the thinly sliced, artistically arranged, apples as preferred by the French, cooked with very little sugar and coated with apricot jam as a glaze. It's a pie, but it ain't American apple pie.

The French also make a tasty caramelized apple pie known as tarte tatin, which is tastier (if you like caramel) and made by browning the sugar in the pan, placing a crust on top, and then reversing the whole product using very deft hands. I've made it, just to see if I could, but the fact is I like to taste a bit of cinnamon in my apple pie.

And I did find a way to get just the right crunch of caramel on the lattice top of a pie not unlike that Alabama pie of years ago: You dot all the holes in the lattice with butter and sprinkle the top of the pie liberally with white sugar. The butter will melt and the sugar will brown and crisp--and the pie will be sweet enough for any Christmas guests you may have, even a barn full of half-starved G.I.'s.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Book About Fairhope and More

Paul Gaston at the Organic School Centennial Celebration, 2007
December 9, 2009
We aren’t all lucky enough to have been born the grandson of a 19th Century reformer who founded a Utopian colony. We weren’t raised in that colony, nor did we all attend a school that provided us with a lifelong love of learning and a feeling that, if the world needed changing, we were the ones to do it.

But Paul Gaston was. In Coming of Age in Utopia/The Odyssey of an Idea, he gives us a look at the elements that made him what he became as a result of his extraordinary birthright and upbringing. It’s a book by turns educational, inspiring, and even charming; revealing the thoughts and motivations of a truly elegant mind. It tells in readable prose the story of his life: Growing up in the little town of Fairhope, Alabama, saturated with the economic philosophy of Henry George as interpreted by Gaston’s grandfather, Ernest B. Gaston.

It was a heady place to begin. In those days the town was paradise for the boy, the only son of parents who encouraged him always to be himself. Further, he was educated in the town’s remarkable School of Organic Education, which emphasized the growth of the whole child and taught, along with the traditional academic subjects, dancing, singing, and athletics—all without the pressure of performance measures (grades) or the prospect of failure. Gaston acknowledges his debt to his parents for his commitment to social change as an end and his school for the education and personal balance to achieve what he might.

Coming of Age in Utopia takes the reader from a small-town, sheltered existence to an impressive, productive, and highly visible life as a citizen of the world. Gaston’s talent as a scholar and historian takes him on travels to Europe and lands him in a career as a professor of Southern history at the prestigious University of Virginia. Along the way he builds a loving family with the seemingly perfect wife—the beautiful and brilliant Mary Wilkinson of Frogmore Manor, Frogmore, South Carolina. The couple are deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and Gaston sees as part of his personal mission the need to touch the minds and hearts of young Southerners who come to his University classes with a fixed notion of honor and tradition, and to challenge them through exposure to the reality of history and enlighten them with a broader vision.

Gaston chose to teach Southern history at a Southern university at a point in time at which the very past seemed to be changing. He chose U VA and stayed there because he was confronted with a peculiarly "Southern" mindset--the tradition-bound kids who felt it necessary to preserve every vestige of the Old South (read "segregation") in their power. They were to have some power, being born to it in Virginia, and had been indoctrinated in the Gone With the Wind side of things. As a professor of history he had a unique opportunity to clobber them over the heads with the real history, and being the gentleman he is and always was, he didn't clobber but engaged their minds and challenged their cherished heritage through facts.

Because of the time and place, he was called upon to go public with his knowledge and to stand by his principles. He joined protest groups and was president of at least one anti-segregation activist organization. His classes influenced countless students, probably in many cases against their will. At Charlottesville's first sit-in, he was hit in the face and later found himself facing the hitters in a court of law. The tires of his car were slashed, and his family's life was disrupted by hateful telephone calls at all hours. In the meantime he met with Julian Bond, Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other stars of the early Civil Rights struggle as they worked together to make positive changes in the South and throughout the country.

Coming of Age in Utopia shows a natural progression of the man who was raised in Fairhope to honor its purpose of changing the world through economic reform; and educated at the Organic School to fulfill his own goals of opening minds, all the while (and equally importantly) living as fine a life as he found humanly possible. He examines his own motives at times, expresses regrets, and duly accepts the many honors and accolades that come his way.

It is a compelling tale, filled with important events, peopled with powerful characters, and revealing insights gained through study and experience. It is a good, solid book to read, transporting the reader from a place called Fairhope in a certain halcyon time to the larger world at a crucial point in history.

Written with optimism, good will, and grace, Coming of Age in Utopia is a book about a great deal more than the little town of Fairhope. It is about the finding and fulfilling of a personal mission, living a full and happy life--and leaving the world a better place.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Finding Me in Fairhope

December 3, 2009

I keep popping up in Fairhope, as if I still lived there. The fact is, I'm now in Hoboken again and trying to adjust to the culture shock. It's nice to be here, but I am planning a month-long visit to Fairhope in February, where I'll escape the cold and perhaps explore the "new" Fairhope further. I know, I know, it gets pretty cold in Fairhope in February, but I can promise you it won't be as cold as where I'll be coming from.

I found myself in the Fairhope Courier recently. Friends have advised me of the terrific article by Mike Odom, and I found it online here. Check it out and see if it doesn't just make you itch to buy my book.

I hope you scratch that itch.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Fairhope from a Distance

I'm back home in Hoboken now, cogitating on the trip I just made. While in Fairhope, I bought Paul Gaston's autobiographical book, hot off the presses, in which he deals with the phenomenon of returning home--and the home is Fairhope. It's a lovely book, Growing Up in Utopia, and when I've finished I'll review it here. For now, I urge you to make your way to Page and Palette and buy a copy.

I've rented a little furnished house on Pine Crest for the month of February. This was not a clear-cut, easy thing to do. I found myself conflicted about everything in Fairhope still, yet something in me felt the pull to spend at least one more February there. I've had two Februaries in Hoboken, and, wintry as the month might be in Fairhope, the weather will be balmy compared to here. There will be the warmth of friends, the ease of the pace, to say nothing of some unsettled real estate affairs in neighboring Montrose--and the eternal magnet of Fairhope to attract me once again. Just when I decide there is nothing more to do there, a small part of me wants or needs to go home again.

It's not that I want to be part of Mardi Gras. I can't believe that tradition has made its way to Fairhope at all--in fact it is in many ways symbolic of what conflicts me about the direction of the little tourist town. Too many pointless imports, and not enough respect for the tenets of the utopian founders. Well, that's a battle over and lost, no matter how many diehards like me turn up to complain.

There's a new Fairhope now, and I certainly know it. The old one is not quite buried yet, however, with this last trip I for one was able to identify the source of my conflict about the place. When I lived there I carved out as my mission the education of the new people about the place; after over 18 years I realized I was talking to myself. History is not high on the agenda of a town on the move and on the make. New people are not interested in the old ways, even if they were radical and would be avant garde today. The new who have come to Fairhope would be even less interested in the radical and avant garde.

Let me wind up with a positive line from The Fair Hope of Heaven. "No matter where people move, they look for the tribe they can relate to, and there is a sense of inclusiveness in the many tribes of Fairhope. They are pleased to meet and work with new people. And the tribes reflect a myriad of interests which may catch a person off guard and may trigger new enthusiams."

There is still a chance for me, then, in the new Fairhope. I still have a tribe there, and it is not one of those staging or attending Mardi Gras festivities. There are writers and artists I haven't yet met. There are people I know and trust from years past. And there is always the coastline of Mobile Bay with its spectacular sunsets and instant solitude and peace.

Here's what one writer was inspired to say in a book about Fairhope: "And somewhere in a gully on a particular day in a certain season, the fortunate wanderer will actually find a tree covered in butterflies...It should not be a surprise, even if it is not expected, if a shadow dances among the leaves, a face appears (or seems to), even a community of phantoms from the past. Here you will find answers, questions, and a host of stories."

That writer was me. The book is called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. And somewhere in my heart I retain the belief that that magic might happen only in Fairhope.