Pecan pie postscript, with China, greedy squirrels and feral pigs in Texas (huh?)

Dear Friends: Thank you for all the nice comments on my previous post about my mother’s pecan pies. I feel compelled to follow up today, as there is so much interesting pecan-pie-related news, some of it on the front page of the New York Times (“No Holiday Pecan Pie? Thank China, Feral Pigs and Ill-Timed Rain”). But to go back, I need to clarify that the hammer in Mom’s hand was for cracking pecans, an obvious oversight by clueless me, but recognized immediately by cook Michael. Mom probably brought the nuts with her from New Mexico, a state that produces pecans, but I think she learned to make pecan pies in Texas, my father’s home territory, and where we briefly lived when I was a child.

mom with hammerAnd this brings me to that moment of regret we all feel with the loss of loved ones: If only I could ask Mom to tell me the story of how she learned to make pecan pies! Was it from our southern grandmother, Jessie, whom she never much liked for her stern character and chewing tobacco habit, with spittoon close by? (This was Texas, remember). I will never know, but this reminds me why I love StoryCorps and their tag: “100 years from now, what will it mean to have recorded and preserved the voices and experiences of everyday people?” This year StoryCorps celebrated ten years of traveling the country in an Airstream trailer, “listening to America,” recording stories in their mobile sound studio and teaching how to do oral histories. On their website, you can invite them to come to your community. (http://storycorps.org/) story corps photo 2

Related to that, I heard on NPR that today, November 29, is the National Day of Listening, a day to honor a loved one through listening. I liked that idea, so I asked Michael if I could interview him. He’s always harkening back to the good old days as we walk around Portland, pointing out sights and places, saying how wonderful everything used to be, and how it’s all gone to hell now. “No way am I going to be remembering on demand,” he grumbled as he worked on making gnocchi with a new recipe (bake the potatoes first). Oh well, so much for that idea. (http://nationaldayoflistening.org/)Mom gnochhi

OK, so what’s the connection with pecans and feral pigs and China that has driven pecan prices up over 30% this year?  Record rainfall last spring and summer in Georgia and South Carolina, summer drought in Texas and Oklahoma, a disease called scab, heavy fall rains in Texas and a sporadic harvest. And then those darn Texas feral pigs moved in to take advantage of the situation, along with freeloading squirrels. “Wildlife pressure,” was how a spokesperson for the Texas Pecan Growers Association delicately put it.

And now China: most of the high quality pecans go for export, and China is the biggest customer. Called “bi gen,” which sounds similar to “pecan,” they are sold in bagfuls in street stalls and grocery stores, and are especially popular around Chinese New Year, which falls in January this year.

mom would have been proudBottom line: Pecan prices are way up, and pecan pie popularity is seriously down. Google reports twice as many searches for pumpkin pie as for pecan pie this year. But in the south, home of my father’s kinfolk, pecan pie is still king. My sister Sher, visiting in Florida, felt the pull and sent this photo of her pie, with the message “Mom would have been proud.”

Enough about pies! If you are wondering about my holiday effort to produce a pumpkin-ginger cheesecake for Thanksgiving, I can tell you it was a mixed success, from a social/marital point of view. Michael does easily share his kitchen, at least with me, and he was busy preparing his own contribution to Thanksgiving, an appetizer he called “French tacos.” I just wanted to be left alone, in quiet, with my recipe (which I completely misplaced and had to print out again from Glutonforlife website). Yet I needed to ask him if we had a hand mixer (no), small measuring cups (no), a can opener (yes), and if the oven temp was accurate after my cheesecake was far from done after the prescribed hour (yes, but it still went 1.5 hours, caramelizing the crust). I forgot to read the instructions about how to mix the ingredients, and ended up with everything in the blender, in stages. A big mess. I was surly, Michael was annoyed, but by the time we left for our friends’ house, a truce was declared. Thanksgiving dinner with Bruce and Nancy and their family was a big success.  Oh, and the cheesecake was delicious, (but so rich we had to take a long walk today to burn off some calories).

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Things I love about Portland, continued

Farewell Mary Margaret

I’ve loved graveyards since I was six years old, playing house on the flat stones of the cemetery near our country house in Craig, Colorado, the small town on the western slope of the Rockies where I grew up. I felt right at home in my playground in the high desert sagebrush, and was surprised when a girl my own age asked if it was true dead people walked around at night – a thought that had never occurred to me. Now my aunt and uncle and a young cousin who died in a car accident are guests there, and if they do walk around at night I hope they enjoy the place as much as I did.

gravestones-early-and-folk

As a young married woman living in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, I would take my toddler son Scott for walks in a colonial-era graveyard across the street. As a new mother I mooned over the beautiful old stones that told stories of the short and sad lives of the many young women who died in childbirth in the 18th and 19th century. “Here lies buried Eliza with her twin infants.”

32594420Later, living in rural Vermont, I discovered gravestone rubbing, and when my sisters and I went off to Europe in 1968 I traveled with rice paper, round black crayon and masking tape. I was recently divorced and immersed in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, for reasons I no longer remember. But I knew I wanted to go to Ireland and make a rubbing of the lovely words on Yeats’ gravestone in the country churchyard of County Sligo: “Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death/ Horseman pass by,” lines from one of Yeats’ final poems. I dutifully rubbed the stone and carried the rolled-up rice paper through Europe to hang on the wall in my apartment in Boulder, where I was in school. It is long-lost and not lamented.

Fast forward several decades (during which I visited and photographed many graveyards) to Portland, where to my delight we ended up living four blocks from historic Lone Fir Cemetery, the first of the city’s pioneer cemeteries. A beautiful place full of trees on the city’s east side, Lone Fir goes back over 150 years, when a local farmer named James Stephens buried his father on the farm, as was the custom then.

in fall

Mr & Mrs. StephensStephens sold the land with the proviso that his father not be disturbed, and when the new owner’s steamboat blew up on the Willamette River, he buried his partner and a passenger there. Thus Lone Fir cemetery was born, and the fir tree planted in 1866 still stands. I can see its top from our upstairs bathroom window. When James Stephens and his wife Elizabeth passed on, they took up residence there too. Here, they are today, still holding hands.

I’ve been visiting and photographing Lone Fir for twenty years now, my lens always drawn to the ephemeral “messages” left by the living for the dead – notes, liquor, cards, photos letters, messages in bottles – and to quirky stones such as this one of Paul Lind, a loving testament to a Scrabble fan:

scrabble Paul LindOr this lovely homemade stone, with a photo I’ve watch fade to almost nothing over the years:

black frame photo close upSadly, Lone Fir has become the resting place of young gang members:

RIP Chico w beer cansLil Luch

Objects left by bereaved families who lose children can break your heart, like this series for Dustin, including a message written in twigs:Dustin with photo

Dustin note from dad 2

Dustin twig note for blog

But I leave the last word to our good friend, the late, lamented “famous publisher” and art critic Joel Weinstein, too soon a resident of Lone Fir. It’s a comfort to have him close by, and I always visit his gravesite to say hello and see what’s been left by his many fans.

joel 1

Joel loved bikes, coffee, books and Mexico, and last winter someone left this memento mori with a Mexican theme, which says, “For the dead there is no future.”

Joel 3

Joel would have enjoyed the image and the humor, but I think I prefer the Russian proverb: “We live as long as we are remembered.”

 

The things I love about coming home to Portland…

“Instant” summer. No suffering through Portland’s (usual) long chilly days of May and June, waiting for the sun. When we arrive on July 4, after 26 hours of travel, the warm weather is here! We have lunch with friends in their garden and, for the first time in about six months, I realize I’m sitting deliciously in the open air without a sweater, long pants, socks and boots.Francie's party

Garden surprises. Finding that the passiflora vine I hadn’t remembered planting has taken over the back fence and looks beautiful.passiflora vine 2

Easy start to the day. Curtains wafting in the early morning breeze as I sit in bed with coffee, New York Times and an unbelievably fast internet connection. curtains blowing gently

Long evenings of summer! Going to a movie at our neighborhood theater and coming out to find it’s not even dark. (The Laurelhurst, opened in 1923, was one of the first art deco theaters of the period. The original single screen could seat 650 people; now it is divided into four small theaters and is locally owned, offering pizza, beer and wine.)Laurelhurst

Getting reacquainted with the neighborhood. Strolling home past our local junk-treasure store, called SMUT…smug

And admiring the new mural at Holman’s Bar, a neighborhood institution. (Yelp: “This may be the perfect bar, for what it is.” Barfly: “Holman’s House Of Heartburn serves up tradition deep-fried and just a little over-priced.”)mural 3

Transition Time 1: Michael declares he is retiring, and retrieves his 1977 Ford work van for the very last time from our friends’ farm in Canby. He removes the tree that has grown up through the vents during the winter, washes off the windshield, fills it with gas, and drives the thing home. He will soon sell it, he says. (Bought in 1991 for $1100; let’s see what he gets for it 22 years later…)michael washing vantree in dash

Transition Time 2:  Michael declares he will give up his man cave/ toolroom/workshop/ storage dump, and kitsch museum in the basement and build a new guest room.mancave 2

kitsch(items from Mike’s kitsch museum: battery-operated hula doll; dress made for him by his grandmother when he had a fit that his sister had one and he didn’t; contractor’s license; ceramic skull with knife through frontal lobe; children’s wooden blocks; birthday cards from various years; piece of unidentified glass.)

As for me, I am looking forward to lying in this hammock, the fountain burbling nearby, with a book and some iced tea on a hot day sometime in the near future. Summer in Portland is a wonderful thing.hammock