There was that time years ago, that I had a date over for dinner. We hadn’t known each other long and I always want to get off on the right foot. We were sipping wine in the living room when I went to check on dinner in the kitchen. I had rice on the stove. Lifting the lid, there was no water visible. I could see the beginning of a light golden color around the edges. So naturally, I turned up the heat and returned to the living room.
For some people, cooking is a creative passion. I mean no disrespect; I hope they invite me for dinner. Somehow cooking wound up being political for me.
I was raised in traditional home, meaning it was plain to see that men and boys had all the power and unhappy women cleaned up after them. My mother, who also hated cooking, tried to teach me right. She knew that ordinary girls, ones who couldn’t get by just on their good looks, would need serious domestic skills if they were ever to find a husband. Especially an ordinary girl with a mouth like mine.
So yes, I sew beautifully but I used the concept of piecing fabric into clothing as a way of understanding how to hand-build gemstone settings, using tools like my oxy-acetylene torch, when I was a goldsmith. And it’s only recently that I’ve admitted knowing how to type. It’s been decades since a man has asked me to type their term paper. And now, three books later, I seem to have found good use for those “secretarial skills” they talked about in high school. Finally, truth be told, I’m a great cook… but it gives me no joy.
To each his own; it wasn’t the life I wanted. Once I left home, I shunned any traditional “women’s work.” Maybe I was afraid if I faltered once, I’d be type cast forever. Instead, I bit my tongue and pretended ignorance.
It was horses who made kitchens safe again. My pie recipe will make more sense now.
First, it must be understood that the pie is always made from fresh apples. At first, I used to make my grandmother’s crust recipe. It has a secret ingredient and is outlandishly good. Now, I buy the pre-rolled Pillsbury crusts. They’re passable and my grandmother was always disappointed with me anyway.
Next, the apples. Buy a huge bag of them and do the worst job of peeling them possible. Sure, I was born with the gene that allows a paper-thin one piece curl of apple skin, but that’s just showing off and doesn’t serve the big picture. I like to hack thick slabs of the peel off, so that when I’m done, the apple has a wonky octagon shape and is only two-thirds the size it was before I started. Then core the apple and slice what’s left into the pie shell. Continue until the pie shell is heaping full. Quarter the rest of the apples and put them in with the peels.
Then I drag out my Betty Crocker cook book with the red gingham cover. Mom gave it to me while I was still in high school and I certainly haven’t bought another since. I turn to the Perfect Apple Pie recipe to remember how much flour, sugar, and cinnamon to sprinkle in. Then dab butter on top, but use more than they say. See? I’ve gone off recipe already. Put the lid on the pie, crinkle the edges together, and put it in the oven.
Now hurry. You only have an hour. Scoop the chunky apple peels into a bag and scurry out to the barn. Put a handful of peels in every feeder, while relaxing into first equine thought that comes into your head. For me, it’s always my Grandfather Horse but I miss him. This will be the first year in thirty that he and I haven’t avoided this holiday together.
So I made the pie early this year; I needed the apple-peel ritual that’s part political, part spiritual, and part therapeutic. It’s been a mean year and I’m behind on my breathing.
As the horses chew, my jaw softens. Sinking down on a bale; the barn feels like home and all the memories of good horses come galloping back. It’s good to be reminded. If you’re like me, you’ve been stronger than you ever thought possible. Some days you failed your horse, but you didn’t quit. Other days, you’ve been lifted high and carried like treasure.
(If you don’t have a barn, it doesn’t matter. Quietly remember the first horse you loved. Call him to you; let him star in his own movie. You know the plot by heart.)
Through the manure and the mud, the horses saw something in us that had nothing to do with sex or career. It was beyond hair color or dress size or age. Horses treated us in a way that our own species struggles with. They treated us as equals.
An hour later, back in the house, the air is sweet with warm cinnamon and now you have a second apple treat to share with friends or family. They welcome you in with a hug that lasts longer than usual and they hold eye contact. The pie is an after thought.
There is something about women who know horses. It’s part apples and part muck boots, along with some stray white hairs on her sweatshirt. She’s comfortable in her body because she knows acceptance; the glow that lingers from the barn.
At any age, we should know better than to confuse a silly pie with a woman’s real worth. Never underestimate her. A heart filled with horses can accomplish anything.