Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cooking to Save the Planet: Buttermilk Pie

A friend emailed me for my birthday and, among other things, told me that she particularly enjoys reading the food pieces I occasionally post here.  Since several other followers of this blog have told me the same, and because this is a friend I particularly esteem for reasons I'll explain in a moment, I thought I might share with you my aunt's recipe for buttermilk pie.  

This has long been her signature pie for family gatherings.  I'm not sure when or how this recipe came her way.  I have the impression it's not an "old" family recipe, though it's definitely a variant of a pie my grandmother particularly loved--a custard pie.  Which we always called "egg custard pie," and I can't quite say precisely why we did so.  Since I'm not sure there can be a custard that doesn't involve eggs . . . . 

Like egg custard pie, my aunt's buttermilk pie is simplicity itself.  To make it, one simply melts 1/2 cup of butter and then lets the butter cool down a bit from the melting temperature, and then one beats the butter well with 2 cups of sugar and a cup of buttermilk.  To this mix when it's well beaten, add 3 rounded tablespoons of flour, 3 eggs, a dash of nutmeg, and a teaspoon of vanilla.  Pour the custard mixture into an unbaked pie shell and bake at 350F for about 40 minutes or until the pie is firm in the center.

And that's it.  My aunt does liberally sprinkle additional nutmeg across the top of the pie in the final few minutes of baking.  I've heard of restaurants in various places around the South adding lemon flavoring (lemon extract and/or lemon peel) or other flavorings to the custard mix.  Nutmeg has always been my aunt's flavoring of choice for this pie, and would have been very much to her mother's liking, since my grandmother doted on nutmeg (and I confess I do, too).

I've read claims that buttermilk pie is an "old Southern" pie and that it was Jefferson Davis's favorite pie, and is therefore called Jeff Davis pie in some areas.  Frankly, I doubt stories of this sort.  To my mind, as with egg custard pie, buttermilk pie is yet another of the many variations one finds all over the South of an Ur-pie recipe called chess pie, which can be flavored in all kinds of ways.  About which there are also many silly stories--that it's called chess pie because some literacy-challenged somebody once asked a cook what kind of pie it was, and she replied, "Why, it's jes' pie!"  Or other legends link it to pie chests.

It's plainly called chess pie because the English recipes on which it's based--all relying on a mix of eggs, butter, sugar and/or syrup, and sometimes milk or cream--call themselves "cheesecake" recipes.  The cookery book I mentioned several days ago, Dame Agnes Jekyll's Kitchen Essays, in fact contains a recipe for lemon cheesecake that calls for beating eggs, lemon juice and zest, sugar, and butter together and baking this mixture in tart shells.

Not a speck of cheese in any of these old English (and Southern) recipes for "cheesecake" or "chess" pie. They all rely on the mix of eggs, sugar and/or syrup, and butter to produce a "curd" akin to cheese, and that's where they derive their name.  The chess mixture is the underlying formula for the pie for which the American South is perhaps now most well-known, pecan pie, for which I shared the world's best recipe, along with a story about how my mother came to have the recipe, several Christmases ago.

And now I have another story to share--one less sympathetic than the one that accompanies my recipe for the world's best pecan pie.  It has to do with my reason--among others--for wanting to produce a food posting after I heard from a friend on my birthday, who told me that she enjoys these food postings.

The person who emailed me on my birthday worked with me at my former job in Florida.  And because I discovered in working with her that she is an extraordinary human being, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to offer her this tiny gift of a posting as a tribute to her extraordinary kindness.

Here's one very specific memory I have to illustrate the character of this particular friend who contacted me on my birthday.  She was one of several assistants that worked in my office in the year in which I was vice-president for academic affairs at a university in Daytona Beach, Florida.

As I've said in other postings, that miserable year ended in misery when the psychopathic boss who had hired Steve and me fired me and then dumped Steve.  One of numerous bizarre incidents preceding the firing was the following: the psychopath got it into her head that I had written a defamatory email about her, and one evening, she commanded my subordinate, the assistant v-p for academic affairs, to corral both Steve and me in my office after work hours, and to produce that email and inform me how badly it had defamed her.

We sat for hours into the night in my office as the assistant v-p tried in vain to produce the non-existent email.  He couldn't produce it, because it didn't exist.  I had never written any defamatory document about my boss.  I would not have done so.  On the day she informed me she was firing me, I reminded her that she had made the allegation I had written a defamatory email about her, but no one had ever produced the document, and I'd surely like to see it. 

She refused to produce the document, but hotly insisted that it existed.  I have never seen the email she imagines was a defamatory statement about her.

All the while that my subordinate was rifling through folder after folder to find the non-existent email on the evening when the psychopath had demanded that he read it to me in Steve's presence, the psychopath kept calling into my office and demanding to be put on speakerphone.  She was calling from her car phone.

Each speakerphone session consisted of the three of us sitting in silence while she screamed--louder and louder with each call--over her car phone, demanding that the assistant v-p produce and read the nonexistent email.  Immediately!  "You read that email to them, Dr. P.  Be a man!" she ranted.  "Bring the hammer down on their heads and tell them what the campus is saying about them."

On and on this went, hours of psychological torture as it grew darker and darker outside and the poor feckless assistant v-p sweated, trying to do the psychopath's bidding, but unable to do so, since he couldn't produce a non-existent defamatory statement out of thin air.

And then this happened: as we left the office, I discovered that, all the while this was going on, the administrative assistant who just emailed birthday greetings to me, had remained at her desk in the outer office, sitting there, hearing the screaming of the psychopathic university president on the speakerphone.  She had remained at her desk long after work hours for one simple reason: she wanted Steve and me to know that someone in the workplace regarded us as human beings and valued us as human beings.

Plainly.  Simply.

And then the following happened: several days after all of this commotion took place, this administrative assistant told me that she had a massive tumor on her breast.  She had gone for tests, and it was malignant.    She had known this, and had told no one, as she sat at her desk in the dark for hours during which the psychopathic president of our university had forced my subordinate to grill and torment me (and Steve).

And on the very day on which my administrative assistant informed me that she had breast cancer and needed to take time for surgery and recuperation, the psychopathic president called me down to her office for yet another bullying session.  "Are you aware that Mrs. X came to work seven minutes late this morning?" she screamed.  

Mrs. X. was the administrative assistant who had just informed me she had malignant breast cancer.  Why the university president would know or care that my assistant had arrived a few moments late to work was baffling to me.

The psychopath insisted that I reprimand the assistant.  I absolutely refused to do so.  As I pointed out to her, the university was a Methodist institution that claimed to value Methodist social principles, among which there are strong statements that workers are not things but human persons who deserve humane treatment.

It's for that wonderful administrative assistant, whose kindness to me on that dark evening I will never forget, that I have posted this recipe for buttermilk pie.  If I were still in Florida, I'd bake it for her right now, as my aunt is now baking it for a visit she and I will make to some cousins tomorrow.

And I tell this story here now because at the time all of this happened, I could tell no one, including the administrative assistant herself, because the abusive work environment the psychopathic boss produced throughout the university was so dangerous and toxic, open communication of any sort--even a simple thank-you to the assistant for her support--could result in disaster for those with whom you shared information.

It should not be this way in a faith-based institution.  It is not to the credit of the United Methodist bishop of Florida, Timothy Whitaker--not at all!--that he and other UMC ministers on the board of this UMC university have allowed this deeply destructive and psychopathic university president to harm one person after another for years, with impunity.  While enjoying an exorbitant salary, as she has fired people right and left and slandered them in the process . . . .

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