By SHANNON WATKINS
My grandmother taught me the meaning of being a lady when I was still a girl. She was patient, soft-spoken, kind and quick to find the good in others. Her feet were used to both low-heeled Aigner pumps at church and the mud from our garden.
She rocked me and sang hymns to lull me to sleep as an infant. She would sometimes bring me a handful of nuts from her job at Pond Brothers Peanuts when I was a girl: exotic cashews, papery-skinned pistachios. When I was older, she read a chapter of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and later, “Little Men,” to me every night before bedtime. At age 10 she bought me a copy of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which I remember reading that same June evening, curled up on her bed with the attic fan drawing in cool night air, a McDonald’s hot fudge sundae still fresh on my lips.
My family lauded her as a great cook. My grandfather in his prime could eat three or four of her buttermilk biscuits alongside dinner. She taught me how to bake, and how to use salt correctly (not too much; just enough to add savor and marry flavors to one another.) She also read me the Bible and prodded me awake and to church every Sunday, in hopes that I wouldn’t grow up to be a complete heathen.
I grew older and moved in with my mother and stepfather after they married; but the family always gathered for holidays and special occasions and if anything united us, it was our love of food. She insisted that she loved chicken necks and gizzards better than any other part; I think that was mostly true, but she always quietly stepped aside and put others’ wants ahead of hers, a trait I only imperfectly share with her.
I went away to college and everyone grew up or older. A few years later my grandfather passed away. I came home for his funeral and at the viewing the night before, she stood, and sat, receiving visitors like a queen. I felt privileged to fetch her cups of water.
I came back to the Valley and went through several job changes and then lost one in 2011. That summer, I took to baking. I picked up the ingredients for a blueberry rhubarb pie and brought them home for a family visit.
On impulse I took a generous slice to my grandmother’s. By now she was almost 85, small and frail and quiet. She liked blueberries, and she liked rhubarb. She wasn’t hungry when I left it there, but she had some later, and told me she liked it.
The last time I saw her was that visit. She waved from the kitchen door, blowing kisses back at me as I drove away. Not much later I heard her voice for the last time, over the phone. She spoke with love but sounded, more than anything, tired; worn out from a busy life taking care of our family.
I’m glad I gave her a taste of what I was up to. I think she enjoyed it. The memory isn’t enough to make up for losing her, but it’s a comfort.
Crust: same as for cherry pie
2 cups plus 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
8 Tbsp. cold cream cheese
12 Tbsp. unsalted cold butter, cut into pieces
1 Tbsp. cider vinegar
Mix dry ingredients together. Work in cream cheese with your fingers until fully incorporated; texture will be like cornmeal. Cut in butter with a knife until down to pea-sized flecks. Stir in cider; add 2-3 Tbsp. ice water and work into dough quickly. Add more, sparingly, until dough forms a ball. Move to lightly floured surface. Shape into two balls, one slightly larger; flatten into disks, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for an hour.
2 ½ Tbsp. cornstarch
1 handful rhubarb stalks, chopped small
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsps. sugar
1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground cloves
1/16 tsp. almond extract
1/8 tsp. salt
2 pints blueberries
Preheat oven to 425F; cover cookie sheet with aluminum foil and place in oven to heat up. Dissolve cornstarch in 1/3 cup of water over medium heat. Add rest of ingredients and stir gently to mix for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
Roll out dough into 2 rounds; line bottom and sides of aluminum piepan with one. Pull cookie sheet from oven and place pan on it; pour in filling, and top with second crust. You can cut it into strips first and make a basketweave if you like. Either way, be sure it’s ventilated and brush with cream or egg yolk and sprinkle with sugar. Put into oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350F and bake until done and crust is brown, about 40 minutes.