Saturday, November 13, 2010

Labors of Love

Mary Ann Dabritz
We've all heard of a labor of love. This refers to any task so odious, so frustrating, so destructive of the temperament that no amount of money could ever induce you to do it. Only love could make you this miserable. Labors of love might include cutting a pattern out of silk. Or knitting (anything). Or, in my house, the annual production of the hazelnut-huckleberry pie. Pie-making in general needs a lot of love behind it, because some of it is going to be destroyed in the process, never to return, and you want there to be some affection left over. They're all a pain. A blackberry pie is preceded by a loss of blood and some scarring. Apple pie always ends up looking like fruit sludge with an attic over it.

The particular treatment of huckleberries in this household comes down from the amazing Mary Ann, who whomps up her own recipes out of sheer exuberance and disdain for standard ingredients. Huckleberries are particularly dear due to their scarcity, and a plain crust does them less honor than a crust made with hazelnuts, which, in spite of what you may have guessed, is the State Nut. Mary Ann makes up things on the fly and uses anything available as long as it's not sugar, in spite of which they taste just fine.

In many ways, she's an artifact, an escapee from the nineteenth century who could have spanked a Conestoga expedition into shape. Once when a group of us went to our mountain cabin for a winter retreat and discovered it minus electricity, we all groaned and repaired to the nearest tavern for beer and pizza whilst waiting for the linemen to hook us back up. Not Mary Ann. She couldn't have been tickleder at the prospect of Making Do. She resolutely stayed behind to see what she could spank up, and as we scritched the ice off the inside of the windows, we told her to have a cake ready when we came back.

We returned to a crackling fire, a respectable sixty-degree temperature, lit candles that were probably made on the spot out of boiled shrew hides, and the unmistakable smell of cake baking over the wood stove. There were no particular cake ingredients in the place, and the contents were a mystery, some without a doubt scraped up off the forest floor. But it was delicious. If she'd have found a bigger mammal, she'd probably have had a wheel of cheese started.

So one of the problems with huckleberries is the picking. It's a pleasant-enough process, but you're an hour into it before you've covered the bottom of the bucket. At minimum wage, a pie's-worth of huckleberries should run you about forty bucks. Every year we go up on the mountain to scavenge our berries and in a very good year we might get enough for five pies. This was not a good year. Mary Ann and I picked for an hour and together we didn't get much more than pancake spangles.  I told Dave the sad news and he promptly donned the stricken look I last saw on him when we found out Roots Brewery was closing down.

The Entire 2010 Huckleberry Haul
When you really love someone, and he really loves hazelnut huckleberry pie, you'll do anything to remove that stricken look, and there's only one thing that will work. Pie crusts are crazy-making. They shouldn't even be attempted for all but about five days out of the month during a woman's reproductive years. A nut crust ups the ante. The crusts are rolled between sheets of wax paper to keep the tears of rage off the dough, and with great care and a hip-hop vocabulary, they can sometimes be transferred to a pie plate in one or two shreddy pieces. They will not be transferred to the state fair.

With a quick glance at our berry haul, during which I was able to get an accurate count of individual berries, I selected a two-inch ramekin from the cupboard and had at it. A single hazelnut huckleberry pie out of my kitchen would run you about a hundred forty bucks, including time in and the exasperation tariff. A two-inch pie? Priceless.

Although somebody's going to pay.

Mine. Go get your own.
Mary Ann does everything for love, but if you want to take a look at what she does for money, take a stroll around A Cast Of Characters. There is no better source on this planet for genuine bronze Otterhound door knockers, among many, many other things. And yes, I do have salamander cabinet pulls.

30 comments:

  1. You just had to go and show me that cabinet pull, didn't you...now I am going to have start a hardware fund so I can get some.

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  2. You are too kind. I want ya'll to know that I didn't use anything swept off the forest floor for that cake, but legitimate food like substances.

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  3. Well, it's not a huge pie, but I'll bet it did the trick. Wonderful post, as usual, but I think knitting is fun!

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  4. Don't forget to show off your wedding ring!

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  5. Aw wwwww, he's a lucky man indeed!

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  6. I agree with everything you've said, except about the knitting. Great post. [I now return me to my regularly scheduled knitting...]

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  7. Thrice daily cleaning of the litter boxes!! Not exactly creative but definitely a labor of love!!

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  8. Drool.
    I get sad looking at pictures of Dave. I miss him. And you.

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  9. I know a woman like Mary Ann. She can cook, sew, wire her own house, build stuff, fix stuff, paint, draw, embroider, plumb, kill, gut and prepare her own game, grow her own fruit and vegetables -- and I could go on but it's just too depressing.

    We go blueberry picking in summer. After hours of bending and stooping, I end up with enough for a couple of batches of muffins. But we do it every year because those berries are FREE, and getting something for nothing is just too wonderful to miss.

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  10. "...and with great care and a hip-hop vocabulary..." I can so relate. Again, thank you for a good read first thing in the morning, and for the much-needed laughs.

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  11. Murr, you Amurcans need to adopt the Japanese model of declaring certain artists as "National Treasures". First off, you are one. Secondly, so are the Mary Anns of the world.

    p.s. I knit socks, if that counts for aught.

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  12. I can also add that Mary Ann is an intrepid bicyclist, amazing dog trainer and a fine recorder player!

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  13. Mary Ann has turtle cabinet pulls and even a Christopher Simpson hook! Along with the turtle gang, C.S. is one of my heroes; I studied his DIVISION VIOL instruction book of 1659. And along with swamp4me I long for a hardware budget! (Does Mary Ann play early instruments on top of everything else?)

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  14. When I read about people like Mary Ann, I feel guilty!

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  15. Keep at it, Sweetie. I think there's a very good chance that you may some day be named State Nut.

    As for Mary Ann, among her other outstanding qualities, she also excels at creating flying pigs! (A treasure.)

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  16. AnnieS, you answered my question while I futzed with the posting.

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  17. Fantastic! I don't even need the visual park benches :)

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  18. We used to (try) to collect mushrooms until the professional hunters came packing (armed... no kidding). Chanterelle were the game of choice, they are sooooo good.

    Now we get our berries fresh shipped from Chile and Mexico. They even come in a plastic recyclable see-thru pack at Fred Meyer. They don't have a Product Service Code for Huckleberries at Fred Meyer so, as far as they are concerned, Huckleberries don't really exist.

    ....Tell me they really do, please!

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  19. I used to scream at pie crusts until I discovered the miracle of pastry cloths and my baking wonder neighbor's trick of sprinkling a little sugar into the flour you also sprinkle on the pastry cloth. Not sure why it works, but it does.

    My only experience with huckleberries is a day trek around Mt. Rainer on fall and picking a few as we walked. And then then painting their flaming bushes in a composition against those fantastic primeval pine forests along the trail.

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  20. Now I want a pie and a doggie door knocker. Must you taunt me?

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  21. What fine pies they are. Could you send over a couple of dozen when you have a moment? You know how much baking appeals to me.

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  22. I really think knitting is beyond my capabilities, but I'll bet Mary Ann could knit a radiator out of steel wool. Go for it, swamp4me, there is nothing classier than a set of salamander pulls in the kitchen. Subtle, classic, and imparting the joy of discovery to those who notice. It probably works with dogs, too. And there are significant volume discounts. Ellen, a huckleberry is a tiny blue berry picked at a slight crouch. For hours: it's like a tai chi demo.

    Cowango, there's a lot of good art to be scavenged from Mt. Rainier, and you're just the ones to do it.

    Mme. DeFarge, couple dozen pies coming right up. The invoice will come later, in a very large heavy box.

    And thanks, Max, could I ever aspire to anything greater than being the State Nut?

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  23. Murr:

    Too bad you aren't here in NJ, home of the blueberry. Picking bucketloads is no problem. Now how would I ship them to you?

    Thanks for the information on Mary Ann's business! I will need to look into that

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  24. Ho, Bruce, Western Oregon has blueberries, too, down in the valley, not up in the mountains with wild huckleberries. It's one of our big crops. I even have some in my yard, the better to top my summer cereal and ice cream with and to eat with those teeth the better to eat those blueberries with.* I have three toddler huckleberries, too, but at 180 feet elevation I'm not counting on many, if any, berries. Berries and pies or not, evergreen huckleberry shrubs are beautiful all year 'round.
    *Citation to story with The Wolf, who has atrocious grammar

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  25. I have five Sunshine blueberry bushes in my yard. They started bearing in mid-July, and I still have a few left on the bush. They're a little soggy, but they taste fine. I prop them up with oatmeal.

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  26. "Knit a radiator out of steel wool"!! I might seriously have to steal that; it's brilliant. I am also envious of the pie-making (I once made a pie crust that dented the metal garbage can into which we tossed it) but more so the pie-eating.

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  27. Rosemary LombardApril 5, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    Ho, Bruce, Western Oregon has blueberries, too, down in the valley, not up in the mountains with wild huckleberries. It's one of our big crops. I even have some in my yard, the better to top my summer cereal and ice cream with and to eat with those teeth the better to eat those blueberries with.* I have three toddler huckleberries, too, but at 180 feet elevation I'm not counting on many, if any, berries. Berries and pies or not, evergreen huckleberry shrubs are beautiful all year 'round.
    *Citation to story with The Wolf, who has atrocious grammar

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  28. I used to scream at pie crusts until I discovered the miracle of pastry cloths and my baking wonder neighbor's trick of sprinkling a little sugar into the flour you also sprinkle on the pastry cloth. Not sure why it works, but it does.

    My only experience with huckleberries is a day trek around Mt. Rainer on fall and picking a few as we walked. And then then painting their flaming bushes in a composition against those fantastic primeval pine forests along the trail.

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  29. Well, it's not a huge pie, but I'll bet it did the trick. Wonderful post, as usual, but I think knitting is fun!

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