Nashville’s Hymnmoot last Friday was blessed by the presence of John Cal, both in a delicious rhubarb pie and in one of his signature, Hutchmoot-style anecdotes that made his pie all the tastier. Below is the text from his story for you to enjoy.
Daniel Murauskas was always better at making pie than I was. Crisp crusts, beautiful lattices, perfectly thickened fruit juices. His whipped cream was always creamier, his meringue, meringue-ier. I wasn’t sure whether to attest his pie prowess to his height, his GPA, or how much he could bench press, all ranking numbers significantly higher than mine, but being in the presence of a Murauskas pie somehow always seemed to leave me feeling lacking.
“It was probably because he grew up in South Dakota,” I’d tell myself. “People in Hawaii don’t bake.” And it’s just convenient to have another thing to blame on my childhood and my parents.
I wanted to bake as a kid. For my tenth birthday my parents got me a bread machine. Sun dried tomato and pesto sour dough, braided challah, honey wheat—I’d bring loaves to the church potluck and hear the housewives swoon. The next year, for Christmas, my father bought me my first cookbook, Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, and I mastered La Riene du Saba, The Queen of Sheba chocolate cake, that I made in triplicate and brought to school for Valentine’s Day. My teachers swooned.
By college, when Dan and I met, I had a half dozen or so cookie recipes memorized: chocolate chip, peanut butter, sugar, all the important ones. At friends’ houses, I could produce a couple dozen snickerdoodles as a hat trick, and from start to finish we could be dolloping dough to dunking in milk in less than twenty minutes.
But then Daniel would bring a pie, and even with a cookie’s unbridled deliciousness, you simply cannot compare a homemade pie to snickerdoodles. Even the really sad flavors of pie, like canned cherry crumble, trump cookies on the buffet line of life with almost no effort.
His apples were tender, while mine remained crunchy; his pecans toasted, while mine remained pekid. Blueberry, key lime, chocolate silk, all delectable and lovely, but where Dan really shined was during rhubarb season. With cranberries, or strawberries, or roasted and dipped in caramel. Who thought the red-headed cousin of celery could be so tempting?
I was told once that we are all part of the body of Christ, some hands, some feet—all important in the kingdom—but this self-imposed pie deficiency of mine left me feeling like an appendix: inflamed and expendable.
There is, of course, too much to deal with in college with all that literary analysis, all those algebraic theorems, and whether or not Casey Perkins would go to the movies with me on Saturday night; and so for years I carried around this sadness, this lacking inside me. Without knowing, I held my sorrow intimately close.
And we forget about it. This acute sense of longing just becomes normal, just how we feel. We forget that though all the signs point to love and redemption, we often don’t think very well of ourselves.
Years later, after college, after graduation, after I left Nebraska and relocated to Oregon, Daniel happened to be passing through town, visiting a distant Aunt in Portland, and asked if he could stop by for a visit. I had just moved into a new home and he’d be around for the house warming. We were having burgers and potato salad, cookies, and cake, but Daniel was coming, and he asked if he could bring anything.
“I could make a pie,” he offered.
“Great,” I said, one of the many words I use as a blanket to my real feelings. Fine, sure, yeah okay. They all work in a pinch.
He was happy to get the ingredients on his drive up, but I offered to get them, to wield what little power I still had over him. I bought the expensive local butter from the co-op and fresh raspberries from the farmers market. When he arrived, I even brought him to the house of a friend who grew rhubarb in their organic garden so that he could pick the best stalks himself and have them baking en croute mere minutes from when they were picked.
We're so used to hoarding what we have. We think there's not enough, but the path to joy—that path I so often choose to ignore—says that sparrows and wildflowers are treasured, fed, and clothed in beauty.John Cal
I don’t know where we learn that we need to be all, do all. Somehow we learn to be empowered with the idea of power. “All of this can be yours,” the Great Deceiver said to Jesus in the desert. “Your eyes will be opened,” said the serpent in the garden. I know these words are lies, and yet why is it that like the rich young ruler, I am left in despair when I already know the path to joy? Why is it that I am still so impressed with a grand and lavish temple gift as if it is more pious, more devout than two small mites?
It all happened very quickly: dough was made, crust was rolled, fruit chopped and dusted in sugar and cornstarch.
“You use cornstarch instead of flour,” I said, trying to glaze the judgment in my words, as to not reveal my covetousness.
“Flour works too,” Daniel said, dotting the top of his fruit with tiny knobs of butter. “I usually just use whatever I have in the house,” he continued, his casual banter only magnifying the insufficiency rumbling inside me, but this was it, my chance to weasel some pie secrets out of him, to manipulate my way into the win.
“So, I know what I do, when I make pie,” I said with internal quivering, “but what ratio do you use for fruit to thickening agent?”
“Well, you know it’s different for every fruit,” Daniel said. “Apples can have a lot of water in them compared to rhubarb, but it’s around a teaspoon of cornstarch or a tablespoon of flour for every cup of fruit.”
And that was it. In an anticlimactic moment, it was like there were no secrets at all, like a veil had been ripped to reveal everything I had been longing to know. All I had to do was ask.
“Yeah,” I said, still trying to cover up my deficiencies. “Fruit can be so temperamental. Even when you do everything right, you can still end up with soup and a soggy crust.”
“Wanna know this trick I just learned?” Daniel said with a twinkle.
We found a bowl, two eggs, milk, and a few tablespoons of sugar. He beat them together and poured them over the fruit.
“Custard,” he said as he poured. “I don’t do this all the time, but it makes the pie seem really fancy, but it’s really easy. The juices just get absorbed by the custard and make a really tasty sauce.”
It seems silly now that all I needed to do was ask. We’re so used to hoarding what we have. We think there’s not enough, but the path to joy—that path I so often choose to ignore—says that sparrows and wildflowers are treasured, fed, and clothed in beauty. And yet it’s so hard to put down this fear I carry.
My pie still isn’t as good as Daniel’s, though I did use his recipe tonight: rhubarb and custard. Still, my resolve to this truth wasn’t gleaned from comparing or ranking our measurable ingredients, but instead because what Daniel had he freely gave, because that’s the way real joy works. It believes there is enough, and that we are enough, and that if we let ourselves be brave enough, if we simply remind each other to be braver, that if we, in our weakness, carry the corners of this great canvas we each have been entrusted with, then it might be possible to step back, even in our insufficiencies, and see the big, beautiful picture we are creating together.
“Huh, that really is easy. Thanks Dan,” I said before returning to my cookie making.
Then, without missing a beat, he weaved a beautiful lattice from the scraps of dough that were left, making sure that nothing was wasted.
A “John of all trades,” John Cal works as a writer, speaker, chef, and baker, but he also dabbled as an event planner, programming director, dance aerobics instructor, and professional ukuleleist, before accidentally managing to get himself roped into cooking for Hutchmoot for years on end. A bowtie and postcard enthusiast, John recently spent a year ambling the country with his Clumber Spaniel, Lucy in a vintage 13’ Scamp Trailer and is working on an essay collection about his travels.