Pie. Blueberry, pecan, peach, apple. I’ll have them anytime, seasonally dependent, of course. I like the homemade kind. None of that gooey, goopy, jellied slop from a can thrown unlovingly between two store-bought frozen pie shells. Hold the ice cream. Hold the whip cream. Don’t even think about a dollop of Cool Whip.
I’ve always been a more sweet than savory type, but I can’t remember when I graduated from cakes to pies. They are, after all, more adult. It was most likely the result of numerous outings to our small town diner with my dad. He was a restless type. A late night Diet Pepsi drinking, junk food eating, cigarette smoking type. An always looking for an adventure type. Skipping the normal bedtime to go for some respectable, if not homemade, pie was the kind of badass thing he did with us kids.
Though my mom wasn’t always cool with this parental quirk, she indulged his fondness for pie and, I guess, mine in a more usual motherly way. Every July we got a blueberry pie. Sometimes two. Maybe that’s why it’s my favorite pie of all. The tip-off one was coming was the ’70s edition of Joy of Cooking sitting on the kitchen counter, its robin egg blue cover faded from years of use. I remember her pie less for the crust and more for the soupy, gushy filling that I ate quickly so I could get to my favorite pie pastime: licking all that sweet juice off my plate. An added bonus was Mom’s lax take on breakfast. Pie, in her book, was considered an acceptable option.
Blueberry season comes a month earlier in Shandong Province. It’s only June and here I am licking violet-blue juicy pie remnants off my dessert plate. At 7:00 AM. I did the same the night before. At 8:30 PM. I might even do it again tonight.
Blueberries are around for only a few short weeks. Cherries and lychees a bit longer. These are easier to come by given they’re preferred by the Chinese (blueberries are slowly becoming more popular). You can easily find them at the outdoor markets or the vendors who sit out in random places on the streets of downtown Haiyang or the back roads near the village. There’s even a guy who sells them from the back of his flatbed scooter right outside the gates of our Zhuan Jia Chun. He beeps his horn and asks me if I want to buy some every night I run by. For those who want to pick their own, a half hour drive will get you to the Cherry Village. Been there. Done that.
I haven’t found a need to buy any myself. I recently received three unsolicited deliveries of cherries. Even got a bag full of lychees. How nice, how thoughtful. I wanted to be thankful but was more sorry for myself for having to wash and figure out how to eat them all. Lychees gross me out. It’s a texture thing. Plus, they have a shell, which means they’re more of a pain to deal with. Double plus, I don’t have a lychee recipe up my sleeve nor the time to Google one. If I wasn’t nursing and had a stash of alcohol, I might have tried making my friend’s lychee martini recipe. It’s the only martini I’ve ever tried and liked. Since I’m a gin and tonic fan, I never did anything with them. Which made me feel shitty because they were shipped all the way from our good friend’s hometown of Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province.
I at least put the cherries to good use, even though they’re on the sour end for my taste buds. I ate a few. Iggy ate a lot. He isn’t bothered by their pits. I hate having to spit them out, hate having to look at them once the deed is done, and especially hate cleaning them out of my kitchen sink drain. Yes, that’s where they end up. I found a new hate for them last week — having to use a pastry tip to remove them one by one so I could make my first-ever cherry pie. I have an aunt who makes a beautiful one, lattice top and all. My sister loves it. I don’t.
I do like a good pie crust. One that is buttery and flaky and thick and best washed down with a swig of dark coffee fresh from a French Press. I’ve perfected the crust during my China years, though I don’t make pretty ones of anything when it comes to baking or cooking as the photo below proves. I leave presentation to my aunt and pastry chef brother. But I’ve gained a reputation for a tasty crust, which, in all honesty, has nothing to do with my genius but with Martha’s. Her recipe has never once failed me. So I made the cherry pie and even ate it. All because of the crust. One piece was enough. Iggy had two. The rest I gave away. It was just disappointing in that it made me long for my beloved, better-tasting-to-me blueberry pie.
I thought I’d have to skip that this year. I wasn’t up for a drive through the mountains of Yantai to pick my own like I did a few years ago with friends. Again, it was a nice one and done China experience. I didn’t even want to go to the farm that’s just outside the Haiyang city limits where you can pick as many blueberries as you want for the bargain price of 60 RMB ($9 USD). I went there last year and sweated more in the stifling greenhouse heat while six months pregnant than in any Bikram yoga class I’ve taken. There was no way I’d survive that with eight month old Baby K strapped on me.
Yet I couldn’t resist the last-minute invitation to go when it came last week. The temptation of fresh blueberries was too much and I knew I wouldn’t be picking my own. While the others labored and sweated in the greenhouse, Baby K and I went walking around the rest of the grounds. Like a typical Chinese restaurant menu, this place had many diverse offerings. We first opted for a stroll around the creepy collection of decrepit children’s rides sprawled out over a cracked, uneven patch of concrete. I checked these out from the viewpoint of a shaded bench on which I nursed the baby and later did circles around them as she napped. When this got old, we continued on to, of all things, a very legit Buddhist temple. We climbed the steps, protected from the hot sun by an umbrella, and roamed around its various tiers. At the top, a monk in a brilliantly bright orange colored robe gave me the evil eye as I nonchalantly took photos of Haiyang from the vantage point. (Note to self: keep the umbrella closed at temples in the future.) When the others were done picking, their bags of relatively cheap and fresh blueberries in hand, I simply handed over 300 RMB ($46 USD) and walked away with five pounds of already picked ones.
A pound, perhaps two, went into the decadent buttery crusts I made the next day, which I marked with a B for baby and me even though it wasn’t a cake. I used my mom’s filling recipe with a slight tweak — adding in some lemon zest and extra lemon juice. Like any cantankerous middle-aged man opposed to change, I imagine my dad would’ve complained about this and pointed out that my pie lacked the juicy, soupy texture of my mom’s. A thought that made me wonder what he’d think of me talking about this now while in a place he never could’ve imagined I’d be. A place so far away from the small town I grew up in and from those late nights we ate pie together in a sticky plastic diner booth. Or, from those hot July nights we ate my mom’s pie in the comfort of our own home, sipping on coffee made using his Bodum French Press. Not so coincidentally, the same one sits in my kitchen cupboard today.
This is our last berry season here and the last blueberry pie I’ll make during it. This time next year, I’ll miss berry picking outings with friends and baking in our tiny kitchen using our tiny oven. I know I’ll look back fondly on this aspect of life in Haiyang, but I’ll never be as nostalgic for it as I am for the pie-eating days of my childhood.