A Recipe for Revision {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 21}

I rake fingers through flour, light and dry, then pull beads of cold butter into it, oil and weight joining. Then the cold water splashes in, an awakening. Dough rounds itself away from the sides of the bowl.

This is my second try. My practice pie turned out a runny mess of filling inside an overworked crust. I wonder now if I’m doing this anything like Priscilla did, her fingers making art of fashion plates and dessert plates.

Her little Georgie learned creativity watching her work the colored pencils. He learned love with the taste of her butterscotch pie. It was his no-contest favorite. And he was hers.

I pat the dough into a ball, then press it into a disk and carry it to the fridge, heavy as a stone. I think of how he found her on the floor next to the icebox with her hand over her heart, how he took his fist to his own chest and hurtled past the open school books on the table, down the tenement hall, out the building and across the street to the scout master’s house. Sirens screamed and doors flew open. They slid her quiet frame into the back of the ambulance, a hearse painted white. Then, the waiting.

This time, I force patience. When I shrugged off the chilling of dough for my first pie, the crust shrunk back in the oven and baked up tough instead of flaky. Now, I wait an hour and do it right. The mass softens as flour falls to the counter top, dust to dust. I press down and rub at the edges to erase little fault lines. Then more flour and I bring the rolling pin from center to edge like bicycle spokes, homage to the spinning wheels he rode down from Chicago over quiet Indiana roads, an orphan in wartime. The dough spreads wide, in concentric circles, the way a single day can change the course of a life.

I fold the thin layer of dough and move it to the pie dish, ease it into the contours and gather up the frayed edges to make them part of the crust. I press in my fingers to ruffle the dough around the rim and then send it back to the fridge.

The oven and stove top heat up in unison and I think back to the too-sweet filling from my practice pie. I go for light brown sugar over the dark this time around and add it to the water to make a better butterscotch syrup. I think out loud, remembering the eggs and milk that gritted and curdled when I put them in the hot syrup one at a time. Now, I whisk them together and stir in the flour tablespoon by tablespoon to keep it all smooth. I tip it in slow motion, pour the mix into the pan and stir constantly while it all simmers and bonds and thickens up with no bits of egg or milk to be seen. In goes the butter, vanilla and salt, the right mix of savory and sweet that make a recipe or a story last beyond the taste buds or the telling.

When I carry the milk carton back to the fridge to exchange it for the crust, I picture the boy in his grief walking back into the stale apartment where no one had moved the air for days, how he walked lightly over the spot where she had fallen. He’d been sent for the last of the milk, a lonely carafe, to make up for what he’d been using during his stay across the street.

I get to work on the crust, weigh it down with dried beans and bake it empty. On my second try with these tweaks of the recipe, I am set on making this pie right, something not too far off from what his mother always made.

I’ll whip up the egg whites and brown the meringue before putting the pie in the fridge instead of being the fool and baking the filling runny again. Now, meringue waits in a bowl while butterscotch pours into the void like his story told, sugaring the pain. A most lovely aroma swirls up in the steam, memory of what he’d found in that lonely corner of the kitchen.

He pulled the door open and what he saw on the icebox shelf had him grabbing at his heart again. Sweat dotted tan buttons of meringue. Twisted crust traced the rim of a lovingly tarnished pan. There in the middle of all that loneliness was a surprise, her one final act of affection, a butterscotch pie baked for her boy, for the love of Georgie.

Grandpa Wiley really knew how to tell a story. He’d been sharing that one for sixty years by the time he became family to me. He was brave to share what made him cry. He knew that every story has its salty and sweet. And through years of storytelling, he’d learned just what details communicated the heart of the story and how to tell it in a way that had the listener feeling present in it, no matter how far back the story’s history.

The best storytellers are the ones who work their stories again and again, revising words and phrases, who sift them like flour and blend them smooth like the eggs and milk. The recipe scribbled in your scratch journal may be a good start, but the pie is perfected when you allow for changes.

When I revise, I take my scribbled draft and type it into the computer. As I sift through first-try words, the big ideas firm up and better phrases roll out. Then, I read it aloud and thicken it up some more. And after a few rounds, I’ve got something I’m ready to share within my little circle, and the telling of it there will better the story even further (more on that in the next post).

When we presented Grandpa the white cardboard box with a bow on it, I think he expected to open the lid to the sight of a new book, our usual gift. But this time, on his 80th birthday, we celebrated his story, his words and the way they connected us with past generations. That day, when he saw the browned peaks of meringue and breathed in the smell of butterscotch, he put his open hand to his heart once again and let the tears flow, sugar and salt.

{Take a story from your scratch journal and work through it like a baker bettering a recipe. Type it on the computer, sifting the ideas and words as you go. Then read it aloud and continue to revise (re-type it again in a new document if it helps you). When you are finished, share an excerpt from the piece or simply reflect on the revision process by commenting below.}

This is Day 21 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

Don’t want to miss a post? Be sure and follow via email on the homepage sidebar or click “Get the Message” on the main menu.

(I adapted the pie crust recipe above from Alice Waters’ recipe in The Art of Simple Food, one of my favorite cookbooks. You can click my affiliate link to order one for yourself or a friend.)

5 thoughts on “A Recipe for Revision {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 21}

    • Such wonderful words to hear from a writer/historian like you. Thank you for the kindness. It does help to have such a good story to start with, doesn’t it? Did you ever get to hear him tell it?

  1. Darc, I love learning more about your grandparents. I know someday E, F,& G will look back over these stories and see them as a treasure.

    When my mom explained heaven to me as a child, she told me that my favorite things would be there. I’m pretty sure that she meant my favorite beings like the G-d of the Universe. But, tonight I’m revisiting my simplistic understanding of heaven, and I’m hoping that Grandpa Wiley has access to a slice of this wonderful pie and has some memory of the beautiful, loving gift you gave him. Thank you for sharing this story! -jmf

  2. Pingback: Media Manifesto {A Less Digital Life…Day 10} | Message in a Mason Jar

Leave a Reply