The house in Allentown is another I return to often in dreams and memories. Not all of it, because I’ve forgotten the look of the main rooms, but downstairs was a cherry-paneled den as an extension off the back of the house, with a door that led out to a flagstone patio surrounding an elm tree that grew straight up past the rooftop. The den had built-in bookshelves and a turntable that pulled out from a drawer, and that’s where my parents played Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, passing each other sections of the newspaper as they sipped their martinis on a Saturday evening during the sacrosanct cocktail hour, from which children were forbidden access until years later.
Directly above the den was my brother’s boy cave. His bookshelves held a lot of classics, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as volumes by Isaac Asimov and a long-forgotten historical novelist named Rafael Sabatini, whose swashbuckling tales thrilled me to my toes (Scaramouche and Captain Blood were two that became movies with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Stewart Granger). Little else held much interest. Bill had his own portable stereo for recordings by Glenn Gould and Wanda Landowksa, and his desk was always a precarious landscape of leaky ballpoints, pencils, slide rules, and papers covered in cryptic symbols. (A messy desk, he claimed, was the sign of a highly organized mind.)
The sibling tortures continued, though in a generally harmless vein. Our parents promised us each a dollar to babysit if there were no complaints of misbehavior when they got home (by the time we arrived in Allentown, he was 15, I was 10, old enough to forgo a sitter). Bill said he’d “tell on us” unless I gave him 50 cents of my dollar, and I willingly turned it over.
I didn’t mind. I was then in awe of him. In spite of a scrawny physique, floppy hair, and a towering height of six foot four inches, he was enormously popular. A wiz kid who aced every subject but was never a loner. He hung out with friends who were to my tweenager eyes the epitome of cool, and I had crushes on at least two of his male buddies. The high-school drama club practiced Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell” in our living room; the foreign-sports-car rallying club had its starting point in our kitchen (my brother’s beat-up used VW counted as “foreign”). Bill’s eccentricities delighted me: he often used a shoe as a bookmark and was given to German exclamations: “Wunderbar!” and “Scheisskopf!” His pet name for me was Wumpus Weegan, shortened to Wumpie or Wump.
For his junior and senior years, he had a girlfriend named Sheila Heffner (my mother called her “Sheila Heifer” because of her big brown eyes and impressive posterior). So smitten were they with each other, I believe my parents were terrified they might want to marry too young (remember, if you can, that the hit songs in those years were “Goin’ to the Chapel” and “Hey, Paula,” which blasted from every transistor at the local pool). But the romance faded soon after graduation.
With a perfect 800 in both the verbal and math portions of the SATs, as valedictorian of a class of 750 students, Bill and the rest of us all fully expected he would gain early acceptance to Harvard, his dream school. He was rejected, and he was crushed. But he landed a National Merit scholarship to Dartmouth and breezed through in three years as the student of John Kemeny, the inventor of BASIC and one of the foremost mathematicians in the country.
The night before the graduation ceremony, I got my first period. My mother had bought me a sweet little “sailor dress” with a wide middy collar that tied in a jaunty blue bow. It was otherwise white as new-fallen snow, and I was terrified of the potential for unseemly female leakage. (My mother’s consoling words? “I’m sorry, dear, but when God created women he made a mess. That’s just the way it is.”) I was fortified with ample sanitary pads and thick underpants and got through the ordeal without any obvious embarrassment. (Decades later a hare-brained shrink would make much of the coincidence: Did I not see how the white was a token of marriage, the period my initiation into womanhood, and the commencement a mystical connection to my brother? No, I didn’t see it that way at all and stopped the sessions soon after. More about him later.)
We had a graduation party on the back patio, to which the neighbors were invited, and perhaps even Mrs. Fisher showed up. Can I remember the menu? Hell no. But since a local favorite was shoofly pie, let’s assume it was someone’s well-intentioned contribution. To make it more palatable then standard versions, which call only for molasses and brown sugar as sweeteners, let’s throw in some chocolate. You can use a prepared crust, but for best results I recommend this recipe from my friend and neighbor Christina Rutkaus:
Chrissy’s pie crust:
2 cups flour, either all-purpose or a mix of that with whole wheat pastry and spelt
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup butter
Mix flour and salt, cut in cold butter and work to desired state/ Add ice water as needed for flour to form a ball, wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Pastry for single-crust pie (9 inches)
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten
- 1 cup molasses
- Pinch of ginger, pinch of cinnamon
- Roll out dough to fit a 9-in. deep-dish pie plate. Trim to 1/2 inch beyond rim of plate; flute edges. Sprinkle chocolate chips into crust; set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine flour and brown sugar; cut in shortening until crumbly. Set aside 1 cup for topping. Add the baking soda, water, egg and molasses to remaining crumb mixture and mix well. Pour over chips. Sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture.
- Bake at 350° until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Let stand on a wire rack for 15 minutes before cutting. Serve warm.
Note: According to one Internet source, the pie takes its name from Shoofly the Boxing Mule, who was part of a popular traveling circus act in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The mule was christened for a popular song, “Shoo, Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” and the famous mule’s name was branded onto a number of products, such as Shoofly Flour, Shoofly Horse Powder, Shoofly Molasses, and, of course, Shoofly Pie.
Top: Pierre Bonnard, La tarte aux cerises (1908), 115 by 123 cm.