JENNIFER NEWSOM + TOM CARRUTHERS

Dark Matter

a mixture of the unknown and the tangible - by Jennifer Newsom

As American As Pie

After the march, counter-protest, and death in Charlottesville, my neighbor baked me a pie. Not any run of the mill sort, but a decadent, delicious-looking, strawberry and rhubarb pie. I can reckon the ingredients were organic, possibly sourced from a garden plot. He and his wife (a Virginia transplant), besieged by such flummoxed inability in response to the hatred of the day, turned to making food, nourishing salves for their feelings of incapacity. They wrote somberly, “We feel powerless to help and fight.”

I told them they were wonderful, confused but laugh-out-loud wonderful, and thanked them for the dessert. Privately, however, I had a sense of weary bewilderment, perhaps from too many pokes of white liberalism. I thought of the deliberateness and systematic follow-through it takes to make pie: the mixing and setting of the dough, the preparation of the innards, the careful titration of the filling, the placement and crimping of the crust. And then the interminable waiting, while the sweet smells rise and fill a house with warmth. All that for little ol’ me? The husband and I have known each other since high school, and I also happen to be the only black person (that I know of) in the 4-5 block radius around our two houses. 

What did they hope to achieve by making this pie? I think it was a blind act, made without consideration of consequence, a floundering for anchorage of sorts. For me, it was much more loaded. After thanking them graciously for the dessert, my first thought was of the specific ingredients and how my ancestors had toiled to bring them forth from the earth.

I do not know the exact recipe used, but I’ll try to dissect the contents:


SUGAR

Cutting sugar cane in Louisiana. circa 1909-1913. From the New York Public Library

Cutting sugar cane in Louisiana. circa 1909-1913. From the New York Public Library

Pie’s standing as our unofficial national dessert would not be possible without the cultivation, harvest, and processing of sugar cane. A monstrously incessant task, in the slave era, sugar cane required more and more bodies to churn out its riches, fueling the consumption of sugar, rum, molasses, and other sweet treats. All to make me wonder if rubbing sugar in a wound is a sting as pointed as salt.


FLOUR

Old method of harvesting wheat on southern farms. circa 1909-1913. From the New York Public Library

Old method of harvesting wheat on southern farms. circa 1909-1913. From the New York Public Library

Wheat flows like a tan fire. Scythes slice the air, backs bent. After cutting, the wheat is tied into sheaves, made into upright stooks for drying, threshed, and the wheat berry winnowed from the chaff. Now machines do their bidding, but the old method of preparing wheat for grinding into flour first required hunched, dark figures to sow and reap.


BUTTER/EGGS

Magnolia homestead, Mississippi, Sept. 1936. From the New York Public Library

Magnolia homestead, Mississippi, Sept. 1936. From the New York Public Library

Animals give products meant for their babies. Liquid nutrition in two forms: freely flowing and encased. The proteins from milk fat and eggs bind the ingredients of the pie together. They, with the flour, give it shape. Foundations from pilfered booty.


RHUBARB/STRAWBERRIES

Negroes in bunkhouse in strawberry fields near Hammond, Louisiana; Note crude bunks, straw mattresses, and crowded conditions, April 1939. From the New York Public Library.

Negroes in bunkhouse in strawberry fields near Hammond, Louisiana; Note crude bunks, straw mattresses, and crowded conditions, April 1939. From the New York Public Library.

Rhubarb was originally used for its laxative medicinal purposes, both in China and later in Europe, after the exploratory adventures of Marco Polo. First developed as a filling for pies in the late 1700s, its bitterness compliments the sweetness of strawberry.

Native to North America, strawberries as we know them are cultivars of a North American and Chilean variety brought to France in the 1750s. Black farmers have been picking strawberries on the eastern seaboard for generations. Now an ethnically expanded list of migrant sharecroppers and pickers process strawberries for cultivation and harvest. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/11/in-the-strawberry-fields/305754/. I imagine things have not gotten much better in the 22 years since this article was written.


My neighbor did not know he was measuring, mixing, and baking this history. Unfortunately, I was out of town and could not eat the results of his labor.

 

 

 

Jennifer Carruthers