Monday, February 21, 2011

Hurrah for George Washington

February when I was nine years old was a favorite month. For one thing it came with cherry pie for George Washington’s birthday.
Log cabin motifs were colored and cut to hang on the walls at school to mark Abe Lincoln’s birthday on February 12. It was Groundhog’s Day (Feb. 2) and Valentine’s Day. After the dark days of December, and January’s often numbing cold, February stirred with events and activity.
February 22 the year I was nine was unusually mild. The holiday was celebrated then as George Washington’s Birthday and not the more generic President’s Day (although the holiday sales in the newspapers are the same.)
Dad was home that day. He, my mom and little brother, not yet in school (the term preschooler wasn’t invented yet), decided to have an outdoor picnic.
They roasted slices of hard salami on sticks over a fire. They put the fire-seared salami on bread. Everything tastes good out in the open doing something spontaneous like that.
A winter picnic was practically unheard of, the season being what it is in our parts. When I came home from school and was told of the picnic I could hardly believe it. How lucky they were, I thought.
Later checking, this particular holiday got up to around 50 degrees. Snow was gone. At least it’s conspicuously absent in the photo dad took of the picnic. We owned a fair-sized property and the picnic spot was on a south-facing slope some distance from the house.
My brother has his aviator’s cap on. He’s pictured in it in a lot of the photos in that particular album.
Mom wears an apron under her coat. She's in a dress or skirt. When the decidedly non-picnic attire was pointed out years afterward, while looking through the albums, she commented “We didn't wear pants back then, did we.”
A thermos of coffee is on the ground at the bottom of the photo. I imagine my folks sipping the hot coffee, holding the warm mugs and savoring the February afternoon. The picture is a black and white classic. Photo albums bring everything back.
There was always cherry pie for George Washington’s birthday at our house. Mom was a born pie maker. Her crusts were light and fluffy and her double crust pies were something to behold.
When a juicy cherry middle puddles warmly between two crusts – and a container of vanilla ice cream is in the freezer to top things off – you’re not ever apt to forget who the first president of the United States is. “George Washington,” we might very well have said between bites, “you’re the best.”
Not a pie maker I find I don’t even have mom’s cherry pie recipe in my files. Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, an edition I’ve had since I was married, has the following recipe. The directions are mine. I’ve never been able to read a recipe without wanting to figure out a different way to say it.
Pastry for 8 or 9 inch two-crust pie
2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening, 4-5 tablespoons cold water. Measure flour and salt into bowl. Cut in shortening thoroughly. Sprinkle in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing until all flour is moistened and dough almost cleans side of bowl. One to 2 teaspoons water can be added if needed.
Divide dough in half and shape into two slightly flattened rounds. Using a rolling pin (floured stockinet-covered rolling pin is advised) roll the first round of dough on lightly floured surface. Roll out two inches larger than inverted pie pan. Fold pastry into quarters, unfold and ease into pan.
Roll out the second ball of dough, setting aside until time to place over filling. Lightly fold in quarters for easy transfer to the assembled pie.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. (This is given as the first step but knowing how long it takes for me to roll out crust this seems like turning on the oven too soon. But go ahead if you want! You’re probably smarter to trust Betty Crocker than me).
Pie Filling for nine-inch double crust pie
Stir together 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar and 1/3 cup all-purpose flour. Mix with 2 l-lb. cans of pitted red tart cherries, drained. Turn into pastry-lined pie pan; sprinkle with 1 teaspoon almond extract and dot with 3 tablespoons butter.
Place top crust over filling and unfold. Trim overhanging edge of pastry 1 inch from rim of pan. Fold and roll top edge under lower edge, pressing on rim to seal; flute. Lastly, cut slits in top crust to let steam escape. Seal the edges together and flute.
Cover edge with 2- to 3-inch strip of aluminum foil to prevent excessive browning. Remove foil last 15 minutes of baking.
Bake 8- and 9-inch pies 35-40 minutes or until crust is brown and juice begins to bubble through slits in crust.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rooting for the King's Speech

Clues that the film The King’s Speech was headed to the top came quickly. Our local metro newspaper had an article referencing the movie on the Opinion Exchange page. This was the first hint which registered with me.

It was one of my mornings for a quick scan of the headlines. I must confess the gist of the article was missed on me. However, when I noticed another reference to the movie shortly thereafter I started to feel Oscar vibes.

When articles about films move from the entertainment section into what I call the thinking part of the paper there’s a logical assumption that here no light fare is being discussed. Curiosity piqued, I sought information the easy way.

I picked up the phone and called a friend who follows movies pretty closely. Asked if he knew anything about The King’s Speech he said, “Not really. It was being discussed at work. They were talking pretty highly of it.”

The reason I was poky in doing my own research is maybe because, as Americans, a title with the word King in it doesn’t entirely set us on fire. We threw in the towel on kings nearly 250 years ago as some of us recall.

Among our grievances, mostly against Parliament, in a clash that eventually took us to war with England, was the issue about taxes. We didn’t want to pay import tax on their tea. We tossed the tea into Boston harbor and have been a nation of coffee drinkers ever since.

Anyone growing up since the mid-twentieth century has had only the experience of a Queen on the English throne.

We’ve known Queen Elizabeth all our lives – her family, the corgis, the royal estates and Buckingham Palace too. We don’t have any immediate association with the word king. There's a sort of blank when it comes to that.

We’re very struck on the English monarchy as long as there’s a pond between the throne and us. We’re conscious and tender about our preemptive strikes for freedom way back when. The right to worship as we choose (or not at all), no taxation without representation – that sort of thing.

So we can’t sidle up to the monarchy too cozily after all this time. We fear the English would soon have us sitting down to crumpets and tea. We’d be right where we began. We’d have to answer to those Revolutionary boys in homespun cloth and colonist women who won our Stars and Stripes for us.

On the other hand, the English did us a huge favor about seventy years ago. We, and the democratic world, owe them big.

They were the strong defense against the mortal enemy as the United States held out for peace, choosing to remain neutral. Armies for war marched across Europe. War planes brought terror to citizenry never before so caught in the crosshairs of destruction and doom.

The English dared and defied Hitler. It was a courageous stand built on the deathly calm conviction that there was no other choice.

This is where the man who truly would be king – Albert Frederick Arthur George – makes his appearance. The film opens when he holds the title of Duke of York. His brother is heir apparent and their father George V is still the wearer of the crown.

Events unfold as even the most casual student of history knows they will. David, or Edward as he becomes when he is crowned king, has fallen madly in love with socialite Wallis Simpson from Baltimore. He forfeits the throne for the love of his life leading to the impromptu succession of his younger brother.

The new king becomes George VI. He has no wish to be king. He would shirk from it if he had that instinct in him to shirk from royal obligations, which he does not. As a member of the family he calls “the firm” he is above all willing to shoulder kingly duties.

It’s not the responsibility that paralyzes him even though – as he points out in a moment of despair - he has no training, no education, no credentials to show the world he is prepared for this position as countries, including his own, teeter at the brink of war.

He is cowed by the stammer that has affected his speech since he was four or five. As the monarchy joins the modern age, and BBC airs royal speeches into every home in the United Kingdom, the new king is at a standoff with himself.

He is forced to face and do something about the speech impediment that has cast a shadow, larger than the shadow cast by his older brother, over his full potential as an effective modern monarch.

The King's Speech, which of course deals about this very matter of George VI’s speech difficulty, is a movie must-see. It’s not only superb from the historic context (which fascinates from that perspective for those who like history).

The interpersonal aspects are acted out brilliantly. It’s a psychological thriller as the relationship between the king and his speech therapist develops.

The Harley Street clinician, an Australian who has just the right combination of compassion and prodding insistence, keeps working patiently with the king who flings a stimulating mix of obstinacy and embarrassed male pride into their sessions.

The men grow in respect for each other but you can feel it being hammered out. Trust has to be established. The instinct for knowing when someone is genuinely caring towards you has to be acknowledged and acted on.

Colin Firth as the needy but touchy monarch and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech tutor trying to open his shuttered past, do justice to roles that require consummate restraint and passion.

There's the inner struggle as the king works to master the stammer. The facial contortions as he battles to get the words out, the anguish felt by his wife and the disappointment of his British audiences grip you. You can see the panic he just barely keeps contained as he struggles in front of the microphone.

You find yourself rooting for him as the poor man literally writhes in turmoil as the words die on his tongue. You realize how awful it is for him. He must sound the decisive monarch of the English Empire that rules a quarter of the globe and he can’t make his words march to his own tune.

In a bit of irony the film shows the king and his family watching tape of Hitler haranguing the German crowds. Hitler holds them with effortless mastery. The speech is a torrent that runs on. The crowds soak it up, responding wildly as if they can’t get enough.

Ultimately this film, with messages at many levels, left me with two particular thoughts. One is the power of choice. Civilization at times rests on thin threads. How fortunate for threads spun on resolute choices for good at critical times.

The second point I took home underlies the importance of teachers and all who work in teaching or mentoring situations. The film shows a mentor's dedication to a difficult student. Even when the student is a king.

The royal wardrobe is worth some attention too. Helena Bonham Carter as George VI’s loyal and loving wife – the Queen Mum of post-war England – holds her own in this film which is correctly focused on the king and his speech therapist.

Ro Giencke - 2011