Tag Archives: self-reflection

Let there be pie

It’s 10:45 pm, Monday night. Monday 03-14, Pi(e) day. I breeze into my kitchen after a long day of work and couldn’t NOT make pie on Pi(e) day. I’d been going back and forth on whether to go to the hassle most of the afternoon and evening. When I was still at work at 8:00 pm, I almost convinced myself that I didn’t really need to do it. After all, I have two manuscripts to finish editing, graduate student qualifying exams to review, undergraduate letters of recommendation to write and who knows what else. Pie could wait until another time.

But a thought struck my mind.

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It’s the start of spring – I might actually be able to grab some rhubarb from the store and wouldn’t that pair wonderfully with the ginger ice cream I had made a few day ago? Ahhh, the allure of rhubarb is simply too tempting for me to ignore. Store number one – out of luck, I live in Georgia now and wasn’t entirely sure that I would spot it at all. However, store number two (I love residing within walking distance to not one, or two but three grocery stores!) revealed a few vibrant pink stalks. I quickly grabbed the few remaining pieces and silently cursed (or not-so-silently, but hey, I was at the Murder Kroger). Not nearly enough for a full pie. Now what? Another stroll through the produce section had me stopping at the peaches. And the third pass through at the blackberries. Alright, I may be a little off script, but I think, just maybe, not only will it not be a complete disaster, but it may actually be quite good.

I’m quickly and assuredly making decisions as my pie idea forms in my mind – it borderlines on manic. I choose a buttermilk crust since I have some leftover buttermilk from a batch of biscuits I made over the weekend. Yes, I think that should do the trick. Given extra wet nature of the rhubarb, peaches and berries – I think I’ll not only par-bake the bottom crust, but seal it with an egg wash as well. Because the difference between an okay pie and a transformative one is often in the details of the crust. Oh! I’ll do a lattice top – won’t that be pretty! So, perhaps I’ll do 1.5x the recipe for the crust. No big deal.

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I toss together my coveted rhubarb, a few bordering on underripe peaches and the handful of blackberries along with some sugar, flour, a dash of cinnamon and a couple of teaspoons of grated ginger and give it all a good toss and let it meld while the pie dough chills. A couple of cocktails, a load of dishes and the beginnings of a long and rambling blog post happen.

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Pie, no matter how well done, is impressive and needs to be shared, if only to glory in the accolades it will undoubtedly receive. Perhaps because of the underlying assumption that it is a brave soul who attempts to put together such a concoction of pastry and fruit. The dough could be too tough or crack when rolled, the fruit too watery or worse, sickly sweet from adding too much sugar, the ratios of the two could be completely unbalanced. The sheer thought of baking a pie is overwhelming enough to scare people away. Consequently, offering pie alà mode the day after Pi(e) Day was met with an absurdly high level of enthusiasm from members and friends of my lab.

For the inexperienced, pie seems impossible – and rhubarb-peach-blackberry pie made up on the fly, particularly when paired with homemade fresh ginger ice cream (a stroke of genius) even more so. A number of students expressed awe and wonderment at the ability to tackle such a task, followed by a sad statement regarding their lack of confidence in this arena.

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My actions Monday night are reminiscent of the recent days that I’ve spent in my lab. We finally arrived at spring break during my first semester of teaching undergraduates (the semester prior was dedicated to graduate teaching) and it was a busy, and sometimes impossible to maintain semester. I desperately craved a break and contemplated renting a cabin in the north Georgia mountains to escape from it all. Yet, in the end, I spent most of that time in the lab after a seemingly endless hiatus. Regardless of the time spent away, I storm into the lab and begin tying up a number of experimental loose ends.

I’d forgotten how much at home I feel in the lab. I certainly had forgotten the sense of accomplishment one has at the end of the day spent on your feet, running around from the warm room (our yeast like to grow at 30º C) to the bench, to the autoclave, to the glassware cabinet, to the PCR machine, to the centrifuge, to the gel electrophoresis rig, etc. There is an underlying ease and confidence to my actions. It feels good. And if the gel of my PCR is any indication, I haven’t lost my lab hands. Not only is it comforting to spend time back in the lab – it’s genuinely fun.

It’s difficult, after nearly a decade of time spent in the lab, to remember that it wasn’t always second nature. That the very reason that I can waltz into the lab after six months away and nearly immediately encounter experimental success is precisely because I’ve had a decade to slowly, but surely, hone my skills, encountering a turning point that remains imperceivable to me as to when exactly it occurred. One of the more challenging aspects of my job is to to teach people how to think scientifically and importantly, to not judge too quickly when they are not immediately successful. Or to judge too harshly when a young scientist can’t immediately pick up on the nuances of an experiment or how to optimize a protocol or manage their time.

{Note: there are MANY new aspects of my position that I attempt with complete uncertainty – and am learning to forgive myself for not knowing how to do all of them with expertise. But life in the lab? That I know something about.}

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What’s it like to be unsure? To not know, or to carry the confidence that what you’ll do will end well? Intellectually, I know I that I did not arrive in the lab (or the kitchen for that matter) fully formed. But now it seems foreign to me, the notion that I didn’t always have such a deep intimacy of my study subject or, when in the kitchen, flavor profiles and techniques or to have a repertoire of resources and accumulated knowledge to draw upon. In hindsight, there are a few things that must have contributed to my development. 1) The sheer repetition of action and consistency in results contributed significantly to my confidence. 2) Learning who to trust with protocols/recipes – just because something is available online does not it will yield reliable outcomes Who are the scientists/chefs that I respect and want to build my own work off of? 3) Appropriately testing a technique and establishing a baseline before making educated modifications – but not to be afraid to try something a little different and outside of my comfort zone. 4) And finally, embracing the notion that sometimes I will fail. And possibly fail spectacularly, knowing that the failure is worthwhile because I will have learned something critical.

I struggle to find ways to extend my patience with naïve scientists, to remember to acknowledge the small victories and to cultivate an environment in which failing is a beautiful learning opportunity. To be able to remind them that the very process of doing something is as important as the result. That we may not know the outcome as we embark on a new project, but, that we can hopefully navigate logically and with our collective knowledge through the murkiness to a breathtaking destination.

And when that fails, sweeten them up with pie.

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Rhubarb-Peach-Blackberry Pie with Buttermilk Crust

Buttermilk Crust:

  • 1 7/8 (aka 2 cups – 1 T) cups all purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 tablespoons butter, cubed
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little water for egg wash

Filling:

  • 2 ½ cups rhubarb, chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 3 peaches, peeled and chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 2 cups blackberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot starch
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-size pieces remaining. Drizzle the buttermilk on top and pulse until the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather up any crumbs and divide into two disks – one a little larger than the other. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger disk of dough to a 12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Ease the dough into a 9-inch glass pie plate. Trim the overhanging dough to 1 inch, fold it under itself and crimp the dough decoratively. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the crust in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, until barely set. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights. Brush with egg wash, reserving remaining wash. Bake for 15  minutes longer, until the crust is lightly browned. Let cool on a rack. Leave the foil strips on the crust rim. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

Toss together all ingredients for the filling. Pour filling into par-baked crust. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the smaller disk of dough to a ~12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into ten, 1-inch strips. Place strips in a lattice pattern (5 in one direction and 5 perpendicular). Brush with remaining egg wash. Cover the edge of the crust with strips of foil and bake for 45-60 minutes until top lattice is browned and filling is bubbling. Let cool.

Serve with homemade fresh ginger ice cream spiked with some Au Thym Sauvage from Farigoule de Haute Provence (and why it has a place in my liquor cabinet is a story for another time). Although, to be fair, most any type of ice cream will suffice.

 

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Where are y’all from?

I think this question might currently be the bane of my existence.

It used to be “When are you finishing your Ph.D?” But that’s a done deal now.

And before that it was “Why would you choose to go to graduate school?”

But right now, at this very moment “Where are y’all from?” is the hardest question to answer.

Scott and I were asked this several times while we were at the beach this weekend.

It’s a complicated answer.

Technically I live in Minneapolis.

(Taken last summer – it are nowhere near this pretty yet, but I am trying to stay optimistic that it will happen again)

 

The problem is I wouldn’t call Minneapolis “home.” Especially if home is where the heart is. I live here and work here but my life is torn all over the country. I usually default and say that I grew up in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Now let’s add Scott into the mix.

He currently lives in Florida.

 

But grew up in Louisiana.

 

And we met in North Carolina.

You can see how complicated this is. Oh the perks of being an academic couple!

I’ve discussed before how much the places in your life contribute to who you are, so how you answer really goes a long way in how you define yourself. The answer, or more precisely, how you answer, gives the questioner a huge amount of information about yourself.

And yet I stumble whenever I try and reply…

Maybe I am just tired of the constant traveling and am jonesing to settle down.

California

Do you see me smiling? I’ve escaped Minneapolis once again. To the West Coast no less. Nearly back home. Here there is a jaw-dropping, staggering beauty to the natural world that simply doesn’t exist on the East Coast and certainly doesn’t exist in the Midwest. To say that it fills my heart with joy is an understatement.

California. I didn’t know how much I’ve missed you. In a past life I used to come out to Northern California several times a year, but I haven’t been here for nearly 4 years.

I am in the Monterey peninsula for a scientific meeting. A fungal genetics conference. Would you believe that nearly 1,000 people are at this meeting? A complete nerd-fest. But, being a nerd myself, I don’t mind the least. But I snuck away from the meeting this morning (having given my talk yesterday, I decided to give my brain a small break) and walked to the sleepy little town (yet undeniably yuppie) to find some real coffee served to me by a fantastically friendly 24-year old vegan barista. Oh California.

If places can have personalities than people can be places. I don’t think it has to be where you are from, but I think it is often the place you love the most. Its very being can exude from one’s pores.

I would say that I am quintessentially Olympia. The Pacific Northwest with a twist.

Furthermore, the people who have been in your life, the ones whose lives melded with your own can imprint their places into your own being. For example, Scott is Mr. New Orleans and although I’ve only visited that completely charming city twice, I am absolutely in love with that place. I have absorbed it’s New Orleans-ness and made it part of myself.

The same is true for Northern California. There was a past love in my life whose very core was Northern California and so I, in a small way, brought Northern California into my being. And so being back here is like a homecoming with myself in an odd sort of way. I recognize myself here, a part of myself that I buried deep inside myself when that relationship ended.

It’s not about the relationship with the past love; it’s about the person I grew up into while I was in that relationship. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. In some ways it feels like I am reuniting with me. No doubt that feeling is amplified because I am finally getting back up on my scientific feet. Being at this meeting, sharing my excitement about fungal genetics and evolution with other scientists and old friends is also playing a big part of me finding me again.

Of course it could also be the sunshine and blue skies that is stripping away the outer layers of gloom that took up residence over the dark and depressing Minnesota winter. Or perhaps just being near the Pacific Ocean again, smelling the saltwater and hearing the roar of the waves. Either way my heart is feeling lighter and stronger.