Saturday, November 26, 2016

Pie

"Pumpkin!", exclaimed the first.

"No, it's sweet potato!", countered the second.

"It's Thanksgiving! It should be pumpkin!", argued the first.

"No, it should be sweet potato, because it's Thanksgiving!", stated the second.

Finally, both turned to me, "Well, what do you think?", asked the first.

"Should it be pumpkin or should it be sweet potato?", asked the second.

And thus, I was drawn into the great Thanksgiving pie debate. Which pie most represented Thanksgiving? Pumpkin or Sweet potato? Most gatherings with my friends often involved a lot of debate and discussion, sometimes over serious matters, like public policy, but more often than not, we argued over silly things.

A diverse group like ours, with different opinions and life experiences and independent free thinkers, often had lively and heated discussions. And I loved that, because exchanging ideas and opinions challenged our perspectives and expanded our knowledge. Examining the issue from all sides and different perspectives allowed us to better understand the issue and find better ways to solve problems.

All gatherings, large and small, are great opportunities to exchange ideas, explore different views, and communicate thoughts and perspectives. Gatherings are an opportunity to forge bonds, reinforce ties, and share knowledge and strengthen friendships and relations. And gatherings are a great time to celebrate and rejoice in the company of loved ones and friends.

And I have to admit, hearing my friends express different ideas and debating kind of reminded me of growing up in a big family on the farm. In a big family, everyone had their own opinions and ideas; and our parents let us discuss and explore those varying opinions and ideas, challenging us to defend those ideas and beliefs, making us think carefully about our reasoning and logic.

The debates and discussions made for great entertainment at the dining table, which was fantastic, because the tv was down to two working channels, and we hadn't gotten a VCR yet. There was no cable tv access back then. We had three tv channels over the air at one time, but a hurricane knocked one channel off the air. Of the two remaining tv channels, one played taped delays and reruns of network shows popular in the more populated regions and big cities far away. The second channel was a mixture of public tv, local programming, and news. Both tv channels were off the air at midnight and wouldn't return until six in the morning.

There were two radio stations in the region--an AM station and a FM station. The FM station played the most recent top forty hits and we loved that. Unfortunately, it signed off at midnight and would be off the air til six in the morning. The AM station played a variety of oldies with some newer songs, and provided us with local and regional news and sports. But between eight p.m. and two a.m., the AM station relayed radio messages and telegrams to and from our remote coast, the outer islands, and other far off places in the untamed wild that had no telephone lines and had less electricity than we had out in the countryside.

Not everyone in our remote coast or the outer isles had access to a telephone or electricity. But most villages and remote areas had radios or access to a community radio to listen for messages. I remember my parents tuning in for the radio messages that started at eight p.m. and continued until ten p.m. There'd be a short break, then the radio messages repeated again for two hours. Break again at midnight, then it was repeat radio messages one last time til two in the morning. Then it was easy listening until five in the morning. I loved falling asleep to the soothing sounds of easy listening, soft rock, rhythm and blues, and slow, seductive, smooth songs. It was my lullaby and helped me relax and fall asleep. I still love easy listening songs to this day.

I remember listening to those radio messages some nights. It was the only reliable way to communicate with distant, remote relatives, to relay who was coming to the mainland or out to the outer islands on a boat, when they'd arrive and where they'd land. Over the airwaves, families shared news on who was ill, who just had a baby, and all sorts of important family announcements, like weddings or reunions. We'd also exchange messages about who was sending shipments of supplies and crops and goods between the mainland and outer isles, alerting relatives and neighbors to be on the lookout for shipments coming in or leaving the respective harbors on the mainland and the far outer islands.

But the messages that stood out the most for me were the funeral announcements. Probably because they were introduced by the sound of funeral bells ringing, alerting anyone who was listening that someone had died. It was how we learned sometimes of distant relations who passed away on the remote outer islands, and we'd plan accordingly for the funeral, radio messaging the next night to the relatives back on the remote outer isles to let them know who was coming for the funeral and when and where they'd arrive.

And for the rest of the month, we'd tune in every night to listen for radio messages from the outer isles, waiting for news from our relatives out there to let us know what they needed, if the arrivals had made it safely to those distant shores, and when the visiting relatives would return back home to the mainland, and when we ought to be ready to pick them up from the harbor in town.

To this day, the radio still plays a vital role in the remote coast and outer islands. Even with cell phones and electricity making inroads into those remote communities, people still depend on the AM radio to send important messages back and forth between the mainland and outer isles. And after the last hurricane swept through, the radio was still the only reliable method of communicating across the region, especially after the high winds knocked down cell towers, telephone lines, and electric poles, leaving them out of commission.

It may seem hard to believe or imagine life back on the remote coast, but for us, it was normal. Sure, we didn't have a lot of the modern conveniences. We had no access to cable tv and had no internet, but we still managed to entertain ourselves and improve our communication skills. Believe it or not, our mealtime debates and discussions provided ample entertainment, because we got to explore all sorts of issues, from serious problems to silly ones. And we actually took the time to listen to each other and talk to each other about everything and anything.

It seems weird and unnatural to me to see kids and families texting on the cell phones instead of looking at each other and talking at the dinner table. And I still find it rude when people text or talk on their cell phones at the dinner table. I was raised in a time when telephone calls during meals was considered rude, and it was bad manners to ignore other people at the dining table. Excuse yourself and leave the table if you need to make a call or send a text. The family table was the place to share meals and talk to the family and guests; it was not a place nor the time to make work calls or play videogames or text others who weren't present at the table.

I understand that times change. And people change, too. But some things like common courtesy and respect for others and yourself should never change. When you lose sight of the important things and the important people in your life, then you've lost a meaningful life, and you're wasting precious time that you will never get back; you miss out on the really important moments and milestones in life. People matter. And when you lose sight of the people you love, then your life and world becomes smaller, poorer, and diminished. Don't miss out on the important people and moments in life. Because time waits for no one, and life is a whole lot shorter than you realize.

There is a certain type of joy and closeness that can only be found in sharing meals and having conversations at the dinner table. It is a way to communicate, interact, and even entertain and exchange thoughts, ideas, and views. It is a unique opportunity to explore perspectives, receive immediate feedback, and share intimate connections that can only be forged in face to face, real life interactions. I'm very thankful that I grew up in the time that I did, when sharing meals and conversations was normal, expected, and encouraged.

Once we were done eating and cleaning up the kitchen, the only other form of entertainment we had on the farm, besides the poor tv choices and radio, was listening to our parents or other older relatives tell stories and myths about our ancestors or the legends in the region. Sometimes, it was just gossip, but most times, it was about history and mythology. We loved those stories, because they excited us and stirred up our imaginations. Often these stories were told by firelight, under clear, starry night skies, when the occasional lone dog would howl at the moon and crickets chirped in the dark fields.

Sometimes, one or several of my older siblings, along with my parents or other relatives or friends and neighbors, would sit on the veranda and start strumming guitars and beat makeshift drums; and we'd listen to them sing songs or we'd join them, singing along to old familiar radio tunes or popular songs at the time. It was wonderful to hear unique interpretations of familiar songs. It was amazing to hear raw voices create something new and wonderful out of the old. Every now and then, someone would share original material that wowed us with their creativity and emotion. We loved talent, and we loved music and the arts that so enriched our lives.

During times of hardship and often for funerals or family emergencies or illnesses, we'd gather in our homes with friends and loved ones, and we'd sing hymns and spiritual songs; we counted on faith and prayer to help us survive when medicine could not save us. And when we needed strength to carry on after the Almighty in His wisdom saw to it to call a loved one home to Him, we'd listen to words of comfort from the promises made in those tomes we held sacred; we sought the wisdom of the sages who passed long ago and left us their teachings about life; and we'd find solace and strength in the heartfelt truths of poets who so eloquently and honestly expressed our pain and sorrow over our loss, holding onto hope for a better life in the next world.

There was strength and comfort in numbers. And in the most painful of times, we'd gather to mourn and grieve, to comfort each other and support each other, to heal and find our strength. We'd sing songs of sorrow on the parting of our loved ones company. We kept faith and hope that someday soon, we could all be together again in a better place we believed and had faith in, under the care of a God who loved us, protected us, and guided us in the most difficult and challenging of times.

But sometimes, the universe calls to us and evokes deep and dark memories of old, and it awakens parts of our souls that are primeval, primitive, primordial--it draws out a savageness and wildness that was essential for survival, necessary for life to take hold. Sometimes, on sacred days or during celestial occurrences or seasonal events, we'd heed that internal calling, and we'd submit to the impulse and instinct to gather once more to hear the lore and live out the long traditions of our people. The old gods and divine spirits summoned us, and we answered their calls and honored them once more as they walked among us.

We'd dance the ancient dances; we'd reenact the myths and legends; we'd sing the old songs and learn new ones that celebrated those ancients and the ancestors from long ago. We told and retold the history of our people, our sacred places, and our wild spaces. And thus, we reinforced our traditions, strengthened our community and cultural ties, and we taught the newer and younger generations who we are as a people; and we shared the values and beliefs that defined us and guided us for eons in this ever changing world.

On the most haunting of nights, the elders would harmonize and mesmerize us with a magical mixture of tales and songs; and we'd sing ancient chants first sung by our ancestors a long time ago, when they first settled these remote shores, and worked many generations and made hard sacrifices to make this wilderness our home. These were true cultural experiences, priceless and essential. These gatherings taught us our history and our values, and these gatherings reinforced the bonds of family, friendship, and community.

And that's what I love about gatherings with my friends, because it brought us closer and renewed our ties to one another. And it was also pretty entertaining to hear my friends argue over the silliest of things.

We debated everything such as should the flour be seasoned or just the chicken should be seasoned before frying (I'm in the season the chicken only group); whether BBQ sauce was necessary (I say have it on hand and let people decided whether or not they want sauce on their ribs and brisket); or should turkey be brined, buttered under the skin and basted hourly, and roasted with or without stuffing (I say brine it at least 24 hours in advance, buttering under the skin and basting hourly is unnecessary if you roast the turkey breast side down and flip it breast side up for the last forty five minutes of roasting--making for a moist, brown, delicious turkey--and always roast the stuffing under the bird or cook it separately, never roast the turkey with stuffing inside it, because then, the inside of the turkey won't cook properly).

Now I was asked to decide and settle the argument over whether pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie was most appropriate for Thanksgiving. And at times like this, I usually give a neutral, balanced answer. So I said, "Both pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie are delicious and appropriate for Thanksgiving."

Immediately, both sides groaned disagreement and someone in the group called me out for being a "Coward!". That got some chuckles, and both sides voiced their disappointment with my answer and agreed to disagree and settle their differences. The matter would've been dropped, as they accepted my diplomatic answer. But both sides were soon riled up again when I continued, "But given a choice over what kind of pie that I'd rather have for Thanksgiving, that's easy: I'll take a peach cobbler over any pie, any day, any where!"

And thus launched the debate over whether peach cobbler was appropriate for Thanksgiving. Some argued that peach cobbler was a summer pie, not a Thanksgiving dessert! Others went further and questioned whether peach cobbler, or any cobbler for that matter, was a type of pie or not a pie at all!

But I didn't care. I stuck to my guns. I'll gladly take a peach cobbler over any pie, any day, any where! Growing up on the farm, we had lots of pies for dessert. And for Thanksgiving, there were the usual pumpkin pies and sweet potato pies; and there were also dessert staples like Mom's delicious apple pie and tasty lemon curd pie; Dad's specialty was his tangy, sweet, sensational key lime pie. But out of all the pie desserts we'd have, my favorite was my aunt's spectacular peach cobbler.

My aunt's peach cobbler was decadent and scrumptious! It tasted amazing whether it was served warm or cold. And served warm, it was the best accompaniment to cool, delectable vanilla ice cream--probably because the peach cobbler was so sweet and yummy. While most of my family loved the wonderful combination of warm apple pie and vanilla ice cream, for me, peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream was ambrosial--the divine food of the gods!

As the furor over my peach cobbler declaration died down, my friends asked me, "Is that what you're bringing to Thanksgiving, a peach cobbler?"

It was a perfectly natural assumption, given that I had volunteered to bring dessert for Thanksgiving. So imagine my friends surprise when I said, "Nope. I'm not making peach cobbler for Thanksgiving. I'm bringing my favorite pie in all the world--a pineapple pie!"

And thus, a ruckus broke out as my friends debated the appropriateness of a pineapple pie at Thanksgiving! Whoever heard of such a thing! Pineapple pie, indeed! But the furious debate died down soon enough, because truthfully, they all loved my pineapple pie.

Pineapple pie was a staple in my family, almost in the same way that rice or potatoes or bread were part of some people's everyday meals. Along with apple, lemon curd, and key lime, pineapple pie was one of our standard desserts during holiday meals and large family gatherings. We had it at New Year's, Easter, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Xmas. And for BBQs and picnics and large gatherings of any kind, like birthdays and weddings, there would be pineapple pie.

In some places that I've lived in, people often brought casseroles to welcome new neighbors or to support a family mourning the loss of a loved one. Back home, most people brought pies instead of casseroles to greet new neighbors or to comfort a grieving family. Pies were better choices than casseroles, because pies lasted longer and had a better shelf life, especially since electricity was finicky, and we experienced blackouts several times a week out in the remote country. Sometimes, the blackouts lasted for days.

And after a devastating hurricane, blackouts could last for several months, so we learned to make do without electricity. Hurricanes were a common occurrence on the coast, in much the same way other places experienced blizzards or tornadoes or earthquakes. You learn to live with it. It was common practice to cook using firewood or charcoal, and at times, when we had access, we'd use kerosene or propane stoves. Needless to say, collecting and stacking firewood was one of my chores growing up on the farm. And when I got older, I was taught then tasked with the outdoor cooking when we'd take turns making the family meals. I liked cooking outdoors over open flames. It's probably why I like BBQs and campfire cooking to this day. I love the taste and smell of smoked and grilled foods.

Since electricity failed often enough back home in the remote country, refrigeration was unreliable. In fact, most people had freezers instead of fridges, because freezers held the cold longer and kept food colder and safer than refrigerators. Naturally, most people smoked, dried, canned, or preserved food, often using methods and techniques practiced by the farming and fishing ancestors of old. Sometimes, the tried and true old ways are the best. And to this day, people back home still preserve food in the old ways, even though blackouts are now reduced to a few hours maybe once or twice a week, and refrigeration is more reliable now.

Fruit pies were pretty common back home in the remote, rural coast, probably because fruit grew plentiful out in the rich soil and lush land. Apples, citrus, berries, bananas, even exotic varieties like tropical mangoes and papayas and passion fruits and so may others thrived and grew well on the many farms and wild spaces of the region. Traders and travelers had gifted our shores with a variety of new and diverse fruits. And we were fortunate to have good soil and weather and wise ancestors who took these new varieties and nurtured them and allowed them to grow and thrive in our remote coast. There were many choices of fruit--fresh in season or canned and preserved at its peak.

The jams and jellies we made from those stunning fruits made the best pie fillings, and they made the most fantastic spreads on bread or rolls or even as layers of icing between cakes. And every family back home had certain fruits that they grew and canned and made into pies that were their favorites. My family was no different. And when it came to making pies, in our family, pineapple pie was king, probably because it was the easiest to make, and it was just so damn delicious!

Pineapple pie was the most common dessert we had growing up on the farm. It was so common that I didn't realize how much I loved it and took it for granted until I grew up and moved far away to live in a city. That first Thanksgiving away from my family and so far away from home, it surprised me--and saddened me--to realize that there was no pineapple pie at the table. And suddenly, this once common pie that I had taken for granted growing up instantly became a much missed favorite, and I longed for its sweet taste and comfort. In a room full of new friends and in the midst of a good gathering of close people, I suddenly felt alone, surprisingly homesick, longing for much missed loved ones and the distant, remote home that I had left behind not too long ago.

It didn't feel right not having any pineapple pie for Thanksgiving. And it felt wrong to feel so alone when I was surrounded by good friends and good people, having a good time, sharing a good meal. So the next day, Friday, the second day of Thanksgiving, I went to the store as soon it opened and got the necessary supplies. I spent that morning making pineapple pie from canned pineapples, and it felt right and made me feel good.

Even better, the pineapple pie tasted great, and my new friends, who tried it for the very first time, loved it! The pineapple pie was such a big hit that it immediately became a common request for our gatherings. And once again, the pineapple pie became a common part of my gatherings and celebrations, and it made me feel good; it made me feel at home. And things felt right, and all was well with the world once more.

The popularity of the pineapple pie wasn't just based on taste and exoticness alone. Yes, pineapple pie tasted great, and it was pretty cool having something so unique and unexpected for dessert. But I think the half-moon shape of the pineapple pie also made it look beautiful and attractive. Pineapple pies are generally made into a half-moon shape (pie crust half filled then folded over a sweet pineapple jam filling, decoratively sealed at the edges to make a half-moon shape, pierced topside with a fork for steam venting, then baked til lightly golden and flaky tender).

Two half-moon pies fit together in a circular 8 inch pie pan. So, two half-moon pies was approximately one whole pie in a circular 8 inch diameter pan. Technically speaking, each half moon pie could be divided into three servings--which makes sense when you figure that two half-moon pineapple pies equals one 8 inch diameter pie, and an 8 inch diameter pie can be equally split into six servings.

But truthfully, each half moon pie was delicious--too delicious to split three ways, so each half-moon pie was considered one serving. And growing up on the farm, sometimes, lunch consisted entirely of a half-moon pineapple pie, and that was perfectly all right and fantastic! Some of my best lunch time memories involve sitting under the shade of a tree and enjoying a delectable half-moon pineapple pie after a long morning of hard and heavy work. The fragrant, subtle scent of the pineapple pie was pleasing and enticing, and my two brothers and I very much looked forward to eating that wonderful pie for lunch.

The sublime, tasty pineapple pie was a well deserved reward; we took it as Mom's special treat for us, and it made us smile and feel good, savoring that amazing pie and relaxing in the shadows as a refreshing breeze cooled us down. Lilting songbirds serenaded us with charming songs. Overhead, white clouds passed and morphed under the power of the wind that pushed them across blue skies. And from the hilltop where we rested, my two brothers and I could look across the valley, and we'd gaze at the shades of green leaves of the forests that covered the mountains and hillsides. Waterfalls and rivers glinted and sparkled in the sunlight.

Below and a short distance away, we could see the neighboring farms, and further down the main road, we could see the church spire looming in the distance. And on a clear, sunny day, we could see the main road dip and turn and disappear in far off distance, leading to the unseen town, miles and miles away, a whole lot farther and almost a world away from the farm life we knew.

Pineapple pie rejuvenated us and made us feel loved. And to this day, we still feel happy and comforted every time we are treated to a wonderful pineapple pie. But honestly, as delightful and delectable they are, pineapple pies are really a treat for special occasions. They aren't exactly the healthiest snack, especially with the way that I make them.

In my history and experience of making pineapple pies, I've learned a few things. My parents and aunt were right: Lard makes the best pies. Lard makes the pie crust flaky, tender, and delicious. I've tried making the crust with butter, with shortening, with margarine, and even with coconut oil, but lard still makes the best flaky, tender, delicious crust. And I add sugar to my crusts, which isn't generally done with pie crusts. But sugar makes the crust tasty and sweet, almost like a cookie.

And I don't egg wash or paint melted butter on the crusts before baking, because I like the look of the white, flaky, tender crusts. And butter and egg washing does alter the look and changes the flavor of the pineapple pie.

Back home, for a really decadent, sinful treat, we'd fry the pineapple pie instead of baking it. Fried pineapple pie is a rich, hedonic, voluptuous, self indulgent treat. I've done it a few times, and my friends raved that it was the best thing ever! Better than the original fried apple pie the fast food burger joint used to serve. And that was a real compliment! It was also incredibly addictive!

But truthfully, I rarely fry my pineapple pies. Yes, fried pineapple pie is blissful and heavenly and unbelievably scrumptious, but it's a really guilty and heavy dessert, even though it seems so light and divine! I all ready use more sugar than the original recipe called for, and I like using lard for the light, flaky, tender crusts. So deep frying in rich butter until the crust is golden, crispy, light, and crunchy is not a healthy option, no matter how incredibly tasty it makes the pineapple pies. I've tried frosting the pineapple pies a few times, but that was just overkill. Honestly, the plain half-moon pineapple pie in its simplest baked form is delicious served warm or cold.

Ironically, as one of the simplest pies to make--it's just fruit filling in a pie crust--pineapple pie, for all its simple joys and easy creation, isn't so simple to make. Yes, it's less complicated with fewer ingredients and less steps than other fruit pies. But executing some of those simple steps is hard work.

I find the most difficult part is cutting out the circles to make the half-moon shape. I don't have a cutter big enough to cut out the right size rounds. I need a cutter or ring about six inches in diameter--much bigger than my biscuit cutter. So I end up using a bowl turned upside down to trace and cut out the rounds. That leaves a whole lot of waste or left over dough pieces that have to be reworked and rerolled to get some more crust rounds. But honestly, the best doughs are only rolled and cut out once. And it's a lot of work to rework and reroll the scraps of dough into useable crust rounds.

So given the amount of work involved, when I make a batch of half-moon pineapple pies, I usually make at least twenty half-moon pie pieces--that's enough for ten 8 inch diameter pan pies. That's ten regular size pies! Experiment and experience has taught me that twenty half-moon pies was just enough to share with friends and still have some left over to savor for the next month. Pineapple pies, like most simple fruit pies, freeze well and defrost/warm up great in a microwave or oven. But for really large gatherings, I double the recipe and make two batches, enough for a minimum of forty half-moon pies to share at a feast. That's twenty regular size pies--and I'm talking whole 8 inch pie pans, not slices!

The last time that I made pineapple pies was for the Labor Day BBQ back in September. I made several batches, not because I was expecting a huge gathering, but because I wanted to have enough extras to savor over the next two months at least. And I had made enough for the BBQ so that everyone got their own delicious half-moon pineapple pie treat. And I was looking forward to enjoying the extras that I had stashed in the fridge and freezer.

But life has a funny way of disrupting the best laid plans. The next day after the BBQ, I happened to run into my elderly neighbor who was back from a doctor's office visit. Ordinarily, I avoided the Old Bird, because she liked to talk on and on about her many diseases and what the weather was going to be like based on which joints of her body was aching. And she proceeded to do exactly that! But I was in a good mood and I let her talk on.

She didn't really care what you were saying or if you contributed at all to the conversation. She just wanted to list her health ailments and complaints. And she didn't particular care who she shared these private health concerns with, so long as there was someone there she could complain to. I gathered that she was lonely. She lived with an older middle age son. But he had his own interests and friends, and would leave sometimes to go to work or see his friends. She had other children who visited at least once a week. But I guessed that she was still lonely.

The Old Bird would sit by her front window and call out to anyone who passed in front of her place, catching their attention and trapping them in a one sided conversation of her listing her diseases and health complaints. I learned to avoid parking in front of her place and avoid her line of sight when I came home. I also learned to sneak out the back quietly and avoid her altogether on the days she actually sat in a chair on the front porch. Luckily, it was too hot for her to sit out on the porch most days. So I was free to use the front door to get to and from my car with no interruptions from her.

But I hadn't seen the Old Bird in a while. And truthfully, a part of me wanted to make sure that she was at least all right. I was raised in culture to respect my elders, and after a lifetime of living in a culture that honored elders and encouraged community living, it was hard for me to totally ignore the Old Bird, even if she did manage to waste my time. In the back of my head, it seemed okay to listen to her complain every now and then, even if there was nothing that I could do to ease her complaints.

That day after the BBQ, she looked thinner than the last time that I had seen her. And when I mentioned it to her, she said her doctor was aware. On the one hand, it was good for her to lose a little weight. She was obese. But on the other hand, her appetite was gone, and she wasn't eating much, which meant she had little energy, and she needed nutrition to stay healthy and manage her diseases.

Suddenly inspired, I asked her if she would like a pineapple pie. She seemed surprised because she'd never heard of a pineapple pie before much less had one. I told her that I'd bring her piece after I warmed it up in the microwave. I took a pie from the fridge and heated it up. Then I delivered the pie while it was still warm to the Old Bird next door.

She was curious but the smell enticed her and soon enough, she devoured the whole half-moon pineapple pie, exclaiming that it was the best thing that she's had in a long time--even better than the original fast food burger joint fried apple pie she used to love eating before they changed their recipe. Even her son expressed his surprise at how much she ate, commenting that was the most food his mother had eaten in one sitting in almost a week.

So, my mind was made up. Culture and courtesy demanded that I turn over all my extra pies for the Old Bird. Granted, it wasn't the healthiest snack, but at least she'd be able to eat something, maybe even supplement the nutritional shakes her doctor wanted her to drink, even though she didn't feel like drinking them.

The Old Bird thanked me profusely for the pies. A week later, I was picking up my mail when I ran into the Old Bird's visiting daughter. The daughter thanked me for the pies and said it was the only thing her mother wanted to eat, and it had given her mother some of her energy back. I was happy to hear that. And though I missed out on enjoying two months worth of tasty pie treats, at least it was for a good cause. I think my parents would've been proud that I had given up my hard earned pies so the Old Bird next door could have something she could eat and help her recover.

That was September, and I didn't hear nor see the Old Bird for all of October. Work and life got busy. Then at the beginning November, I went out of town for a few days. And when I came back, I was surprised to learn from my other neighbors that while I was gone, the Old Bird was taken in the ambulance to the hospital. I planned on visiting her soon when I had time that weekend. But that was not to be. The Old Bird, I learned from her daughter, died just a few days later in the hospital.

I was somewhat taken aback by her departure. Yes, she was sick and old, but she'd been to the hospital a few times before, and she'd always manage to come back, make a full recovery, and return to pestering pedestrians from her living room window. I couldn't believe that she was gone. And I felt bad that I hadn't gotten a chance to visit her or see her one last time.

Honestly, I was feeling a little guilty at not having checked up on her at all for the past month. Yes, she was inconvenient and sometimes pestered me, but she was also a human being who deserved some respect, and I somehow felt guilty that I hadn't given her the respect she needed nor the attention she craved. But such is life, and we are only responsible for the mistakes we make and the life we choose to live. And truth be told, I wasn't perfect. No one is. And while I could be a better human being, I comforted myself in the cold knowledge that I wasn't a total monster, that I still had some redeeming qualities, and I wasn't entirely selfish nor evil.

So long, Old Bird. I hoped that she was in a better place now, and I hoped that she sang a better song and had many people stop and take the time to listen to her and enjoy her company. The family held a private funeral. So none of us neighbors got to attend. That was fine. Every family grieves in their own way.

A few days later, I learned from the neighbors that the son was moving in with his sister. They were leaving the apartment next door that had been home to the Old Bird and her son for well over a decade. The neighborhood would not be the same without them. They moved out and cleaned house during the week while I was at work, so I never got the chance to say good bye to the son nor give my condolences in person. But I wished the Old Bird's family well.

This past Sunday, as I was shopping for groceries to prepare for Thanksgiving Thursday and Friday, I ran into the Old Bird's daughter and her older brother and his wife. Their family was having Thanksgiving together this year at the daughter's house. The daughter introduced me to her older brother and his wife. They were still staying in town with the Old Bird's daughter, just a few weeks after seeing the Old Bird in the hospital and then burying her as soon as she passed away.

I relayed my belated condolences. The family then told me that the Old Bird had died from extensive cancer that had spread to her stomach as well as most of her body. That explained why her appetite had disappeared and why she wasn't eating anything. I felt bad for the Old Bird but I was assured that she didn't suffer in the end, and I was glad to hear that.

Then they surprised me, when the daughter revealed that during her last day, the Old Bird had said goodbye to her family and urged them to be strong and take care of each other. The Old Bird said that she had lived a good life and she was thankful for her family and all the good things she got to experience. And during the retelling of her life's journey and all the wonderful things she got enjoy, the Old Bird let it be known that even in her last days, she got to experience many wonderful things. And among those good experiences, the Old Bird was quite thankful for having pineapple pie! My pineapple pie!

Imagine my surprise and shock to hear this! And imagine her other children's confusion as to what the Old Bird was talking about. The Old Bird's daughter revealed that during the last month of her mother's life, the only thing the poor woman could and wanted to eat was a pineapple pie from the batch that I had given the Old Bird back in September. It was the only source of food that she could eat and gave her the strength to keep on living. The pies lasted about two months. And the day after she ate the last pie, the Old Bird stopped eating all together, and that's when she was taken to the hospital. A few days later, the Old Bird would say goodbye to her family and pass on to the next life.

I didn't know how to react or what to say. I was flabbergasted to learn that Old Bird loved the pies; and those pies were the only things that she craved and ate in her last months of life. It felt good to know that she enjoyed the pies, but at the same time, I felt bad, because they weren't exactly the healthiest snack, and I wished that there was something more that I could've done, if not to heal her, then perhaps provide the Old Bird with more comfort. But the Old Bird's daughter and eldest son and his wife thanked me for being kind to their mother, for giving the Old Bird one last treat to enjoy in the last days of her life. And that left me feeling somewhat better, because at least the Old Bird enjoyed those pies.

I left the grocery store feeling more upbeat but more thoughtful as well. The truth was, as good as I felt to learn that the Old Bird found some comfort and joy in the pies that I had given her, a part of me still felt like I could've done more. And that need to do more motivated me to be better, to be a kinder human being.

So I decided to do something good. I needed to perform a good deed to clear my conscience, ease my guilt, and lighten my soul. I find that in times of great stress or when I'm feeling helpless or unsure, I have to do something or take some action, complete a task or give myself a mission, set a goal to achieve, do something that gives me some sense of control.

So to assuage my guilt and do some sort of good deed to redeem my soul and prove to myself that I wasn't a totally miserable, miserly, malcontent, I decided to aid some friends who were volunteering for a local charity. The local charity was holding a Thanksgiving dinner--actually more like luncheon, in that the local charity planned to serve a Thanksgiving meal to feed the homeless, needy, and poor starting at noon til they ran out of food that afternoon.

I had helped my friends in their local charity work throughout the year--helping to raise funds for food to feed the hungry, or getting school supplies for the kids who needed them, to providing blankets and warm jackets to protect the homeless from the oncoming winter cold. This time, I wanted to bring some food along to help feed those in need and help them have a good Thanksgiving. The last time I volunteered to bring food, I ended up making over a hundred and fifty fried egg sandwiches, all of which were gratefully consumed by the hungry people that the local charity served.

Sometimes, when I take on projects, I tend to go overboard. Partly, it's because of my enthusiasm; partly, because I have no clue just how demanding the task will be; partly, because I sometimes tend to make things harder--either because I'm ignorant, or I like a challenge, or  I feel the need to punish myself for making a mistake or have this need to make amends for any harm I may have caused.

And when it comes to making food, I tend to make a lot more than requested for two main reasons. One, because I'm lazy, and I want to have leftovers that I can eat and use for the rest of the week when I don't feel like cooking. And two, because growing up on the farm with a big family that often participated in or hosted large family or community gatherings, I learned that it was very important to have enough food to feed everyone and have leftovers the people can take home. It was much better to have leftovers than run out of food and have hungry guests!

Anyone who's ever grown up in a large family and experienced large communal gatherings knows exactly what I'm talking about. A lot of work and food went into making large communal gatherings successful. And when it came to large gatherings, you can never have an exact number of guests, so it was always important to err on the side of caution and make more food than underestimate and run out of food. People always brought extra guests at the last minute. That was just the nature of large communal gatherings. All sorts of people showed up. And a good host and successful gathering depended on whether there was a good time had by good people who enjoyed ample, good food!

That's the mentality that I was raised with, and that's the kind of gusto I go into when preparing meals for gatherings. So when my friends asked me to make sandwiches to feed the hungry, they requested about fifty, because they expected that much. But I decided to triple that number and made over a hundred and fifty fried egg sandwiches. And I was glad that I did, and so were my friends, because we ended up feeding a hundred people for lunch that day--we hadn't counted on the extra people showing up. And heartbreakingly so, most were small children, who came to the charity for snacks, because school was closed for a holiday, and that meant no free school breakfast nor lunch.

It broke my heart to see small children in need. And I wish that I could've done more. But I learned the hard way a long time ago that you can't save everyone. There're too many people in need and too many problems to solve. One person can't save the entire world--it's too much to ask and demand of one person. But one person can make a small difference and help out a few. And when enough people come together with a common purpose and work towards a common goal, then those people can do great things, even change the world for the better.

So I can do small things, little acts of kindness that contribute to the overall betterment of the world. Every little bit counts. And all the small pieces come together to make a greater whole, something more meaningful and more powerful than just the sum of all its parts. And for this Thanksgiving, my small part of the effort was to make pies, and I was going to make as many as I could.

When I made those fried egg sandwiches, I did so with the goal of having enough to feed the hungry and having enough leftovers that the people could take home. Well, we fed a hundred people, and there was just enough sandwiches leftover to pass out to the small children take home with them. It was so hard to see such small children experiencing hunger, coming to the local charity for a meal. But that's why the local charity was there. And it made me feel good to see the little ones (and adults) enjoy their fried egg sandwiches.

The fried egg sandwich was my favorite sandwich growing up. It still is a fave for me and some of my siblings. Mom used to make it for us kids all the time, and it made us so happy to eat those delicious fried egg sandwiches. To us kids, especially my two closest brothers and me--the youngest three in the family--those fried egg sandwiches were small gifts of love, special treats from Mom to show us how much she loved us. And they tasted great!

The fried egg sandwich was the first food that I was actually taught to cook, and it made me feel good to know that it was something special that Mom taught me how to make. And it has not only fed me and kept Mom's love and memory alive, but it's also nourished me and brought me joy. And it has fed and brought so much joy to so many others. And looking at those smiling kids enjoying their fried egg sandwiches, I could almost feel Mom present, smiling her approval, proud that I was doing something right, doing something to make the world a better, kinder, more loving place.

And I was so thankful that I had gone overboard and made so many extras, that there were actually enough leftovers for the small children to take home to eat later. I may not have solved world hunger. But for that day, there were a few less hungry kids in the world, and for that day, their world seemed a little bit brighter and more hopeful. It wasn't a lot, but it was just enough to give them a fighting chance. And sometimes, all we need is a second chance, just a little help to make it through the tough times. And every little bit helps.

Well for Thanksgiving, I wanted to help as much as I could. I was asked to make about sixty half-moon pies--that's three large batches, enough to make thirty regular 8 inch diameter pies. As luck would have it, I had purchased a large bag of twenty five pounds of flour--it was on sale for thirty percent off, and I could never resist a good sale, especially a great deal like this! So I bought that last big bag of flour. I didn't plan on making a large quantity of pies. I just saw a good sale and went for it. But looking back now, everything seemed to come together, like it was meant to be.

I still had a tub of lard left over from the summer. And I had recently bought several large cans of pineapple chunks--the big cans that they served in cafeterias and mess halls and large restaurants to feed large numbers of people. A friend had gone shopping at those big, supersize bulk warehouse stores, and I tagged along. They were clearing out their summer stock for the fall and winter merchandise, and I was able to buy several large cans of canned pineapple chunks on sale.

I liked the canned stuff, because there was no way in hell that I was going to buy individual pineapples, skin them, clean them, and chunk them into pieces! Hell no! That was too much work--and way expensive! And the canned stuff was pretty good--pineapples picked, prepped, and canned at peak freshness. And the manufacturer and grower was one of the leading and best producers of pineapples in the world. So I trusted the brand and have used it before with much success.

Whether it was by fate or lucky coincidence, I had collected more than enough ingredients to make large batches of pineapple pie. If I was smarter, I would've just bought ready made pie crusts from the freezer section and just made the filling to stuff the pie crusts. Easy bake, easy make. But I'm never smart enough. And truth be told, I was excited at the challenge of making so many pies.

The first part of the challenge was making enough filling and allowing enough time to cool the filling before I could use it. Experience had taught me that one super large can of pineapple chunks would yield a minimum of five batches--that's fifty whole 8 inch diameter pan pies--that's one hundred half-moon pies! And that's a hell of a lot of work! But it was worth it!

So the Wednesday after work, I got home, had dinner, then pulled out the largest nonstick stockpot in my kitchen and popped open an extra large can of canned pineapple chunks and made the filling. I knew that I had enough to make a hundred half moon pies, five batches worth at least. And I was feeling optimistic and inspired. I successfully made that large pot of extra large filling. I put the filling in a large glass bowl to cool off a bit before I put it in the fridge.

The next task was the most difficult. Making half-moon pie shells was a lot of hard work! It would take hours just to roll and cut out and reroll the scraps and cut out more rounds to make enough half-moon pie shells! I needed an army and large industrial equipment to make enough pie shells. And unfortunately, I didn't have access to either.

But over the years, I had experimented with pie shapes and pie shells. In the back of my head, I had been trying for years to solve the conundrum of making as many pie shells for half-moon pies with little scraps as possible, with less work. There had to be an easier way to make pineapple pies on a massive scale. Then this summer, a thought occurred to me. Who said that the pineapple pie had to be half-moon shaped? This epiphany came to me as I was making strawberry pie pockets--rectangular shaped pie pockets, like Pop Tarts, only fatter with more filling. It suddenly occurred to me that if I could make strawberry and blueberry and raspberry pop tarts/pie pockets, then why can't I make pineapple pie pockets?

And after midnight Wednesday, in the early dark hours of Thanksgiving Thursday, I took the first steps in making pineapple pie pockets. The filling was the same; it was the same ingredients I used to make half-moon pineapple pies, but the shape of the crust was revolutionary--even blasphemous to pineapple pie purists. But I didn't care about tradition. This time, I was driven by innovation and inspiration. The time had come for pineapple pie pockets!

I made and rolled out the first batch of dough. I measured twice then cautiously cut out the pockets, leaving barely any scraps. I carefully measured out and tested the filling--a tablespoon plus a teaspoon of filling was all I needed to make a three inch by five inch pineapple pie pocket. I calculated and worked out the math, testing theory with application. And when I was done with that first batch, I was ecstatic to discover that one half-moon pie approximated to three pineapple pie pockets. So if two half-moon pies fit into one 8 inch diameter pie pan, that equaled to six pineapple pie pockets, making for six equal slices from a regular 8 inch diameter pie pan!

And when it was all said and done, I had enough filling to make fifty whole 8 inch diameter pies, or one hundred half-moon pies, or three hundred pie pockets! The first batch was the hardest to make. I had to use all my cookie sheets and sheet pans to ensure that they would all fit and bake in the most efficient manner possible. That meant I had to make the pockets first, fill them, fold the edges and seal them with a fork, use the fork to poke decorative vent holes on the topside of the pocket, then lined up the pockets and froze them until it was time to bake them.

Experience and trial and error had taught me to make all the pie pockets first then freeze them. And when it was time to bake them, just move them to the fridge for an hour or two before baking, then bake them all one batch at a time, rotating the sheet pans and cookie sheets, allowing the baked pies enough time to cool off before wrapping them individually as the next batch bakes. The first batch is always the most difficult to make. But by the second and third batch, you develop a rhythm, and it becomes a much smoother operation.

And finally, in the wee hours before dawn Thursday morning, I had made over three hundred pie pockets. There was still enough dough left over to make a regular batch of filling using one regular can of pineapples. That was about twenty half-moon pies or sixty pie pockets.

I was amazed at the results. I had made over three hundred pie pockets for the local charity Thanksgiving luncheon. And I still had enough left over to bring to the Thanksgiving meal my friends and I would share later that afternoon. I had used up all my plastic wrap to cover the pockets, so I ended up using the wax paper roll to wrap up the rest of the pie pockets. Pie pockets were a whole lot easier to wrap up than half-moon pies. And I got to use the wax paper that I only use to make pralines--caramel candied pecans, a holiday treat. Come to think of it, last holiday season was the last time I had used the wax paper to make pralines.

I set the pie pockets in large aluminum pans that I would take to the charity Thanksgiving luncheon at noon. I had enough time to shower and take a nap. The alarm clock woke me up at eleven, letting me arrive at the charity about half an hour before the Thanksgiving meal. My friends were pretty impressed with large pans of pocket pies. I had brought extras to share. And they agreed that the pineapple pie pockets tasted great! I had successfully transformed the half-moon pineapple pie into three delightful pocket pies! And I couldn't believe that it had taken me this long to make the transition!

And the truth was in the looks of the people who were surprised at the pineapple pie pocket and loved the treat. I was so glad that I had made the choice to go with pie pockets. Two hundred people showed up at the Thanksgiving meal--the largest single gathering in the small local charity's history! It was more than three times the number of people that the charity fed last year, and twice the largest number of people they had fed in one sitting.

Once again, it broke my heart to see so many children present. I couldn't believe that this many kids were hungry, living in poverty and distress. I suddenly felt depressed, because it seemed like things were getting worse, not better. My gawd! This was more people than I had fed the last time I volunteered! What is wrong with the world? How can there be so much suffering in this world?

The lady in charge of the charity sensed my sudden depression. She touched me on the shoulder and said, "Yes, it's hard to see so many in need, especially the little children. But you've got to remember something. A lot of these people are new here. Most of them just learned about our work here. So yes, it's a lot to take in. But remember, for now, for today, you actually did something to help all these people. For most of them, this is the best meal they've had in a while. And for the little ones, they get to eat something good, something wonderful, and they're in a safe place to relax and eat, even if it's just for a little while, it's a whole lot better than having nothing at all."

And hearing that made me feel a little bit better. I know that I can't solve poverty and end world hunger. But for now, I can help a few people, feed them and give them a safe place to rest and eat and feel like someone cared, that there was still some hope and kindness left in the world. And looking at those children's happy, smiling faces made me feel good.

I was really glad that I had made enough pie pockets for leftovers that the children could take home. And I was really glad that I was inspired Thursday morning to make four batches of microwave pralines--about a hundred pieces of two inch diameter caramel candied pecans. I had bought some large bags of pecans from some roadside vendors on the drive back home earlier this month. I like stopping by roadside vendors. You can find great deals from farmers selling excess products, like bags of citrus or other fruits and veggies, jars of honey, or large bags of pecans or pistachio nuts.

Growing up on a farm, we had a roadside stand where we used to sell excess fruits, veggies, and products. Most of the harvest we collected and products we made were sold at the market or to large stores. But there was always extra fruit or veggies that grew late in the season, and we couldn't possibly can or preserve all of them. So we gave away what we could and sold the rest for extra spending cash. That was a great way to earn some money, especially for us youngsters who didn't have paying jobs nor an allowance growing up on the farm.

A lot of the time, we sold the stuff at really low prices, especially because there was so much to sell! It provided customers with really great deals. And we got extra spending money from food that would otherwise have gone to waste. So it was a win win for all of us. We got new, happy customers and we earned some extra spending money.

Whenever I see a roadside stand with little kids, I smile and immediately think of my two closest brothers and me-- sitting at our roadside stand in front of the house, with Mom or Dad or some of our elder siblings on the porch, watching us sell our goods and wares to passing customers. Good products sell themselves. But cute kids sell good products even faster!

To this day, when I see small kids at a roadside stand, I'll stop and check out their products. And I'll usually buy what they're selling, because it's usually something good, and I like to reward the kids for their hard work. Kids need all the encouragement they can get. And farm kids need all the support we can give them. It's a hard life growing up on a farm. As a farm kid, I know. And I have a special place in my heart for farm kids.

At the roadside stand, I bought four pounds of raw pecans for forty dollars! That's a damn good deal, considering most stores sell them for fifteen to twenty dollars a pound! When I got home, I placed those pecans in airtight freezer bags and put them in the freezer. I had forgotten about them until I was putting pie pockets in the freezer a few hours after midnight Wednesday.

And when I was done baking and wrapping all the pie pockets before dawn Thursday, I was inspired by the wax paper to make a few batches of pralines. And I had enough ingredients to make around a hundred pralines. And I was glad that I had brought them to share at the Thanksgiving luncheon. And the looks of joy on the kids faces as they tried pralines for the first time made me so happy. We had enough left over to make small brown paper bag snack packs of a pineapple pie pocket, a praline, and a tangerine for the kids to take home.

My friends and the charity workers and volunteers thanked me for my efforts. And it felt good. But honestly, the look of happiness and smiles on those kids faces as they ate those pie pockets and pralines, then to see them get so excited to take some home in snack bags made me feel great. It was an amazing feeling to know that I had made some small children happy. And for today at least, they wouldn't go hungry. Small acts of kindness matter, especially to the people who needed it the most. Every little bit counts.

When I got home later that afternoon, I noticed some kids hanging out at the neighbor's porch. They were visiting for the holidays. A little boy was crying as an older girl tried to comfort him. Another little boy and little girl just sat on the porch next to the crying boy being comforted. I wasn't sure what was going on. And the open front door and noise from inside the apartment made me believe that the adults were aware of the crying child but for some reason, chose not to intervene.

The crying child didn't seem to be in any danger and there were no visible injuries nor nearby hazards that put the kids in harm. But I could never stand the sight of a child crying, and my heart always broke when I hear the sounds of a child in pain. I don't like to see children suffer. It made me feel sad to see them hurting and crying. And it always moved me to action.

So I came into my apartment, took some pineapple pie pockets and pralines, then went out next door. I introduced myself to the children and greeted my neighbor, wishing her and her visitors a happy Thanksgiving. I told the kids that I lived next door. I asked the children and my neighbor if the kids were allergic to any food like nuts or gluten or if they had any allergies. The oldest girl and my neighbor said no, the kids had no allergies.

Then I knew that it was safe to give the pie pockets and pralines to the kids. I told them what the snacks were, and I watched them try the pies and pralines. They loved them! And it made me feel good to see them smile and enjoy their treats. The little boy stopped crying and smiled a huge gap tooth smile while eating his treat, and I returned to my apartment after the kids thanked me. I was about to close the door when I heard the kids exclaiming their excitement at eating their new treats, much to the surprise of the adults who wondered what the kids were eating and what was making them laugh. It felt good to hear the kids laugh. All was right in the world.

I had enough time for a nap before heading out to meet my friends for our Thanksgiving meal. But I had one more pie to make. Later that evening, we gathered at a friend's house and assembled all the food we had brought to make our shared meal. My friends who weren't at the local charity luncheon expressed surprise at the pineapple pie pockets. They couldn't resist sampling and enjoying a few before we sat down to dinner. They loved them! They also loved the pralines! That was a pleasant surprise.

But the biggest surprise of all was the last minute pie that I was inspired to make. As grateful and excited as they were to discover that I had made another type of pie, my friends wanted to know, "You made another pie? Why? You all ready made pineapple pie and pralines for Thanksgiving. So why the extra pie?"

"Because," I answered, "it's Thanksgiving. And in Texas, we eat pecan pie at Thanksgiving!"

Pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan, pineapple, it doesn't really matter what kind pie you have at Thanksgiving. They're all very delicious and welcomed at the dinner table. The whole point of Thanksgiving (and all communal and holiday gatherings) isn't about the type of pie you eat or even if you have turkey or not for the meal. It's about sharing a meal with the people you love and cherish.

It doesn't matter what you make or bring to the meal, so long as it was made with love and shared with those you love dearly. The whole reason for gatherings is that we get to spend time with the friends and loved ones who mean so much to us and make our lives better, happier, and more wonderful.

So this holiday season, I hope that you spend some time with the people you cherish and love. I hope you get to spend time with those who make your life richer and more joyful. I hope that you find the time to do the things that make you happy, and be with the people who are important to you.

Small acts of kindness matter, and I hope that you find some kindness, and know that what you do matters. You have an effect on this world and the people around you. You are an important part of this world. Be kind to yourself, and be good to the people you love. Thank you for your kindness and for your support.

I hope that you get to enjoy and share a special holiday treat with the people you love and cherish. And may all your gatherings be full of love and happiness. I hope that you get to share some good times, good food, and revel in the good company of your friends and loved ones. Wherever you are, I hope that you are safe, warm, and surrounded by peace and love. I wish you much joy, much serenity, and a magical, magnificent, marvelous, happy, wonderful holiday season. Cheers and Best Wishes to you and your friends and loved ones.

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