Archives for posts with tag: Mother’s Day

Sorry I have been AWOL. Blame the job. I will try to do better this year.

Mother’s Day seems like a great time to renew this blog, since my mother has been such an inspiration to me. She’s 84 and she’s still gardening.

OK, it’s gardening “lite” – last year she had one cucumber plant and one tomato plant. But she still glories in the small joys of gardening: choosing just the right plant, procuring the right soil (JJJJ, this is your department) and nurturing the plants to harvest. I think she’s a “vegetable whisperer.”

It may be a micro version of the enormous garden she once had, but on the other hand she no longer has to feed six hungry mouths. She only has to enjoy the gifts that God gives us, with her expert care and vigilance against varmints.

Mom: CRR is trying to grow some gooseberries from seed. I remember them from Grandma Benner’s garden, small seedy juicy berries that we ate straight from the plant. They’re called husk cherries in other parts of the country, which I discovered in St. Louis last summer when a James Beard nominee chef joyfully incorporated them into his dishes.

Mom: I don’t “can” tomatoes like you did, but I diligently cook tomato sauce and freeze it, a frugal streak I got from you. Though I have to say, this time-consuming kitchen work is tried when I see that I can buy two 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes for $1. Really, all that work for 50 cents?! I guess it’s the “love” component.

tulipMom: My flower gardens are a direct tribute to your love of gardening. All year long, as I baby the flowers and admire their beauty, I think of you. The lilacs just finished. Roses are blooming. Soon we’ll have iris and peonies and hydrangea. Everything in its time.

These things, so tangible yet so intangible, I owe to you. We owe to you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

xoxo, your favorite daughter (sorry, sibs, you knew that was coming)

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and mother of two sons. 

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I was headed for Capitol Hill, in a rush, as is everyone who has business with Congress. As I walked up the escalator (like I said, everyone is in a faux-hurry in Washington), I almost tumbled into the person behind me.

What stopped me in my tracks was a beacon: A sign for Dangerously Delicious Pies. Amid the awful food court offerings in Union Station was a small stall that offered the thing-I-can’t-resist.

I quickly calibrated my Hill trip. Get my business over with, hie straight back to the DDP, and call it lunch.

After carefully considering the possibilities, I ordered a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie. Warmed up? No thanks. A good pie stands up to room temperature. With whipped cream? NO. I might have succumbed to a quenelle of ice cream but whipped cream has no business topping a fruit pie.

I took my $6 slice to a nearby table and poised my fork.

It was heavenly. The fruit filling was amazing, the tart rhubarb softening the sweetness of small whole berries, held together with exactly the right ratio of fruity binding. Delicate crust. I savored every delicious bite.

Then I went up to the counter and told the two clerks that their pie was the best pie I’d ever had — outside my mother’s kitchen.

My mother, Mavis Marie Benner Johnson, is a pie queen. She claims she didn’t know how to cook as a newlywed bride, but along the way she learned how to make the best darned pie in the world. Her crust, flaky by the graces of pork lard, is legendary. Her command of the pie genre is without peer.

She is the reason one of my childhood nicknames was PieHead.Image

Cherry, apple, blueberry, rhubarb, peach, raspberries, rhubarb. Of those, her apple is my favorite, scented with a hint of cinnamon. And oh lord the cream pies: tart lemon meringue, pumpkin, chocolate cream, banana cream, coconut cream, butterscotch. I’m sure I’m forgetting some of her repertoire.

The Johnson children could always count on a pie for Sunday dinner. (This is one of the few times I ever wished there were fewer sibs – a pie split eight ways is a mere taste. We still fight over Mom’s pies when we get together. JJJ—get outta the way!)

My mother’s butterscotch pie remains my all-time favorite. Her recipe was passed down from her mother, from a 1950s cookbook. Once when we were home, she made it for my children. My son, Will, said the filling tickled his tummy. Exactly as it did when I was a child…and still does.

In tribute to my grandmother, Eva, and my mother, Mavis: queens for a day on Mother’s Day. I love you Mom.

Butterscotch Pie

1 cup brown sugar, packed                        3 eggs, separated

3 tablespoons flour                                     3 tablespoons butter

4½  teaspoons cornstarch                          ¾ teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon salt                                             baked pie shell

1 ½ c. scalded milk                                       whipped cream or meringue

Mix sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt thoroughly in top of double boiler. Add ¾ c. of the hot milk and stir over direct heat until smooth. Add remaining milk, then place over boiling water and cook, stirring frequently for 15 minutes. Beat egg yolks thoroughly. Stir in a little of the hot mixture, and pour back into the double boiler. Cook for 3 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, add butter and vanilla and stir until mixed. (optional: While mixture cools, beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the warm filling) Pour immediately into cooled pie shell. Either top with meringue and bake further, or serve with whipped cream with cool.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

My mother was the original master gardener. She may not have the formal certificate but she’s got street cred. Her vast garden fed a hungry family of eight year-round, and inspired a love of gardening in all six of her children.

Oh, we whined when we were sent out to weed, a never-ending task, and bickered among ourselves about who was slacking. Weeding eventually gave way to picking the day’s bounty. There’s nothing like eating a carrot just pulled from the soil, or splitting open the first peas and gobbling them on the spot. But shucking enough peas or stringing enough beans for our big family was hard work.  There were occasional benefits to having six children – and assigning the garden work to the child labor force was one of them.

Mom had a green thumb, and her bounty graced practically every meal put on the Johnson table. We ate fresh produce all summer and into the fall. She also ‘canned’ fruit and vegetables, a lost art. Her gorgeous produce lined the shelves of her basement pantry – hundreds of Mason jars that gleamed like jewels.  Ruby red beets, emerald beans and pickles, carrots, tomatoes.  Peaches, cherries, pears bought by the crate, patiently peeled, pitted, blanched and sealed into glass jars.

Mom’s garden was ringed with apple trees, so she canned and froze apples that provided an apple pie every Sunday until the next season rolled around. (Her flaky piecrust secret?  Pork lard. She would smile to know that lard and lardo are on every chic restaurant menu today.)

Mavis Johnson picking cherry tomatoes. Credit: Sara MacGregor

Once we settled down, the Johnson children eventually drifted back to their gardening roots. My brother in Minneapolis starts his seeds under grow lights when snow still covers the ground, lovingly tends his veg in terraced beds, and then gives away the harvest. Another brother is in pursuit of the hottest peppers on Earth, astonishing his sibs by chewing on pickled habaneros. Sis in Alaska gets “biggest veg” bragging rights, taking advantage of Alaska’s endless summer sun. San Diego sister has citrus trees of every color. And Oregon sister harvests “U-Pick” cherries and berries.

Dearest Mom: Thank you for giving us the lifelong gift of gardening.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.