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Thursday, June 21, 2012 02:55 am

The kindness of strangers

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Julianne’s smashed van.
PHOTO BY PETER GLATZ

“…I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
From Tennessee Williams’ play,

A Streetcar Named Desire

My circumstances and those culminating in those final words of A Streetcar Named Desire couldn’t have been more different. But on Memorial Day, I kept hearing Williams’ words in my head. I still do.

In last week’s IT I talked about Esther’s, a restaurant in Fredericksburg, Pa. , that’s become a stopping point on my frequent trips to Brooklyn. But on my last trip I didn’t make it to Esther’s or Brooklyn.

This time I exited, drove a half-mile, and stopped before making a left turn towards Esther’s I looked left, saw a small black car in the distance, looked right, saw no cars, and pulled into the intersection.

Immediately I realized I’d seriously underestimated the black car’s speed. And it wasn’t slowing down: a crash was inevitable.

Minutes – which seemed like hours – after the van stopped, I unhitched my seatbelt, and got out. The van had spun 180 degrees around, and now faced the road I’d turned from. The front and its engine were totally smashed. The driver’s side window had crumbled, and I was covered with its bits. At the time I didn’t know for sure, but I knew it would be bad. I couldn’t pull the key from the lock and the airbags inflated – I never saw the entire front until I went to where it had been towed, but the front was completely smashed in. Even then it wasn’t “official” for a few days, but little as I know about cars, it was obvious even to me that it was totaled. And even if could have been repaired, it was certainly not going to be drivable anytime soon. The black car was several hundred yards further down. Though the intersection had been empty, soon there were flashing lights, EMTs, first responders and onlookers.

A few miles earlier, I’d stuck my wallet in a side door compartment after paying the PA turnpike exit fee. Now it and its scattered cards, cash and other contents were on the pavement. After collecting them, I walked to the road’s side. Blood was staining my shirt; someone quickly bandaged my hand.

Something glittered on the pavement: it was one of my glasses’ lenses. I hadn’t realized it had fallen out. Retrieving it, I saw a credit card I’d missed.

Someone walked by, shaking his head, “Young driver, not wearing a seat belt, going too fast. She [the other driver] probably has a broken nose.” An EMT at my side asked if I needed to go to a hospital. I shook my head, no.

As soon as I’d reached the pavement’s edge, I started calling my family. My first call was to my son Robb: he’d planned to travel from Boston to NYC for the holiday weekend. If he was still there, he’d be able to come more quickly than anyone. My Brooklyn kids don’t own a car; they rent one as needed in their apartment’s garage. But Robb had decided to stay in Boston, getting things done before joining us for our camping trip. Even so, when I told him what happened, he dropped everything and began the six-to-seven hour trip south.

The state trooper joked about his horrible handwriting while giving me a torn-off notebook sheet (with hanging chads) of contact information. The EMT repeatedly asked if I needed to go to the hospital; eventually I realized he was telling me I should. I wasn’t badly hurt, but was shaking from head to toe. And so I had my first-ever ambulance ride.

It was a 30-minute trip to the hospital. My blood pressure and heart rate were slightly elevated, but not alarmingly so; the EMT cheerfully said he’d seen far worse.

The ER staff diagnosed that the bleeding came from a scraped elbow and hand cuts too small to require stitches, or even band-aids. X-rays ruled out concussion; I was directed to the exit/waiting room.

Still shaking, I faced my situation’s complexities. Being involved in a car crash is inherently awful. Being involved in a crash hundreds of miles from home is worse. Being involved while traveling in a van crammed with camping supplies made a solution seem impossible.

The worst complicating factor was the holiday. Having taken my computer bag in the ambulance. I started to-do lists, trying to decipher the trooper’s handwriting. Excepting my computer and my blood-stained clothes, everything else was in the van. I had to get to it.

But my cell-phone calls universally met with answering machines. Car rental agencies were closed. Everything relating to the accident was strung along a succession of small towns: the accident in Fredricksburg was 20 miles west from the troopers’ Jonestown station. I was at Lebanon’s Good Samaritan Hospital, another 20 miles away, the van was in Grantsvillle, some 30 miles west. Eventually someone from the towing company called back: “Yeah, you let me know when you’ll be here, and somebody’ll go open the gates.” Swell.

When my cell phone and computer batteries needed charging, I moved to the empty security desk. Moments later, a hefty security guy, badge proclaiming his name as Jason, stopped by. I asked if the hospital had an information desk, he chuckled, “Yeah, but it’s a holiday. Nobody’s there.” But later he asked if I drank diet soda (Not usually, but I was horribly thirsty), and brought me a can from his private stash.

While I’d been phoning, the young woman at the emergency reception desk deftly dealt with an incoming stream: A severely sunburnt young child, a man’s dislocated shoulder, someone’s sister had collapsed, and so on. Around 5 p.m., she turned to me: “I couldn’t help overhearing. Where’d they tow your van?” I told her, and she said, “I live near there. If you don’t mind waiting until I get off at 7, I’d be happy to take you. And I could take you to a nearby hotel afterwards.” I gratefully accepted.
Sometime later she said, “I should introduce myself: I’m Stephanie.” As the clock crawled towards 7, some folks who I’d seen coming in left, offering me best wishes as they were wheeled out.

I learned a lot about Stephanie during that drive. That she’d graduated from a nearby university and lived with her parents. That she was leaving soon to move to Delaware for a public relations (her major) position, and to be closer to her long-time boyfriend. That her parents were schoolteachers. By the time we reached the van, I felt as if I’d known her for years.

But my respect and liking for Stephanie increased exponentially as we drove through the opened gates. It was immediately clear this wasn’t a car body shop. It was a car graveyard. Stephanie had to make a second pass-through before I found the van: its front was mangled beyond recognition. I’d spent the afternoon feeling lucky I hadn’t been seriously injured; now I was grateful to be alive.

I have bum knees, and couldn’t have retrieved my suitcase and garment bag from the van’s rear. Stephanie clambered over tumbled plastic containers to get them. Then she drove me to that nearby hotel, insisted on loading my luggage onto a cart, accompanied me to my room, and unloaded the luggage.

I’d planned from the beginning to pay her for her help. But as we talked, I became certain she wouldn’t accept anything, and I was right. I’d also become convinced that she didn’t really live nearby, and just wanted to help me. I confirmed that with an atlas after I got home.

Robb reached me shortly before midnight. The next day, we rented a U-Haul. In 90-plus sweltering, humid degrees, Robb did the yeoman’s work of transferring the van’s contents before heading home. My husband spent frustrating hours at O’Hare as flights were canceled because of violent thunderstorms sweeping the Eastern Seaboard. It took more than 12 hours for him to reach me. The next day we headed back to Springfield.

It’s been hard to stop the endless loop of the accident running through my head; sometimes I still shake when thinking about it. But I also remember the kindness of those strangers: the folks who stopped to help immediately after the accident, the ER staff, Jason the security guard, and most especially of all, Stephanie.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


Shoefly pie

Pennsylvania Dutch/Amish cooking is known for its pies. Shoefly Pie is perhaps the most indigenously famous. It’s also a favorite in America’s South. Truthfully, shoefly pie isn’t a personal favorite; it’s intensely sweet, to me often cloyingly so. That’s how it got its name: flies were drawn to cooling sugary pies. I prefer desserts that aren’t so intensely sweet. But if you like your sweets to be really sweet, shoefly pie will fill the bill.

Shoefly pie’s dominant flavor is molasses. Molasses is extracted when sugar cane is boiled to make sugar. Molasses is also made from other sources, including sugar beets and pomegranates to name just two; none are suitable for shoefly pie.

Three stages/types of molasses are made from sugar cane. The first, called Barbados, is the mildest. Molasses made from second stage boiling has a slightly bitter edge. The third, blackstrap molasses, is the most pungent, but it’s also chock full of iron, calcium and other nutritional goodies. It’s been used as a health food remedy for generations. Just make sure that whichever molasses you use is unsulphered. Sulpherization is a chemical process that makes molasses almost noxious tasting.

The amount of molasses in shoefly pie recipes varies radically, from all molasses, to half molasses and half light corn syrup, or even 1/4 molasses to 3/4 light corn syrup. But my favorite, and also the favorite of New England native-turned-Cajun/Creole chef Emeril Lagasse, is cane syrup. Cane syrup used to be endemic throughout the South, now Steen’s, in Abbeville, La., is the only remaining major producer. Especially in Louisiana it’s preferentialy used as syrup on pancakes, waffles, biscuits, and to drizzle over ice cream or bread pudding – as good in its own way as maple syrup, and far superior to artificially flavored commercial syrups. Cane syrup has the deeply satisfying flavor of dark brown sugar without any molasses funk.

The closest place I’ve found Steen’s is at Urbana’s World Harvest Market. But it’s easily ordered online. I bring back a year’s worth from our annual trips to Louisiana.

  • 1 9-inch or 10-inch deep dish pie shell, preferably partially baked (instructions below)
  • 1 beaten egg, if partially baking the pie shell

For the crumb topping:

  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 4 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

For the filling:
  • 3/4 c. hot water
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1 c. unsulphered molasses, OR a combination of molasses and white corn syrup, OR Steen’s Cane Syrup
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 beaten egg

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Partially baking the pie shell is not absolutely necessary, but it does ensure that the bottom crust will be flaky and tender rather than doughy.

If you are making a 9-inch rather than 10-inch pie, you’ll probably have leftover filling. It’s important to not use too much of the liquid filling. If you do, it will bubble over, creating a burnt sugar mess in your oven and potentially ruining the pie.

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients for the crumb topping, then add the butter and use your fingers or a couple of forks to mix until it forms coarse crumbs. Set aside.

Cool the partially baked pie shell completely before adding the filling. If you’re not partially baking it, freeze the shell before adding the filling.

Put the hot water in a bowl, then whisk in the baking soda. Add the vanilla, molasses and/or corn syrup or cane syrup, and salt and stir to combine. Add the beaten egg and mix everything completely.

Pour the filling into the pie shell, being certain to not overfill it: remember that you’ll be adding the crumb topping.

Bake the pie for about 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake an additional 25-30 minutes longer, or just until the filling is set and doesn’t quiver when gently shaken. If the crust edges are becoming too brown, cover them with foil.

Let cool completely to room temperature before cutting. Serve as is, or with lightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

To Partially Bake a Pie Shell: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the pastry and fit it into the pan. Check to make sure there are no holes or cracks – patch any holes or cracks with a little extra pastry that is very lightly brushed with beaten egg. Freeze for at least 15 minutes, then gently press a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil into the bottom and sides of the crust with as few wrinkles as possible. Fill with uncooked rice or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the shell from the oven. Pull the corners of the foil inward so they don’t tear the crust’s edges. Grab two corners of the foil in each of your hands and lift straight up, removing the foil and rice or beans. Brush the bottom and sides of the shell with additional beaten egg and return to the oven. Bake 2-3 minutes, or until the egg has formed a seal over the crust.

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