In honor of Black History Month, this is my own humble nod of gratitude for the history the black community built and enriched. This is my own nod of gratitude toward the immigrants, who like my grandmother's family came to America and worked harder than anyone, planting their traditions into American soils. It's a nod to those who were here long before any of us, who valued the many resources this beautiful chunk of land had to offer.
They call it a “fat letter,” and I’ll never forget the day I received mine.
After a guidance counselor told me about Carnegie Mellon University, I fell hard- that weak in the knees, hearts in the eyes, wish-it-to-be-so sort of way. Being that my confidence was just as weak as my knees, I doubted the school would feel the same about me. As I gripped the overstuffed letter in my shaky hands, my first thought was “why would they make the rejection so thick?”
After fighting the nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach and finally daring to break the adhesive seal, my eyes skimmed frantically and landed on “congratulations.” So many emotions pulsed through my body, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overcome with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment like never before, my body rocked back and forth like a person in the midst of a psychotic episode.
A few months later, I packed my parents car to the brim and began one of the most challenging chapters of my life! All my preconceived notions were broken and rebuilt, in a way that taught me to think for myself, to trust my instincts and to learn the importance of quitting frequently and redirecting quickly (still learning this!). On campus, I finally found peers who made sense- people who were work obsessed dorks with creative sides. After all, the school’s motto is “My heart is in the work.” Though there were still students whose brainpower could crush me, acceptance to this place empowered me.
When I say attending Carnegie Mellon was the hardest challenge I’ve faced, it’s no understatement. Days and nights bled together in periods of sleepless, intense work leading to that moment when I had to stand in front of accomplished critics and defend my thought process. The well traveled route from home to studio was often a blur of stressful to-do lists running through my head, but every now and then, something would jar me from my crazed mental state. One of those distractions was Pi Day!
Pi = 3.141592… March 14 = 3-14, therefore, Pi Day = March 14
Welcome to the nerd holiday known as Pi Day! On this day, math enthusiasts (is this the originator?!?) would chalk the never-ending number all over campus. The combination of the nerd enthusiasm and the element of tradition made this day comforting to me, a day on which I could rely despite all the uncontrollable, non-constants in my life. It was a celebration of CMU in all its quirkiness, and I looked forward to it every year!
After graduating, I still looked forward to the holiday, and in the meantime, I found myself drawn to baking. Pi Day became Pi(e) Day, which eventually became a new obsession in its own way.
In 2010, my friend Erin Pischke (also a CMU grad!) and I created The QT Pi(e) Project. On “Pi(e) Day,” March 14, 2010 (3/14/10), The QT Pi(e) Project used bicycles to deliver 31 pies (314 would have killed us), made from all local ingredients, to Pittsburgh homes with 314 addresses. Each pie arrived in a custom-made recipe box, with recipe cards explaining the project and the benefits to buying and eating local foods.
The QT Pi(e) Project was a grant funded endeavor, which gave me a confidence boost to put more of my ideas into motion and into the world, and the foundation of that idea was Pi Day at Carnegie Mellon. Life had come full circle! (see what I did there?)
When the good folks behind Carnegie Mellon’s website contacted me this year and asked if I’d like to share a recipe on the school’s website for Pi(e) Day, I was OVER THE MOON! In dorky pun terms, this recognition felt like being nominated for an Academy Award! Be the face of Pi(e) for 2016? OF COURSE OF COURSE OF COURSE I wanted to make that pie!
This Scottish Inspired Savory Meat Pie with Black Lava Salty Scotty Dogs is the edible ode to my alma mater, the place that made me appreciate Pi and in more ways than not, shaped me into who I am today. I still can’t fathom how the world expects 18-year-olds to make informed decisions about the rest of their lives, but at least I chose a rewarding place to figure out how little I knew about myself and the world.
Happy Pi(e) Day ya nerds!
p.s: If you’re wondering why Scottish, you’re clearly not a Tartan. If you take a stroll on campus in the spring, you’re likely to encounter a Scotty dog or two, a bagpipe band in kilts and a fair bit of Tartan plaid. The Scottish roots run deep via Andrew Carnegie.
A Scottish Inspired Savory Pie for Pi(e) Day 2016
About This Recipe: This pie is a labor of love, which is why it is fitting for Pi(e) Day celebrations! It consists of a savory, whole grain pie crust, filled with a slow-cooked Scottish stew and a variation on traditional Scottish mushy peas. Make the Scottish Beef Stew first, and while the stew is slow cooking, prepare the crust, then Mushy Peas & Potatoes while the crusts chill. The stew and mushy peas recipes yield more than necessary for one pie, but I like to make the larger quantities and freeze the excess to make future weeknight meals a lot easier. Alternately, you could halve the stew recipe, or better yet, double the crust recipe and make two savory pies!
“How do you feel about chestnuts?” I asked Jill, who was coming for dinner in a few days.
“Like…I like them roasting over an open fire? I actually have no idea!”
Though we sing about chestnuts roasting every year, and the lyrics help put us in that holiday spirit, how many of us actually eat these hearty nuts?
If my friend Jill, who samples an array of precise recipes daily at America’s Test Kitchen, cooks constantly, travels extensively and meets world class chefs as part of her job…if she had never eaten a chestnut, it’s safe to say very few people are eating these nuts. This begs the question, why do we sing nostalgically about this nut but not eat it?
The short answer is blight. Once upon a time, chestnut trees blanketed the east coast of the United States, covering some 200 million acres. Frost resistant and reliable, the tree was a major source of income for many a rural community, both as a source of food for livestock and as a timber source. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, blight, imported through Asian Chestnut Trees, devastated the eastern woodlands. If this feels like a dismal tale from the annals of food history, it is, BUT there’s a glimmer of hope too!
Fortunately, there are organizations and people working to restore the chestnut’s mighty presence. These history lessons are also valuable as more and more of us seek to improve the local food economy. If we spend more time examining our food and its sources, we can better mediate our local agricultural systems. For now, chestnuts cost a pretty penny in grocery stores, and their availability is limited (I hope you can still acquire some as I am sharing this in January!), but hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, every east coast grocery store will offer a regular bin of local chestnuts. Maybe I’ll even be gathering them at Hazelwood Urban Farms!
Here’s to chestnuts roasting on lots of open fires!
Roasted Chestnut Stuffing/Dressing
Recipe adapted from Sift magazine
Yield: 10 servings
About This Recipe: Vegetarians and carnivores can unite on this classic side dish thanks to chestnuts’ meaty flavor! For a more nutrient rich approach, I used a combination of Whole Wheat Sourdough and Mt. Athos Fire Bread (a local favorite- sub any dense, grainy bread). This recipe calls for baking the bread cubes to dry them, but you can also cube and save bread as it starts to harden to avoid wasting a loaf. To simplify the recipe, you can use pre-cooked chestnuts (like these), but roasting draws a lot of flavor. If you have more than 1 1/2 cups chestnuts after roasting and shelling, add them to the stuffing. That quantity is flexible.
With the phrases “winter weather watch” and “storm advisory” hanging heavy in the air, the grocery stores teeter on the brink of milk, egg and bread depletion. Though I’d advocate for a fair fight for the last crusty loaf, I have this creamy, vegetarian, snowstorm survival idea to offer you: Chestnut Mushroom Soup!
In a world of titles and categories, I lump myself with the “conscientious omnivores,” but chestnuts could nearly sway me to the vegetarian crowd. Spoonful after warm spoonful, the roasted chestnuts could easily fool you into believing meat lurked in this creamy soup.
So hit the grocery store, fight for the last crusty loaf of bread, and while the milk and eggs create a diversion, scrounge that lingering holiday offering of chestnuts. Then, cozy into the weekend with a big batch of hearty, vegetarian soup.
Chestnut Mushroom Soup (Vegetarian)
Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart
makes 12 servings
About This Recipe: The process of roasting and shelling chestnuts can be a bit tedious, but the end result is worth the experience! Hearty and meaty, this vegetarian soup pairs well with buttery brie on dense, whole grain bread. For a vegan option, use coconut oil for the sautéing, and garnish with a whipped coconut cream.
Soon, (all too soon!), the ball will be dropping, champagne will be popping, and couples will be smooching. It’s almost time to usher in 2016! How will you celebrate? With pork?
In some countries, including Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Austria, pigs symbolize progress. One explanation is these animals never move backward. Another explanation stems from pigs’ feeding habits (they push their snouts forward along the ground when rooting for food). Either way, it’s good luck to start the year with pork. (Apologies to my vegetarian and vegan readers- noodles are also good luck!)
If you’re going to start a brand new year with pork, it’s a good excuse to try something fancy, and this is where I defer to the expertise of a butcher (this is also how I still maintain all ten fingers). Fortunately for me, this steel town has seen a resurgence of butchers, including the Butcher on Butler. After making my request, I watched in awe as he finessed this roast with an assortment of intimidating knives, all while telling me the story of how he came to be the butcher on Butler Street.
The butcher shop had been a butcher shop as long for as he could remember. The previous owner had faithfully served his neighborhood into his old age. After he passed away, his widow didn’t know what to do with the shop. A neighboring bank had offered to buy the building to turn it into a parking lot. Gone would be the antique cooler with its hefty hardware. Gone would be this little plot of history. Gone would be the counter where neighbor after neighbor ordered the roasts and cuts for special occasions. This is when the current butcher, then a chef, had the idea to buy it and continue the legacy. The widow was overjoyed!
The building wanted to be a butcher shop. It was a community staple, and her husband’s life’s work would continue to blossom instead of being buried under layers of concrete. These stories of tradition and legacy melt my heart.
The modern butcher faces a slew of new obstacles- GMOs, confinement pens, hormones, cheap diets, inhumane practices, etc. What’s especially inspiring about this story is how the new butcher carried on the community traditions of a small, local shop, with the new set of quality standards- locally raised animals, trusted sources and quality products. Like the progressive, forward moving pig, the local butcher shop moved into the modern era!
So here’s to traditions and amendments, progress and fresh starts! Here’s to the coming New Year and fancy feasts!
Herb Crusted French Style Pork Roast
Adapted from Food & Wine
About This Recipe: Have your butcher “french” (remove the meat from) the rib bones for you. The uncooked herb-rubbed pork roast can be covered and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before roasting. Food & Wine suggests pairing this succulent loin roast with a full-bodied red with enough flavor to stand up to its crisp, spicy crust, such as an Australian Grenache.