Tag Archives: generosity

Can reading help us navigate our social worlds?

I was very happy to see this review in the New Scientist of Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams, particularly after reading Rick Gekoski’s curmugeonly take on how writing makes us worse, and reading isn’t much better.

It seems to me that while the act of reading is immediately isolating–noses in our books, we enter a cozy cocoon in the middle of the hectic world–it can also lead to a far more open and generous view of life. Humans are almost unique among animals for our ability to learn not only from our own experiences, but from the experiences of others; and what better ingress to others’ experiences than novels and stories, which let us inhabit minds that would otherwise be alien to us?

I’ll give Mr. Gekoski his due: isolating ourselves to read and write can lead to cantankerous and anti-social tendencies, but really no more so than any other intense and private activities. When I think of many of my favorite books and writers–Thomas Williams’ Leah, New Hampshire; Andre Dubus’ Voices From the Moon; anything by Alice Munro–I’m struck by their generosity and benevolence. And whether or not these writers were always generous in their personal lives–Mr. Dubus, surely, had his flaws–their work can inspire their readers to be a little kinder, a little more understanding, a little more forgiving.

Unemployment Diary: Plenitude and Whoopie Pies

If fingers can cling resolutely to a cliff, the soul can easily extend beyond a mere Babbitt. We’ve reached a point in which we must take chances and throw ourselves into the wild briny patches of innovation. But why accept a world in which free thinking is replaced by a sad search for cues from someone who people think has a clue? Why believe that any one person is right all the time? Why celebrate a culture of entitlement and honor those who feel obliged to their spoils?

Edward Champion, A Call for Plenitude

March 19, 2009

Today was the boys’ last day at Minneapolis Kids, their after-school program. We love the staff there, and the kids have a great time with all the activities–an annual musical, “clubs” dedicated to rocks and science, craft projects–but since I’ve got my early afternoons free, it’s an expense we can cut. I’ve also got a super-secret project that requires some assistance from the boys, so they’re excited about “working” after school.

For their last day, I made a batch of whoopie pies. When I told the staff about my planned treat, they looked a little confused, and slightly concerned; they had never heard of whoopie pies. Which makes sense: they’re my “ethnic” food, and unless you’re Amish or Yankee (I’m the latter), or travelled in the wilder regions of Maine and New Hampshire, you’ve probably never run into this wonderful confection.

Whoopie pies are made up of a sandwich of soft chocolate cake cookies around a creamy filling; you can buy them at many gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants in western Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachussetts. The filling contains a “healthy” (I use the word guardedly…) dose of Marshmallow Fluff–and really, nothing will do but the real Marshmallow Fluff as produced in Lynn, Massachussetts, which is rare outside New England (my local Rainbow has been carrying it lately, so I haven’t had to substitute inferior marshmallow products). As I understand the history, whoopie pies (also called “gob cakes”) were an Amish dessert native to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; they were included in a free Marshmallow Fluff catalog put out in the 1920s, which is how they came to establish themselves in New England (where Marshmallow Fluff is almost a staple: try it on your peanut butter sandwich for a “fluffer-nutter” and you’ll see why).

I’ve always closely guarded my whoopie pie recipe. It’s my Aunt Edna’s version; my mother grew up in the Downeast coastal region of Maine, and though she passed on family recipes for brown bread, gingerbread, and penuche, whoopie pies weren’t in the Walls’ repertoire: that’s how localized the whoopie pie phenomenon is. My recipe has a couple of secret ingredients–sour milk in the batter, and a cooked filling–that sets it apart from the pies you can buy in the store.

I was inspired, though, by the example of Edward Champion to share this recipe. He shared a wonderful recipe for corn chowder (which was a crowd pleaser at my house), preceded by a very affecting “call for plenitude“:

Tangible happiness expressed and received. A smile to a stranger. Five minutes to listen. Efforts to establish common ground. The burying of hatchets. A fey risk.

So in that spirit, I’m opening up the vaults and letting Aunt Edna’s whoopie pie recipe into the wild. This is “soul food,” Yankee-style, as nourishing in its way as collard greens, crusty baguettes, or vegetable corn chowder; I hope they bring you as much joy as they’ve brought me.

Aunt Edna’s Whoopie Pies

Cookies

  • 1 cup shortening
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sour milk (add 1 tbs distilled vinegar to milk and let it start to curdle)
  • 1 cup cocoa
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 5 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder

Cream shortening, sugar, and vanilla. Mix hot water and cocoa. Sift dry ingredients and add sour milk, cocoa, and eggs. Blend until creamy.

Drop generous spoonfuls of batter onto an ungreased cookie sheet to form round cookies.

Bake at 350 degrees, 12-15 minutes. Let cool before filling.

Filling

  • 8 tbs flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Cook milk, flour, and salt over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Chill for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups shortening
  • 4 tsp vanilla
  • 8 tbs Marshmallow Fluff

Combine sugar, shortening, vanilla, and Marshmallow Fluff with the milk mixture, and beat until fluffy.

Assembly

Spread a generous tablespoon of the filling on the flat side of a cookie, and add a second cookie to make a sandwich.

Useful tips:

  • When you cream the shortening and sugar, cream it like you mean it. Your cakes will be much lighter if the sugar makes lots of air pockets in the shortening; insufficient creaming results in dense, flat, poorly-textured cookies.
  • If you’re cooking with small assistants, don’t let them dip their fingers into the cocoa/water mixture for a taste; it looks inviting, but it’s very bitter. Or, alternately, encourage them to sample it, as a lesson in the ways of the world.
  • Remember to lick the beaters and bowl. Yes, it’s unsanitary; yes, the raw eggs will probably kill you; but there’s nothing that says comfort like the taste of whoopie pie batter while the cookies bake.
  • “Generous spoonfuls” means “generous spoonfuls”; this is not a time to be frugal–make those cookies big!
  • Do not grease the cookie sheet; there’s more than enough lard in these cookies that they’re not going to stick to anything. I made this mistake once, and got a gooey mass of whoopie sheets coating my cookie sheet and oven.
  • The filling needs to be thoroughly beaten until fluffy; the pleasure in this treat is the fluffiness of the filling.
  • Assembling the sandwiches is a good task for kids. They take great pleasure in plopping the goop on, and finding matching lids.
  • I always wrap each whoopie pie in Saran Wrap; this is certainly not environmentally sound, but it aids greatly in storage and transportation; they’re a messy treat.
  • The whoopie pies can be frozen; in fact, they benefit greatly from being chilled, as this firms up the filling. Of course, they’re also good fresh out of the oven with the filling melting all over your hands; have a good supply of napkins.
  • No matter how generous you are with the filling, you’ll have some left over. You could whip up another batch of the cookies, spread the filling on graham crackers, use it as a pretzel dip, or just plant yourself on the couch with the mixing bowl and a spoon, so long as no one is watching you.
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