Ginger and honey margarita pie with a saltine crust, inspired by Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
I was irrationally afraid of everything short of my own shadow as a kid. This still holds true in some ways; I prefer subtlety to gore and sensationalism doesn’t play with me. But somewhere along the way I peeked out from between my fingers and realized that I could learn the narrative patterns of grotesque stories. I realized that by arming myself with knowledge things became less scary (like allowing my eyes to adjust to the dark) and I found that familiar problems seem intriguing in the light of the uncanny.
So I consider myself pretty adept at predicting where a story is headed. With that in mind, I want to tell you that Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is utterly unpredictable and kept me awake at night. Unable to put it down at first, and unable to sleep once I did, it sent ice down my spine on more than one occasion.
Thirty years ago, an unexplained event caused a stretch of southern coast to begin reverting to a wild and edenistic state. A mysterious border descended around this “Area X” and the government created the Southern Reach, an agency devoted to exploring and explaining these strange phenomena. Now, the Southern Reach is preparing to send its twelfth expedition to probe beyond the border.
The team consists of four women, a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist. Although they’ve been preparing for months, when they reach the heart of Area X it quickly becomes evident that there are strange things in this wilderness – things that moan in the night, that watch from the water, and a mysterious set of stairs descending into the earth – that the Southern Reach didn’t prepare them for.
Notes From The Piebrary
I’m currently working on the third book in the Southern Reach trilogy, which varies vastly in narrative style and tone as the books progress. For our purposes, Annihilation is told from the perspective of the biologist, who keeps a detailed field journal during the expedition. A bit of a black sheep among the other women, the biologist feels a confusing mix of fear and beguilement with regards to this landscape they’re exploring. The reader’s experience is much the same; first, a sense of terror and aversion to the uncharted and inadvisable course these characters have willingly set out upon, and then the utter inability to abandon the mystery of Area X.
Pieces of the puzzle are presented with fairy tale simplicity at first. Images and characters in the book are trotted out with straightforward names that belie their function in the story: the biologist, the tower, the lighthouse, the border. At first it seems like an episode of Scooby-Doo, where all of these simply defined elements will add up to a logical explanation for all the weird goings on in Area X. It is, frankly, a genius set up. You spend all this time trying to piece it together, but it falls so outside the realm of scientific logic that it’s utterly impossible. The closest you can get as a reader is wild conspiracy theories.
Parsing This Pie
I am afraid to parse this pie too thoroughly, lest I inadvertently give some aspect of the mystery away. Let’s just say there’s slime. Gold and green slime. So I went with honey and lime, but how to reconcile those flavors?
Relevant tangent: last summer, when Haley and I lived together in Bushwick, we frequented a bar called Pearl’s Billy and Social Club. There was something sort of… swampy about this bar. It always smelled damp and sticky, and yet was oddly cool. I always felt like there should be crickets and moss hanging from the ceiling. Haley’s favorite drink was the honey and ginger iced margarita. “I wish you could make this into a pie,” she said.
So here we are. As I was trying to reconcile the honey and the lime, I thought, why not add a bit of tangy ginger? Add the fixin’s of a margarita (just because), and instead of a salted rim, give it a saltine crust. I’m really pleased with the flavor and aesthetic of this pie. Not only does the custard have that green-flecked golden glow I was hoping to achieve, but there are all these key players in the pie that amount to something more complex and unusual than just the sum of their parts. It also has a wild, summery, coastal feeling to it that I think is very apropos.
-1 1/2 sleeves of saltines
-1/2 cup softened butter
-3 tbs sugar
-1 stick unsalted butter
-1 cup sugar
-2 tbs cornmeal
-1/2 tsp salt
-1 tsp vanilla extract
-3/4 cup honey
-4 large eggs
-1/2 cup heavy cream
-2 tsp white vinegar
-2 tbs tequila
-1 tbs Cointreau
-zest 1 lime
-1 tbs lime juice
-1 heaping tbs fresh shaved ginger
Preheat oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit.
I used the recipe for the saltine crust from Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie over at Food52, directions here. Two quick notes: it is better if you keep the saltine crumbs coarse and (for our purposes) do not let it get too brown during the blind baking stage.
I started with the custard for Four and Twenty Blackbird’s amazing salty honey pie and adapted it pretty significantly. Stir together melted butter, sugar, cornmeal, salt, and vanilla extract. One by one, slowly add each egg, the honey, cream, and vinegar. Add the tequila, Cointreau, lime zest and juice, and ginger (I used a vegetable peeler to get little strips), stirring thoroughly before pouring into the waiting saltine crust.
Bake for approximately 50 minutes, until the top has browned and the center does not slosh when lightly jiggled.
Serve with fresh whipped cream. Be careful not to choke on it when the moaning starts in the night.