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A strawberry rhubarb pie inspired by Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden and Practical Magic.

I’ve been reading Alice Hoffman’s work since I was a preteen, starting with her YA novel Aquamarine when I was about twelve. From there I’ve grown with her heroines whispering in my ear. Because of her subject matter and the high volume, I think some people write Hoffman’s work off as upmarket women’s fiction. If that’s the case, I would like to see more of that genre with her bravery, literary craft, and flair, please.

Spoiler-Free Summaries

The Red Garden is comprised of a series of short stories that recount the history of a small fictional town in the Berkshires called Blackwell. The lives of the founding families and their descendants weave together, creating stories of loss, love, independence, and beauty in the wild. Something interesting, I think, about this book is that you could theoretically read the stories front to back, or back to front. Depending on the order, you would either follow the town from its inception, or start with town as it currently is and slowly uncover its secrets as you travel back in time. Hoffman is extremely skilled at cultivating running details and themes, consistent threads that tie the stories together.

Practical Magic follows two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, who are as different as can be. Sally lives a quiet life with her two daughters and Gillian runs wild all over the country, wanting more than the sheltered life east coast life their spinster aunts brought them up in. Oh, and the Owens women are witches, so everyone in their small town hates and fears them. When things get out of hand and Gillian’s boyfriend dies, the sisters find themselves haunted by his abusive spirit.

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Notes From The Piebrary

One of the things that I love about Hoffman is that her writing is extremely aesthetic, combining the atmosphere of a humble small town with a dash of the supernatural. Her eye for detail is truly astounding; specific plants, scatters of light, the smell of woods after rain, the unusually red earth or the flowers in a garden where a black bear or boyfriend was buried. Each of her books has a palette, a flavor or set of colors or smell that you could associate it with. Like a sensory collage put down in words.

She also doesn’t gloss over the character’s struggles on their way to some new romantic happiness. More often than not her characters (especially the women) have their own priorities, are complex people with faults as well as virtues, and often compromise their happiness or comfort. If they’re lucky, they do it without compromising their freedom or sense of self. I appreciate the balanced nature of Hoffman’s lens; in her world bad things happen, but there are still small miracles in the whistling of a kettle and the sun through a canopy of leaves.

Parsing This Pie

I started out baking this pie exclusively for The Red Garden. While shopping at the Union Square farmer’s market I was struck by how amazing the month of August is, how abundant and colorful. And when I saw the small, perfect little strawberries (not the hothouse monsters you get in the store) and the long, thick stalks of rhubarb I realized I had never eaten strawberry rhubarb pie, let alone baked one. Because of the color of the pie’s filling combined with that lovely summer bounty, The Red Garden seemed like an apropos (if a bit obvious) choice.

While I was writing up the post, however, I got curious. I’ve been thinking a lot about plant lore and herbalism lately. Even if you don’t believe in that sort of thing, it’s just another kind of metaphor, another story, and that I find interesting. So I looked up rhubarb. According to Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, “Rhubarb pie served to a mate helps helps to maintain his or her fidelity.” …what? Beyond that, ginger (which I added after researching several other recipes), is “much-used” in love spells for, among other things, its heat.

Shitshitshit. Have I inadvertently kitchen-witched my way into a… love pie? I mean, on the one hand that’s my idea of practical magic. On the other, if Practical Magic taught me anything it’s not to muck around in magic you don’t know how to use. So I decided to focus the energy of this pie away from inadvertently seducing all my friends and onto fostering love, loyalty, warmth between them. Add a little bourbon for some good times (and some bad) and strawberries for sweetness, good ingredients for a friendship, I think. Although, I suppose if you really wanted to seduce someone, there are worse ways to go about it. The way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach.

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Recipe

Crust:
-2 cups flour
-2/3 cup butter
-3 tbs water
-1 tbs cider vinegar

Filling:
-2 cups rhubarb
-2 cups strawberries
-2 tbs orange juice
-1 tbs ginger
-2 tsp bourbon
-1/2 cup brown sugar
-1/2 cup sugar
-1/4 cup cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut together the ingredients for the crust until they come together in a shaggy dough.

Cut the rhubarb and strawberries into bite sized pieces. Combine with orange juice, ginger, bourbon, both sugars, and cornstarch. Coat thoroughly and let sit. Roll out the bottom crust and line the pan. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the filling to the crust, letting most of the liquid drain away. I added approximately 3-4 tablespoons of liquid back in over top. Roll out the top crust (or in my case, weave a lattice), ventilate by sticking a knife in the top, brush egg across the top, sprinkle sugar liberally in the wet egg. Bake from 40-45 minutes.

Serve to a friend, family member, or lover with vanilla ice cream to foster the respect and love between you.

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