Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

Everett

by Jason Bell

November 2013    

One summer I drove West convinced that a change of scene would inspire my inner journalist. Big sky and tallgrass for skyscrapers and Central Park. I liked motels and meeting folks and eating cheap food on the road, so in theory I was suited to the life of a traveling salesman or reporter. But I didn’t write much at all and it was a mistake of inexperience to assume every town had a secret worth selling. Most had stories that could be savored as gifts but soured if exchanged at market. No one, myself included, had a right to raid their cellars for a thirsty public. None with good sense would try.

Along I-40 between Oklahoma City and Amarillo the trucks arrive after sunrise. Damp asphalt condenses into fog, high beams blotting through, seeking exits into rural roads. The trucks descend to deliver breads and snacks. A while ago most towns like Weatherford, Anadarko, Tuttle, Chickasha, and El Reno were blessed with bakers who knew more about their customer’s appetites than the government. But when those towns drained out through oil wells it became cheaper to forget than to horde crumbs, and the bakers starved. Although a Little Debbie Apple Pie is anonymous and ignorant, its endless unwrappings of plastic and real fruit filling are comforting. An industrial pie never expires, never swarms with flies into compost. Promises of eternal youth come with a catch, though: Little Debbies have sacrificed secrets. They are impervious to narrative like a magic writing pad that erases everything scribbled across its surface. And so it came to pass that towns like Weatherford lost the fresh pies into which they had once thumbed holes and whispered gossip. Not the stuff of doctors or priests, the shame of disease and sin, but warmth that holds communities together. Flirtation that foreshadows a wedding, fiftieth birthdays, proms in gymnasiums, the triumphs that bind edges against hard times. The inner happiness of a small town lives with its baker, and after his death, lasts in the memory of his desserts. If he shares his secret recipes with a PTA newsletter or church cookbook, he will have safeguarded the world for a future without him, a day when the only pie for sale is filled with evaporated apples and corn syrup.

In El Reno, OK, there is one baker left. There is a coconut cream pie chilled so it hurts your teeth, six inches of meringue, a watertower that casts its shadow over four blocks of main street, a fort that rallied buffalo soldiers against Cheyenne uprisings, bred horses for the battlefields of France, and hosted German POWs, a research station for the USDA, and the Darlington Indian Agency. There is a Federal Correctional Institution and at least three restaurants, Sid’s, Robert’s, and Johnnie’s, all of which serve onion-burgers.

At Johnnie’s there are ten, now twenty burgers on the grill, pink bellies exposed to the cook’s prodding fingers, flipped and topped with thin-sliced onions, flipped and browning and sputtering juice, four by twenty patties, the cook picking up speed, building momentum with his folds of skin and fat like a defensive lineman sprinting downfield, covering brown bellies with buns four at a time, steam squealing, flipped, toasted, topped, slipped into take-out boxes. Lunch for the El Reno Youth Football League.

An onion burger is defined by those in the know as a 4 oz. patty seared into white onions and served with mustard and pickles. El Reno has been famous for them since Jane and Michael Stern, founders of the RoadFood travel megacorp, wrote an article for Gourmet magazine. Who invented the onion burger is a matter of no real controversy, though Johnnie’s is the oldest contender, circa nineteenfifty-something. Over anonymous decades the burgers gained cache with truckers and the rare tourist as filling, local, and alright.

I finished my lunch but don’t like onion burgers very much. Too little meat, too much bun. I saved my appetite for a slice of pie, the work of a baker named Everett Adams who earned a note in the Sterns’ article. I ordered the coconut cream, kept safe from marauding flies in an ice box. The first bite mesmerizing, like a hashish dream. The cashier told me Adams still lived in town and delivered the pies every morning. When I found the address of “June and Everett’s Pantry” and got lost at the prison and visited a chapel the POWs built by hand and walked their humble cemetery, and when I had procrastinated till I was queasy and drove to the bungalow, a foot of grass tufting over Tuesday’s paper, I was proud to have made it to the porch. I stood there, notebook in hand, hamburger and onions and pie surging in my stomach. I was scared of what I might hear if I knocked: flat rejection, the man so much less than the myth, a recipe for the best coconut cream pie I ever tasted, or emptiness. Alone and invisible, I could still leave untested. But a desire for pie and pure curiosity, two forces stronger than my better judgment, drove me on.

A sleepy war is underway between the Adams house and Oklahoma summer. All windows are shuttered. Fans rattle and wheeze. TV static, AM fuzz. Sealed up against the sun the room had accumulated a long history of its own smell. June showed me into the kitchen, her waifish frame threatening to evaporate into wallpaper. The oven, a beast of cast iron finials, levers, moldings, and vents, lorded over one corner. Twin Hobarts another. Everett had folded his body over a strawberry cake, engrossed with a finicky crust. I was surprised to see the wizard out from behind the custard, smiling before he heard my step on the carpet, smiling to his cakes. He rolled dough and told me how he got married during the Korean War and joined the National Guard as a journeyman printer to avoid the draft. Summer camp at Fort Hood, a mess sergeant got caught sneaking rations out the back and Everett took his job. After the war he worked at the penitentiary as a correctional officer, and in 1978, he started teaching inmates his recipes. When he retired with 43 years of service, his cakes and pies had been tested to an uncommon standard of excellence. Until the recession, he sold pastries to a half dozen restaurants in El Reno. But most closed, leaving him with Johnnie’s and a couple other customers around the state. A cookbook bound in wire testified to his reputation: The Secrets of a Small Town Baker. I flipped through it while Everett rolled and rolled. Hundreds of recipes, coconut cream chief among them.

“I don’t have any more, sold them all, about a thousand copies. Got a list over there of people who want one. I don’t have the money to get them printed,” Everett said. But if any turned up, as they did on occasion in El Reno, he would email me. I said thanks very much, promised to wire the story to a magazine up East, to tell the world, yet again, now here’s a guy who knows how to bake pie, in El Reno, OK.

Perhaps I should have grabbed the book and ran, should have stolen the script from which I could have rehearsed that afternoon whenever amnesia threatened. Perhaps I should have done what was necessary to possess Everett’s secrets. But I couldn’t, because even if I had the recipe or the real story it would have been illegible in the hands of a thief. To speak, listen, remember, enchant, it needed to be willed along unconditionally. I left with nothing except my empty notebook. Before I shut the screen door, Everett said, “I always tell everybody I’m gonna die rolling pie crust.”

I couldn’t have been happier to be included in Everett’s everybody, and to keep in my heart the secret of how that pie tasted the one time in my life I tasted it. As I traced my way through a maze of dilapidated neighborhoods back to the highway my stomach started bothering me for a chocolate shake. I took the next exit. The dry afternoon was turning to squall. I decided I would swallow stories for a while before retreating home, where I would endure the panic of cooking for myself, without recipes.



  Jason Bell is a freelance writer specializing in travel, food, books, music, and art. He graduated in 2013 from Columbia University, where he was Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review and a columnist for the Columbia Daily Spectator. He is an Ertegun Scholar at Oxford University reading for an MSt in English and American Studies. Visit him at jasonebell.com.

Photo courtesy of the author.