I grew up hungry. There wasn’t a lot of food in the pantry, there wasn’t a lot of time for love. I grew up “working class” and was raised by my siblings, because my parents worked so much. When they got home from the odd jobs they worked, they’d put Spaghetti-o’s on the table and tried to get me to drink milk more. It was my sister who taught me to tie my shoes, frustrated one morning when I didn’t want to go to kindergarten, the laces trailing behind me and tears welling in my eyes. I already felt like a failure at six years old. She grabbed my laces and taught me with patience, we got on the bus and she held my hand until I calmed down. A lot has changed between us, and that’s the last time we were tender to each other. A lot has changed, but I still get worked up so easily.
I grew up poor. I grew up poor and I didn’t even know it. I grew up poor and knew no other way. I grew up poor when my parents worked four jobs and resented them years later for being too tired to listen to my day, my stories, my dreams of being a famous writer and never seeing them again. I grew up poor and never helped my mom around the house. When she needed it most. When she was so exhausted, she’d fall asleep at the dinner table. When she wasn’t herself for so many years, fighting the good fight. She worked in a freezer once, in a grocery warehouse. My dad took a job once stuffing coupons into newspapers. They did it for us. They tried to make ends meet, to tie my laces and keep me young. All of this in Kentucky, where my brother stepped on a nail and he didn’t want to tell our parents, in case it cost too much to fix. I asked him about it while I was in North Carolina in June. He still has the scar, and I still have the memory of the sacrifices everyone made, and how I was happy to be too young to understand them all.
One thing I was kept young about was food and levels of flavor until I had moved out of rural Pennsylvania and into Pittsburgh (arguably, still rural Pennsylvania). Until then, I only knew about cake layers, pizza toppings, adding a little more cream to my coffee and calling it something French–I called that cooking. I didn’t know herbs existed in their green state, or that anything you saw at through the smudged bakery glass could be made at home. I didn’t know a lot of things, because my mother fed a family of five on a dollar-store budget.
We come from Indiana low-country, an often underrepresented class that subsists itself on eggs covered in ketchup, twenty-year grudges, and first marriages that never seem to stick. It’s a place where you can drive for twenty miles and still see the same rain cloud in the distance. A place where they get fresh water from a water tower, painted light blue and where kids climb to make out and smoke weed. It’s a place with a Dairy Queen and two cemeteries: the Catholic graveyard and the Baptist graveyard. A place where the elasticity of money means being creative, stocking a deepfreeze in the garage with bulk cuts of meat, and eating more preservatives than maybe a neighboring longitudinal town. It means knowing what tastes good and sharing it with your family of five, putting a little extra in the brown paper lunches you pack when the school’s get too expensive.
It’s comfort food without the luxury of Southern heaviness–no buttermilk or animal fats. Too expensive. We budgeted with Crisco, Velveeta, and Great Value-brand butter, saving bacon fat in a mason jar by the stove for Sunday morning donuts. Everything was saved, everything reconfigured instead of throwing it out. I assume that’s how this dessert was made. Some cream cheese was going beyond the saving point, some pretzels were stale. A woman no different than my mother–working class and a mother of three–layered and baked whatever she had on hand, set and cooled the product of her labor in the fridge. She told her friends who told her friends, who went to church and share it at potlucks. It was made cheaper with Jell-o, made easier with Cool Whip. It was adapted and streamlined for economy, using barely any heat and barely any ingredients. And once my mother got the recipe, it became a staple in our house. “Pretzel Salad” it’s called. It’s a working-class answer to the cheesecake, simple and sturdy and tart how you like it. It sweet enough to balance out all the salt-of-the-earth people I’ve met throughout my life, reminding me who I really am and where I really come from.
Strawberry and Pretzel Pie (Pretzel Salad)
For the crust:
- 2 cups finely-crushed pretzels (to the point of coarse meal or flour)
- 1/3 cup firmly-packed brown sugar (light or dark–I preferred the stronger molasses in dark)
- 3/4 cup + 1 tb melted butter
For the cream cheese filling:
- 1 package cream cheese, room temperature
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup sugar (your preference. More tart means less sugar)
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, sour cream, or plain yogurt (up the sugar if using the former two options, so it isn’t overwhelming)
- 2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
- 1 quart strawberries, hulled and smashed
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 lemon, zest and juice
- A slurry of 3/4 cup water and 3 TB cornstarch
- Preheat oven to 350 and prepare a 9-inch pie plate with butter and parchment paper the bottom (optional)
- On the stovetop, melt butter gradually and set aside.
- In a food processor, pulse pretzels and brown sugar together until you get the consistency of corn meal or flour.
- In a mixing bowl, combine two cups of the dry pretzel mixture with the melted butter. Stir with a wooden spoon until just combined, then pat wetted pretzel into the prepared pie plate, molding into the plate to form a consistent thickness and even layering around whole pan
- Bake for 10-12 minutes or until browned
- Set aside and allow to cool to the touch, about half an hour
- While crust is cooling, get a large mixing bowl and whip cream cheese and 1 cup sugar together until peaks begin to form. Soften these peaks by adding your yogurt or cream and blend until the consistency of very stiff meringue, but still easily spreadable. Add vanilla, if using. (This step doesn’t take an awful long time, so if your pie crust is still not cool yet, now would be a good time to hull and smash your pint of strawberries, if you aren’t following the mise en place philosophy)
- Use a rubber spatula and mix cream cheese mixture by hand for a couple rotations to ensure all ingredients are mixed properly, then pour over cooled pie crust. Distribute mixture over crust and transfer to fridge to cool further and solidify filling for about half an hour.
- While pie is in the fridge, combine strawberries and 1 cup sugar and heat on medium-high to promote maceration. Stirring every so often, bring to a boil. Berries will continue to release their juices.
- Add the zest and juice of half of a lemon, stir. Bring to a boil.
- Add cornstarch slurry and reduce heat
- Simmer until thickened into a jam-like consistency
- Remove from heat, mixture will continue to thicken as it cools
- When cool to the touch, pour and spread mixture on top of cream cheese layer of pie.
- Return to refrigerator and allow to completely set for no less than one hour.
Enjoy another taste of my memories, because I’m sure they’re your memories, too.