Nora Ephron: Frozen Key Lime Pie

My first Nora Ephron experience was watching When Harry Met Sally backwards. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, that week when cable channels run marathons of the film, back to back, all day long. On holiday from school, with nothing better to do, I randomly flipped on the TV to the last scene, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan finally end up together and everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne.” I stumbled upon another scene later that day, on a different showing: the epic fight over the wagon wheel coffee table. Finally, I caught it at the beginning and watched the whole thing. Seeing it that way was pleasingly disorienting — Nora Ephron meets Harold Pinter.

Ephron might not fit the mold of other writers on this blog—Crazy Salad doesn’t occupy the same place as Crime and Punishment, nor should it—but she was in a class of her own when it came to pure food joy.” I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose,” she said. “And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”  She wasn’t shy to share her culinary opinions, either, particularly in the Great Egg White Controversy of 2007. Her recipe for egg salad began: “Boil 18 eggs, peel them, send six of the egg whites to friends in California who persist in thinking that egg whites matter in any way.”

It’s no surprise, then, that food made its presence felt in Ephron’s fiction writing too. Her 1983 novel Heartburn is maybe the best example, seamlessly integrating recipes into the plot. Now the novel/memoir-with-recipes genre seems ubiquitous—everyone from Kim Severson to Ruth Reichl has one—but Ephron did it first, and best. She knew that cooking and storytelling share a common thread: The words draw people in, and the food draws people together. Some books are best enjoyed in solitude, but not Nora’s. They beg to be shared, the best passages read aloud to anyone around to hear them.

I got the news that Ephron had died right before boarding a plane for California, where I grew up. Back in my family’s kitchen, I started squeezing the juice for her Frozen Key Lime Pie. Although I had read many of her recipes over the years, this is the first one I was attempting. Finally, I thought, I’d have what she was having.

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Wallace Stevens: Coconut Caramel Graham Cookies

If cookies were a literary genre, I suspect they’d be the romance novel. Neither one gets much respect in highbrow circles, but both have a dedicated, verging-on-rabid following. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a rainy Sunday afternoon – and it’s dangerously easy to consume several in one sitting.

But unlike romances, with their embossed and be-Fabio’ed covers, cookies aren’t winning any beauty contests. They’re usually not much to look at, which is one reason why they’re more often found in our home kitchens than on restaurant menus. They’re homely in every sense.

If you had met him on the street, you might have thought Wallace Stevens was similarly unremarkable. Every day for over 40 years, he got up, got dressed, and commuted to his achingly normal day job at a Connecticut insurance agency (Kafka also worked in insurance, which makes you wonder just what goes on over there). His humdrum evening routine consisted of eating a cookie while reading the paper. He didn’t publish his first poem until he was 35, and even after he won the Pulitzer, he still went to the office every day, and ate a cookie every night.

No other writer talks about cookies as much as Stevens does. Elsie, his wife, always seemed to have a batch baking; “I can almost smell them,” Stevens wrote in his letters. He brought them on picnics, and gave boxes of them away as Christmas gifts. Even Stevens’ daughter associated  with cookies; when he was away on business, she would put a cookie by his place at the table, waiting for him to come home.

Stories like that remind me why cookies, despite their homely status, are so beloved: They tie in to our most cherished memories, and remind us of those little moments that make life worth living. Stevens knew that power well. In 1948, after returning from a trip to New York with Elsie, he wrote, “We went into the kitchen, sat there drinking milk and eating cookies. … This is not much. Yet it is a little in spite of everything.”

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