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Betsy Block


Unsavory Neighbors

Unsavory Neighbors

Wholesome as all hell.

Four-year-old P came into the kitchen where BD and I were cleaning up. "Can I have another piece of candy?" she asked.

I turned to her and said, indignantly, "Of course not! Dinner's in half an hour!" But then BD looked at me with both pity and censure and said, "They've already eaten all theirs." That would be nine-year-old E and his best friend M, who had, unbeknownst to me, eaten all their candy while playing cards in the other room. Turning to our daughter, BD gently said, "Yes, honey, you can have another piece, but only one."

At first I was ready to march in there and let the boys have it for eating all that candy. Then, realizing I was on tenuous moral ground, I shrugged and turned back to the dishes. What did I expect after buying the boys candy and gum cigars, then setting them up with chips and cards for a nice, cozy afternoon of poker?

I blame it on Mother Nature.

Fall in New England is the ne plus ultra when it comes to old-fashioned Yankee fun. Look to your left and see 100-year-old agricultural fairs. Look to your right and there are more apple picking festivals than you can count. Look ahead and see fairs, parties and cookouts. And everywhere, like weeds in a garden, there are pumpkins, scarecrows and gourds.

This year, much to the entire region's dismay, it rained for most of the fall. And so, as we often do when under duress, we resorted to the lowest common denominator. We invited E's best friend M over for the day and plied the boys with just enough coffee, candy and poker to make the day go by a little faster.

Have we become the people you fear your own kids will befriend? I wondered about this when M emotionally said, "I only really live when I'm with you." It could have been love, but then again, it could have been the caffeine speaking.

It's public record that I lie to my own kids, but I seem to have taken a turn for the worse by starting to urge other people's children to lie as well. When M happily exclaimed, "I had coffee today for the first time!" I nervously replied, "Let's keep that our little secret, okay, M?" Then I hastened to add a jocular, "Just kidding!" But I wasn't. We adore M. When we have him for the day, life is better. Never mind that M's vegetarian parents who both work for nonprofits don't even let him watch TV. We must have access to the boy, even if it involves a little bait and switch.

Here were my thoughts: So M had had a little coffee and a bit too much candy before dinner. So he'd learned how to gamble at our house. That was hours before drop-off. I came up with a plan to erase all unsavory memories from his mind: the most wholesome vegetarian dinner in the world. Homemade vegetable soup with homemade sourdough rolls. Chocolate milk from a local dairy. And hot-from-the-oven fruit crisp, using apples we'd picked at a farm. (Grown using integrated pest management, naturally.) Our strategy was, when BD took M home: focus on dinner.  

A couple of months later, I was starting to get nervous - we hadn't seen M since the Day of Coffee and Gambling. Maybe my plan hadn't worked after all. But finally, I heard from his dad - inviting E and me to play pool with them.

That's when I realized: Most of us start out with the highest of standards, and then watch as they precipitously erode, day after exhausting day. By the time M was expertly chalking up his cue and asking if I wanted to break, I knew we were home free.

Wholesome Fall Fruit Crisp

By Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, Mass. (and one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs of 2005)
Craigie Street Bistrot

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup Demerara sugar (natural, unrefined brown sugar available at Whole Foods and in most specialty shops)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 lb butter - softened
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups toasted chopped walnuts

Sift first four ingredients through a sifter. Work the butter into mix a little bit at a time. Gradually add the walnuts.

Notes: Yields about 7 cups of topping, enough for about three 8x8" crisps. Store in fridge for up to a week.  Substitute any light brown sugar for Demerara if necessary.


2-3 pears
2-3 apples
cup dried cherries or cranberries
c. vanilla sugar (or regular sugar)
1 tsp. Calvados (optional)

Dice unpeeled fruit into " cubes.  Toss with dried fruit, sugar and Calvados. Put in 8x8" pan. Sprinkle with 2 and  cups of the crisp topping. Bake at 350 for an hour to an hour and a quarter.

Alleviates guilt like a charm.