Every fall, when the apples appear by the bag at the grocery store (or when we go and pick our own), I reach for the same recipe: Ina Garten’s Apple and Pear Crisp. It has all the best attributes of a crisp recipe: fresh, tart fruit; a crumbly topping of butter, oats and brown sugar; dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg; zest and juice from both an orange and a lemon. (It tastes fine with one or the other, but including all four hits of citrus definitely makes a difference.)
My friend Kara, who pointed me to this recipe, recently posted a photo of it in progress. As I looked at her blue mixing bowl, full of chopped fruit speckled with cinnamon, my mouth watered. And my mind went back to a cozy kitchen outside Fort Worth, Texas, on a frigid February night.
Earlier that day, I had hopped a plane from Abilene, sporting new fleece-lined boots and toting a smart red suitcase, headed to New York for a writing retreat. It was my first trip to New York, my first time flying solo in quite a while, and I was jazzed. But my excitement quickly turned to frustration and then deep disappointment when the “snowpocalypse” on the East Coast grounded all eastbound flights out of DFW. I wasn’t going anywhere that day.
I called Kara, with whom I had shared several college classes and a glorious semester abroad in Oxford, knowing she was living temporarily at her parents’ house after finishing graduate school. Kind soul that she is, she drove to the airport, loaded me and my suitcase into her car, then drove me back to her family’s house. After hugging me, her mom teasingly reminded me of the first night I spent there, when a late-night flat tire after a concert left several of us college girls stranded. Apparently I show up at their house when I am in trouble. But they always welcome me as though I were an expected, even an honored, guest.
It was Kara’s turn to cook dinner, so I went with her to the grocery store and then we donned aprons and got to work. We had shared a kitchen in Oxford, with nearly a dozen other girls, heating oatmeal and pasta and chopping vegetables for stir-fries, baking scones and cookies, drinking countless cups of tea. We also volunteered at our church once a week, cooking meals for a theology course they offered on Tuesday nights, spinning salad and singing hymns and teasing the church’s chef, Jules. It had been several years since all that chopping and cooking, but we fell easily into the rhythm of the kitchen again.
I don’t remember anything else we ate that night, but I remember this: chopping apples and pears on a wooden cutting board, lemon juice soaking into the creases and cuticles of my hands, stinging a little. I remember cinnamon and nutmeg coating the fruit as it glistened in the bottom of a deep baking dish. I remember zesting a lemon and an orange, mixing oats and brown sugar and butter together with my fingers, crumbling it on top of the fruit mixture, sliding the whole thing in the oven.
Later we sat at the long wooden kitchen table with Kara’s parents and her brothers, one of them newly arrived from Africa. I was nearly limp with exhaustion, but I remember smiles and laughter, and conversations about Kara’s new boyfriend in Costa Rica (whom she would later marry) and the newspaper her father runs, and my newlywed life in Abilene. I remember the warm smell of apples, pears and cinnamon, as we dug into our dessert. I felt beloved, embraced, like one of the family.
I haven’t seen Kara in a couple of years, though in a nice bit of irony, she moved back to Abilene right around the time I left for Boston. But every time I peel and chop apples, douse them with lemon juice and cover them crumble topping, I remember that dark, cold night warmed by love and cinnamon and the simple grace of hospitality.