Mourning Nora Peach Pie

I never met Nora Ephron, but I feel as if I know her.  Or knew her.   Sort of. Like most women who consider themselves mildly amusing, Nora was an idol of mine.  A quick, confident wit who somehow managed to choose just the right words to express a feeling I had had so many times but never thought to communicate, her talent challenged me to try harder, write funnier, remember that “everything is copy.”  It’s interesting,  so often people who are successful in a field you wish you were conquering, or at least making a dent in, make us feel less than, jealous, smaller.  But reading or listening to Nora had an inspirational quality – an “I think I can, I think I can” little engine that could reaction.  So when I heard in the space of a few hours that 1) she was gravely ill and 2) that she had died, I felt somehow cheated.  As if had I known she was going to be gone I would have paid closer attention.  Or read her latest book or tackled a Julia Child recipe.

It seems odd to feel deeply about a stranger’s death and I’ve wondered why so many people I know (mostly funny women) responded as I have.  Whether we admit it or not, there are probably many of us who can recite whole passages from When Harry Met Sally.  It’s one of the few movies I own and whenever I am feeling like I need a comforting, familiar laugh, I slip it into the DVD player and pretend it’s 1989 all over again.  Although I still struggle with the idea that we’re supposed to believe that Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are the same age.  But that’s not the point.  Without that movie no one would have thought to call me “high maintenance” (an accusation which I think is facile and inaccurate) every time I order my meal in a fashion almost identical to Sally Albright.  But it’s the plot-turning scene when Sally seeks comfort in Harry after learning her ex is engaged that is way too resonant.

Harry: If you could have him back right now, would you take him back?
Sally:  No.  But why didn’t he want to marry me?  Why didn’t he love me? What’s the matter with me?
Harry:  Nothing.
Sally:  I’m difficult.
Harry:  You’re challenging.
Sally:  I’m too structured.  I’m completely closed off.
Ouch. That last line? Well, thankfully I’ve never received news like Sally did so close on the heels of a breakup.  But if I had, I’m sure I would have reacted the same way.  And thought those same thoughts. But wait, there’s more.
Sally (sobbing):  And I’m going to be 40!
Harry: When?!
Sally (still sobbing):  Some day!
Harry: In eight years!
Sally: But it’s there, just sitting there like a big dead end….

At the time I thought 32 was old, much less 40, and I couldn’t imagine having to confront those feelings.  When I watch the movie now the characters still seem older than I am, even though they were so much younger and it’s very disconcerting.  Not to mention, if I’d led my life thinking 40 was a dead end well, I’d be dead.  Or chronically depressed. 
It’s so nice to know that Sally was wrong.

It’s hard to watch a character like Sally without thinking there has to be some kind of personal experience on the part of the writer informing the incredible details.  And yet, why should there be?  Actors play characters that writers write.  Who am I to think there was any Nora in Sally?  But still. 

Yet Nora wrote enough about herself to give us a sense of “her.”  Or so I thought.  Like her wonderful essay in the New Yorker about leaving her beloved and crazy West Side apartment building, or how she got the cooking bug or how she felt bad about her neck, or her small chest etc etc.  But did she ever make herself totally vulnerable and transparent?  I’m not sure.

Last year my friend Abby interviewed her at the JCC around the time her book, I Remember Nothing, was on the bestseller list.  The rapport between them felt easy, relaxed and respectful.  They had a prior professional history; Nora was profiled in Abby’s book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.  Anyway, the evening was going along swimmingly but at a certain point I realized that despite Abby’s incredibly deft questioning, Nora was only going to reveal what she wanted to reveal.  And I was hungry for more.  There’s a glibness and a remove to the idea of everything being copy.  It means you are going to be the observer, the synthesizer, the one holding the cards.  And I suppose that’s okay.  Why should a person spill her guts to a room full of strangers?  But at the same time, some real fragility would have been nice.  And now I know just how fragile she really was at the time and understand why she would have been particularly careful in her presentation of self.

All of this adult history to one side, the biggest impact Nora Ephron had on me was actually in 1983, when I read Heartburn over the summer.  Somehow, despite being a teenager, I connected to the voice of Rachel, a 38 year old pregnant mother cuckolded by her husband.  I still can’t figure out how that happened but I’m so grateful it did since at the time I was not the most enthusiastic reader and Heartburn helped me get back on track and ultimately become an English major.  Anyway, the rhythm, observations and tone have stayed with me for almost 30 years and I still remember the hunger pangs I felt while reading Rachel’s/Nora’s recipes seamlessly woven into the prose.  There was a great scene in the film adaptation of the book when Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, after they met and before he cheats on her, eat spaghetti carbonara in bed.  I remember thinking that was just about the most fabulous thing that could ever happen.  How little I knew about myself.

Today, I would no sooner twirl sauce slicked pasta in my bed than eat the garlic she probably put in it.  And now we’re back to being Sally-ish.

All of this Nora reflection had me reaching up on the shelf for my copy of Heartburn ($3.95 back in the day) and looking at the recipe index it was clear I had to bake her Peach Pie.  It was heaven to make because the crust took seconds in the food processor and required no fussy rolling.  Slicing the peaches took minutes while the crust baked for a bit and whipping up the eggy quasi-custard filling took even less time.  The result was sweet and juicy and just the thing for summer peaches I’d picked up at the farmers’ market.  Make it and you won’t be sorry.  Just remember that if you want to have it a la mode you’ll want the pie to be warm, but if you want to top it with Greek yogurt to cut the sweetness, it should be cold.  And don’t let anyone call you high maintenance.   With thanks to Nora.

Mourning Nora Peach Pie
From Heartburn, copyright 1983, by Nora Ephron
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1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter (1 stick) cold and cut into small pieces
2 Tablespoons sour cream (I used reduced fat and it was fine)

3 peaches, peeled and sliced into 1/2" wedges
3 eggs yolks, lightly beaten
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
1/3 cup sour cream


Preheat oven to 425F, butter a 9" pie pan
Put the first four ingredients in a food processor and process until the dough forms a ball

Put dough in the pie plate and pat it out till it covers the bottom and sides of pan 
Bake crust for 10 minutes

Remove crust from oven and reduce temperature to 350F 

Arrange peach slices on the crust in concentric circles
In a medium bowl combine egg yolks, sugar, the 2 Tablespoons of flour and the 1/3 cup sour cream and stir until fully incorporated and smooth and pour over peaches
Cover pie loosely with foil and bake for 35 minutes
Remove foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes until center is set

Let cool, slice, serve and top with vanilla ice cream or unsweetened Greek yogurt
Yield: 6-8 slices

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