I can't remember who gave us the hamsters, Brownie and Blackie (guess what color they were?), and the ten gallon tank that served as their home. My recollections are dim, censored, fraught with Freudian undertones.
The hamsters were two of a succession of pets that were deliberately not a puppy. We also had a bowl of neglected guppies, a neglected turtle, a neglected goldfish and a neglected parakeet. We did have a puppy once, for three days when I was five, and these other living creatures were brought in to make up for the failure of that experiment, becoming slightly more successful experiments in that they were unable to complain about their substandard care.
I don't blame my parents. They were both from farm country, where animals were either exploited or exterminated, and this pet business was part of the suburban milieu they did not understand. My grandmothers had dogs and cats the same way they had a field of corn and a watermelon patch. Granny's dog Duke was a savvy yard dog with goals that took him places. Like a traveling salesman, he carried unmet quotas in the winkles along his forehead and was gone for days at a time. Nannie had a series of dogs that were repeatedly squashed on the highway that ran along the front of the farmhouse. The last one was a Dalmatian named Hitler, a repulsive dog, aloof and menacing, reeking of the carcasses he'd rolled in, his fur thick with unknown viscera. No one grieved when he was run over by a semi headed north. (Recently, I found a news article
that might explain why he was named Hitler.)
With the hamsters, my mother wasn't about to spend good money on a book about vermin, so the tragedy that played out behind the glass was as shocking to her as it was to us. Briefly, Brownie murdered Blackie. Afterward, Brownie deposited a pile of squirming pink jelly beans in the left-hand corner of the aquarium, which was apparently the designated "pantry" because she ate them all. Then she escaped prosecution through an unsecured aquarium lid.
I'd like to report that she recognized the error of her ways, went vegetarian and authored a book -- Jesus Took My Wheel: One Hamster's Journey from Cannibalism to Christ –but when we found her a day or so later, peacefully curled behind my brother's KISS trashcan, she appeared fatly unrepentant. We lost our taste for rodents after that.
While I have always been, in an off-hand way, an "animal lover," I assumed that with my family's history of petty crimes, the remorseless ease with which we flushed or buried their bodies and happily moved on to the next little victim, I lacked whatever it is that makes one a conscientious pet owner. Then I married and had my children. We had successfully nurtured two independent cats, and a dog seemed like the obvious next addition. So, without any forethought or research, we purchased Bill, an adolescent Brittany Spaniel, from a hunter who seemed suspiciously unsentimental about parting with him. Bill was beautiful and stupid. We were simply stupid. Our first ad offered Bill for sale at $100. The next ad we cut the price to $50. Then he was free. With a dog house, leash, collar, brush, supplies, food…please! Anybody!
A few years passed and we forgave ourselves (far too easily) for the Bill fiasco, and decided it was time to give dog ownership another try. So, without any forethought or research, we adopted Millie, a Smooth Fox Terrier, from a local shelter. Millie was not stupid; moreover, she recognized our stupidity and threw it in our faces in ways that only a clever dog can. I wasn't about to lose in a battle of wits with a dog and soon I was pouring over essays by Turid Rugaas, Patricia McConnell and Ian Dunbar. Within a year I had two dogs, and a pair of rubber boots printed with dogs that I wore for my volunteer shift at the shelter. Within two years I was running the adoption program, sitting on the shelter's board of directors and housebreaking whole litters of foster puppies. Three years in, I started a parent-child volunteer program, joined the executive board and adopted a third dog. By year four, I had a fourth dog, directions to all the dog parks within sixty miles and my friends and family were giving me dog-themed presents on every gift-giving occasion – "Because, you know, you're a dog person." I thought, Holy shit, I'm a dog person. How did that happen?
I know I'm not unique in this trajectory. One girl's night my friend Kendra and I were trading dog stories (our children were teens and no longer capable of cuteness) and our friend Mary Tom, a visiting professor at Chardonnay Tech, sloppily opined, "I don't get all this dog talk. I mean, I like dogs, but they belong outside. They aren't people, for heaven's sake!"
I swear it wasn't a month before she'd adopted a Puggle named Juno and the next girl's night she was downright obnoxious with the dog stories, like she couldn't talk about anything else. When she paused to take a breath and a swig of wine, I asked, "So, Mary Tom, when is Juno going to start sleeping outside where she belongs?"
She raised her middle finger in an affectionate gesture. She now has three dogs and rubber boots identical to mine.
Since my heart is actually larger – I can feel it tickling my ribs, covered in fur like everything else in my house -- I've even learned to love rodents. I cried when my daughter's rat, Rat, died four months ago. "Bring her home," I sobbed, while on the phone with my daughter. "We'll bury her in the front yard next to the cats."
And who would have guessed it? This turnaround. I should write a book: How I Learned to Heel: One Woman's Journey from Hamster Death to Puppy Breath. If it hits the bestseller list, I'll owe it all to Brownie.
I call this an "everyday pie." I made it often when my kids were small because it's no-fuss, one bowl, and calls for ingredients that are usually in the pantry. If you use a refrigerator pie crust, it's even easier. The recipe screams for add-ins – chocolate chips, nuts, candy pieces, etc. It's almost impossible to mess up, and if you bake it in a tart pan and top it with ganache, it's fancy enough for company. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The pink jelly beans are optional, though I think they add grotesque charm.
1 9 inch pie crust, homemade or a refrigerated round
1 stick (½ cup) butter
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup chocolate chips
¼ cup heavy cream, heated
1 tsp corn syrup
Preheat your oven to 325. Fit the pie crust into a 9 inch pie plate or into a 10 inch tart pan. Dimple the crust with your fingertips to prevent it from bubbling up and bake for 12-15 minutes. Let cool.
Mix together the melted butter, sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla, eggs and salt. Whisk until glossy, then whisk in the flour. Pour into the cooled shell and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top of the filling is set and the top is no longer sticky.
If you're using the ganache, let the pie cool for about thirty minutes before making the ganache and pouring it over the top, otherwise it might sink into the pie filling. Then, heat the heavy cream and pour over the chocolate chips. Add the corn syrup. Stir until the mixture is smooth and slightly thickened. Pour/spread over the top of the pie.