Bar Hopping with Martha! – Pecan Bars! -151 eggs, 116 cups of sugar, 119 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 142 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 88 recipes to go!

December 14, 2010

Martha's Pecan Bars

André's Pecan Bars

A simple shortbread crust covered in gooey and sweet caramel filled with toasted pecans. Sheer heaven. Delicious and buttery with just enough earthiness from the nuts and a touch of salt to make everything pop, Martha’s Pecan Bars are a recipe worth making again and again. There are very few cookies I feel torn about having to share with friends but this is one I regretted seeing leave my kitchen. Maybe it’s the Southerner in me but in my opinion toasted pecans just taste like pure happiness.

So, there’s my endorsement for this tasty and crowd-pleasing recipe. Next time you’re looking to whip up a quick and easy treat with a distinct Southern bent, bake up a batch of Martha’s Pecan Bars.

My mother’s father’s brother’s daughters grew up to become nuns. Sister Clare and Sister Rita Mae have long been two of my favorite relatives floating in the immense sea of my mother’s family. They are my cousins who are sisters…who are well, … sisters. I have many photos of them holding me as an infant or playing pat-a-cake with me as a toddler. They were always close to my family and always had a smile and more than a few kind words for everyone they encountered but they’d both taken vows of obedience and when the church told Clare to move to Saint Louis to work with indigent residents in a troubled part of town, she said her tearful goodbyes to her sister and family in Louisiana. In my early twenties I enrolled in the Conservatory for Ultra Serious Actors in St. Louis, Missouri and found myself getting reacquainted with my cousin, Clare the nun.

Here’s a memory of our first evening together.

I had called Sister Clare to see if she’d like to attend a performance at my school of a new musical. I thought she’d enjoy this, I mean those nuns in The Sound of Music certainly enjoyed a rousing song and dance number so I figured this’d be right up her alley.

Clare was thrilled to hear from me and eager to get away for the evening. She invited me to dinner at the convent before the show so I could meet some of the other nuns. The convent was impressive. It was an old Gothic Revival structure attached to a large cathedral. The floors were cold polished marble and the doorways were made of ornately carved dark woods. Statues and paintings of the saints adorned every nook of the old building. The smell of incense and pine cleaner hung thick in the air. Each shuffle, each subtle movement pierced the stately silence and sent a loud echo of pings through the cavernous halls.

Sister Clare guided me with a smile and hushed words of welcome. We approached the rotunda that led to the dining hall. Passing through we tiptoed around the bronze floor plaque that read IHS. This stood for In Hoc Signo (In this sign- as in – In this sign you will conquer.)- a leftover sentiment from the day of the crusades where the cross was the sign by which new worlds would be won.

Just on the other side of the rotunda was a room filled with about a hundred nuns. Each one stood silently in line with their tray as they received their daily bread.  I am not being ironic or cutesy with my writing. They each got a warm English muffin. A few steps down they received a dollop of warm tuna right out of the can on top of their English muffin. A few more steps down were boiled orange coins sliced right off the carrot. Nothing was seasoned and no condiments were available. This is what it meant to take a vow of poverty.

Sister Clare and I joined the line and received our loaf, our fish, and our coins. We then poured a glass of water, no ice of course, and grabbed a seat with a group of ten other nuns at the table. We each sat in silence with our hands folded until the last of the hundred nuns had received her plate and taken her seat. It was then Mother Superior led her flock in the mealtime prayer. As terrible as the meal was, thanks needed to be offered to God for providing it. Afterwards the Mother Superior introduced me as a guest to the convent and had the sisters add a special blessing just for me followed by the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary. It was a sweet gesture but it didn’t make the meal any more palatable.

We ate mostly in silence with a few pleasant words exchanged with the fellow nuns. I had a distinct feeling that most of the sisters didn’t receive many male callers. Especially young men and they were all feeling a bit giddy and titillated by the notion of a young man hanging around the convent. I found this notion flattering and kind of icky at the same time.

Sister Clare and I zoomed out to catch the 7:30 P.M. performance and arrived at the theatre just in time. I didn’t really know much about the show except that I was required to see it and write a review for a class. It was a musical called Yours, Anne. When we arrived at the theatre and saw the poster we both looked at each other in disbelief. It was a freaking musical version of The Diary of Anne Frank.

“Well, this should be interesting.” – Clare said dryly with an ironic smirk.

We watched Act I. Each of us were biting our lower lips as the actress playing Anne sang at the top of her lungs about how she wished she’d be free one day. Actually every song from every character was about how they wished they were free. Clare and I shared sideways glances and minor eye rolls the entire time. By the time intermission came the audience was  ready to launch into a song about how we wished we were free. I excused myself to step outside for a cigarette. Clare’s face lit up.

“Can I have one, too?” – she asked. ‘

I hesitated.

“C’mon. I just sat through the same show you did.” – she chuckled and we both stepped out for a smoke.

Clare was having a wonderful time. Even though she was a nun, by birth she was a New Orleans lady and had a bit of Mardi Gras mischief in her blood. She liked to joke and cut up and even though she was over twenty years my senior, she spoke to me as a peer… as a beloved friend.

“Y’know, if they keep singing in that attic those Nazis are surely going to find them.”- she giggled.

I told her my favorite character so far was the cat. He was the only one who didn’t sing about wanting to be free.

We took our seats for Act II and as the house lights began to fade Clare turned to me and said flashing a big smile,  “Well, here we go! I bet I know how it ends.”

In the last moments of the play as each character passed through the center stage door into oblivion, Anne sang this passage from the book:

I’ve found that there is always some beauty left —in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can help you. Look at these things, then find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.
And whoever is happy will make others happy too. He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery!

I looked over at Clare and she was wiping tears away while silently mouthing a prayer. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have that kind of divinity in my family. To have that big a heart, that generous a spirit, that much love and charity to inspire and lead the rest of us in hope. I placed my hand on top of hers and she grasped it tightly.

On the way home Sister Clare remarked that even though the musical was preposterous, the story of Anne Frank was still remarkable. She loved that it was a story about unwavering faith. A child facing the most awful atrocities still has the strength of character to write that she believes all people are good at heart.

I liked Sister Clare very much. She was one of those people who made you a better person simply by virtue of knowing her.

I received a call from mom late last week letting me know that Clare passed away quite unexpectedly. She’d been suffering from chronic back troubles and while she was being diagnosed at the hospital she developed a blood clot and died.

I’ve been thinking about that night at the theatre a lot this week. The convent, the warm tuna muffins, the bad musical, the shared smoke, the tears, and the ride home.

And I thought of the irreverent pact we made during intermission. We agreed to stay for Act II but if it wasn’t any better we’d stand up and shout “They’re in the attic!”

4 Responses to “Bar Hopping with Martha! – Pecan Bars! -151 eggs, 116 cups of sugar, 119 1/2 sticks of Butter, and 142 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 88 recipes to go!”

  1. Ethan Says:

    I need to make those! The cookies, that is. I’m just not in a tuna muffin mood today…

  2. Mary Gemmell Says:

    I have visited a convent three times in my life and each time it made me uncomfortable.

  3. Suzanne Heins Says:

    Love this story, Andre! (Like that’s unusual for me to love your stories….)

  4. Robert Says:

    Thanks for introducing us to Sister Clare! Your story brought her to life her for all of us. How appropriate for you to give her a resurrection by sharing such a touching, wonderful memory in an extemely well told, sincere story.

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