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Why I love gesture as a language, and a Recipe for a Bright Spring Hand Pie

Did you know there’s a secret sonnet hidden in Romeo and Juliet? In the magical moment when they first meet, despite the fact that she’s 13 and he’s probably not much older, they are somehow savvy enough, whilst falling madly in love, to communicate via perfect Shakespearian sonnet.

Pavane

Juliet
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
Romeo
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
(Kisses her)
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d.
Juliet
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d!


If you watch most versions of the play, it starts with hands touching, in a kind of dance, and ends with kissing. The dance might have been a pavane, a stately slow-moving number, in which the couples walk about the room occasionally touching fingers, with plenty of time to engage in sonnet-metered seduction. Hands touching must have once been very forward and meaningful human contact, and, strangely the pandemic has made it so again. 

In fact the phrase “mannerly devotion” is a clever pun, because the root of the word “mannerly” means “hand” in almost every language. (Main, mano, manus). So “manners” meant the way something was handled, taken in hand. And it’s interesting to me that so many expressions of good or bad manners as we now know them are hand-based. The shaking of hands, the salute, the wave hello, the two-fingered salute, the OK sign, the peace sign, the rudeness of pointing, the flipping of the bird.

I have long been fascinated with the motion of human hands. Gesture is one of my favorite languages. It’s oddly both universal and specific to one place at the same time. Certain gestures are recognizable by anyone, others are part of an unspoken local dialect. Some are even more private–the secret handshake, the confidential sign to get into a club or join a gang. I love that we can convey meaning without words. I like carefully planned and highly stylized gestures – the kind you see in dances and ceremonies all over the world. I like gestures unwittingly made – graceful movements of the hand or head that say things we don’t even know we’re saying. I try to pay attention to gestures, but it’s difficult because there’s so much noise. It’s the words that you notice. 

If you watch silent films, gesture and expression are everything, which makes you realize that they could and should be in non-silent films as well. I love a movie of any era that recognizes the value of non-verbal communication. I collect these scenes and store them in my memory.

Eadward Muybridge, study of the motion of hands

And it’s not just human hands and human gestures I love. Birds make beautiful motions with their wings to speak to one another. Once I saw a mockingbird practicing a particular ritual. He raised his wings, half open, in a precise and snappy fashion, and then he opened them further and held them in a sort of arc away from his body, then opened them fully and held them stretched, then closed them. Four jerky, careful steps. Then he turned and faced a new direction and did the same thing. He flew from place to place – fence post to ground to rooftop – performing the same series of gestures, turning in a different direction each time. It was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.

And is there any more easily understood gesture than a dog stomping two front paws on the ground, butt up, tail wagging? We have names for my dog’s paw gestures. Entreaty paws, grabby paws, cross paws, lipizzaner paws. I love them all.

I love to watch people create things with their hands. I like to watch people drawing, painting, playing an instrument, carving wood, pleating the seam of an empanada. It’s fascinating to me that other people can command their hands to perform actions I could never do, even with years of study and practice. And I love food that we can eat with our hands, particularly if they’re also cleverly formed with our hands. Once, when I was feeling down, I spent ages watching videos of women working together to form papusas, gently slapping the dough from one hand to the other. Just as certain gestures are universal, so is the presence of small easily-transported, no-utensils-required pastries. Samosas, empanadas, perogies, cornish pasties, dumplings, eggrolls, hand pies…the list goes on and on. All made with a collective memory of the actions taken by the hands to form and seal the dough.

These half moon-shaped pies are full of bright green spring flavors. Lovely to take on a spring picnic. You can obviously add or substitute anything you like! To make them vegan you would use margarine in the crust and leave the cheese out of the filling. It’s not necessary, though it does add a bit of flavor. You could add lightly-toasted pine nuts, whether you’re trying to make if vegan or not.

THE CRUST

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 t salt
black pepper
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, frozen (3/4 cup)

Combine the flour, salt and pepper. Grate in the frozen butter, mixing with a fork as you go along. Mix till you have a coarse, crumbly consistency. Add enough ice water to pull everything together into a workable dough. Knead for about a minute to make sure everything is combined. Wrap in foil and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour.

THE FILLING

1 t olive oil
2 t fresh thyme
2 t fresh rosemary
1 T fresh tarragon, chopped
1 small bunch asparagus, woody ends chopped off, cut into 1/4 inch dice (about 2 cups)
1 cup chopped chives
2 t capers, chopped
Handful of castelvetrano olives, roughly chopped
2 cups arugula, washed and roughly chopped
1 can small white beans, rinsed and well-drained
1 t lemon juice
1 cup grated sharp cheddar or gruyere
1 egg (optional)
shake of salt and lots of black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the thyme, rosemary, tarragon and the asparagus. Cook for a few minute, till the asparagus is bright but crisp-tender. Add the chives, stir and cook, till they’re wilted and bright. Add the arugula, stir and cook till it’s wilted and bright–a minute or two. 

Tip all the veg into a big bowl. Stir in the beans, olives, capers and lemon juice. Mix in the cheddar/gruyere, and season well with a little salt and a lot of pepper.

If you’re not vegan, you can mix up an egg and put half in the filling and use half to brush the top of each empanada, it will make them a deeper color when cooked, but it’s really not necessary.

Preheat the oven to 425. Lightly butter two baking sheets. Break the dough into ten balls. Roll one out to be about 1/8th inch thick. Put a big spoonful of filling slightly off center (it should be about as big as the original ball of dough that you rolled out.) Fold the dough in half, and fold up and seal the edges. Place on the baking sheet and crimp the edges with a fork, and poke each empanada in several places with the tines to let out steam. I have tried to do the pleating move that makes empanadas so pretty, but my hands just can’t master it, so a fork is my friend. If you’re using egg wash, brush it on now. Repeat with the rest of the dough/filling. 

Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the pies are lightly golden and firm to the touch.

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