Saturday, March 14, 2009


A couple of days ago my friend Steve brought in what looked to be a 12 pack of Michelob Ultra. Thankfully, my disappointment was short-lived as he reached inside and removed a gorgeous chocolate creme pie. Steve's mom bakes him a pie every year for his birthday and he's good enough to share with his friends. I probably wouldn't be. The first time I tasted one of Steve's mom's pies I knew exactly where the recipe had come from and even (approximately) what edition the cookbook had been.

A while back I wrote the following as an answer to a question posed by Sarah. Steve's birthday pie reminded me of it so I tweaked my draft and here it is.

Over the years I've gone from being a sweet fiend to not really having that much of a sweet tooth. When I was a kid I loved Banana Flips, a processed confection made with so much sugar in the crème filling that it crunched, and through high school raspberry Zingers were often lunch, at least until I started working and had money for food and Galaga. In the army, after a seven-mile run, nothing recharged the batteries like a pack of raspberry jelly filled powdered sugar covered doughnuts from the PX along with a quart of chocolate milk and a Marlboro. Following this diet I had a remarkably low amount of body fat and was able to run for hours.

At some point in the past few years I have somehow lost this love of sweets except for two days of the year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. On those two days (of which Thanksgiving is my favorite, hands down) I almost always bake pies, they are nearly always custard pies, and there are always at least two of four old standbys: chocolate, coconut crème, butterscotch and buttermilk. The wife of a friend made the buttermilk pie years ago; I got the recipe from her not long before she died. Every time I see buttermilk pie on a menu I try it and I’m happy to say that my friend’s has never been bested and I think she would approve of mine. The butterscotch is the newest; I started making it maybe ten years ago, as my then wife loves all things butterscotch. Two years after our divorce I was able make and enjoy it again. The chocolate and the coconut crème go way, way back. From the time I was a little boy, my mom and grandma would make these pies. They were slightly different but equally good. The only problem I had with grandma’s was that she put meringue on her pies, while mom left hers bare so we could add Cool Whip. Grandpa called meringue “calf slobbers” and from the time I was small I hated it and would scrape it off my slices of otherwise wonderful pie.

When I first married, my mom gave us the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, you know, the one with the red and white checkerboard pattern on it, it used to come with a fondue set at every wedding. Might still, I try to stay away from such affairs these days.

Being in Germany, and not having been home for over two years, I had missed out on four holidays worth of my favorite pies and decided that since I now had the recipes (my mom and grandma, at least to my knowledge at that time, had never used any cookbook but the BH&G), I could now make my own pies. And I did, and they weren’t the same. They were close, but different.

Over the years I continued to make them, changing only my crust recipe, and always thought they just tasted…different, good, but not as good. In 1999 my grandma had a stroke and died within a few days. Grandpa followed her four years later. During the time between arriving home after grandpa died and his funeral there was the miserable chore of going through…stuff. My dad and his siblings had already secured photos and papers; now, as oldest grandchild, it was my turn. I have to admit that though I hated it, wishing with all my heart I wasn’t going through this house that I once loved to visit, but now hated to be in, I experienced a tiny thrill at what I found. I took only an old black Stetson, my grandpa’s worn out leather wallet that I had given him for Christmas a decade or more before, his pocket knife and a pair of cockroach killer cowboy boots (so called because of the wearer’s ability to get into a corner with the pointy toes to dispatch any varmints). From the kitchen I took a percolator, an ancient boning knife, a cast iron skillet, and the crown jewel, grandma’s own copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, its pages falling out and filled with her own handwritten recipes and those cut from magazines or torn from can labels. Later, my dad insisted that I take a microwave and a chainsaw that I didn’t really want, but that I would “be able to use.” The microwave, yeah; the chainsaw, not so much.

For years my mom had greeted my insistence that my pies just weren’t as good as I remembered hers and my grandma’s with mild (and I have to say, seemingly feigned) consternation. She doesn’t want mine to be as good, I often thought, and just let it go. But there in the pages of my grandma’s cookbook was the answer. The Thanksgiving after grandpa’s death I decided to use grandma’s cookbook. Thus far, I had only glanced through it, now I really looked, at the colorized pictures of 1950s haute cuisine like pineapple ham and lots of stuff with mushroom soup, then at the recipes, and I knew why our pies were all different, mine drastically so. Grandma’s book called for an entire hen house worth of eggs in its custard pies, my mom’s (I confirmed later) a few less, and my “modern and healthy” ‘80s model uses the fewest of all. “Not as rich,” I remember telling my mom.“Hmmmmm,” she would respond. Yeah.

I still bake at least some combination of two of these four pies at the holidays, though last year I thoroughly enjoyed letting a local BBQ joint cook our Christmas dinner, and I now use Grandma’s recipes every time, and, in spite of now rarely eating sweets, I will still eat coconut crème or chocolate pie until I am sick to my stomach, and the leftovers ‘til they are no more.

These days, I am much more likely to crave salted snacks, chips, I do love trail mix with a little bit of chocolate in it, in fact, I really do enjoy that salty-sweet combination, as well as spicy-sweet. Caz and Jerod picked up some apricot-habanero jelly at the Tularosa farmer’s market a while back

that was fantastic. But if I do find myself at home, late at night, craving something sweet, I almost always make a PB&J, or have a couple spoonfuls out of whatever ice cream carton the kids have in the freezer. Half a package of Nutter Butters also makes a fine snack.

Oh, though I don’t make it for my pies, if someone else feels like putting calf slobbers on a pie I don’t scrape it off anymore.


-Sarah- said...

classic. And I, like you, would not be good enough to share my birthday pie with others.

Maria said...

How about some recipes, Eric? Not that I can bake to save my life, but I have a spouse who bakes...