Rethinking Pie

Happy Day-After-the-Feast! I hope yesterday brought (most of) you the perfect (for you) balance of good company, good food, and good memories.

pie_coffee and a blank page and a pumpkin pie
Perfect morning: coffee and a blank page–and a slice of pie

I spent yesterday afternoon Thanksgiving’ing with my friends K & E, who were (I believe) making their first foray into hosting this particular holiday. K learned that 6 people is the exact right number for her new table; E learned which is the best seat at that table for watching the game without looking like you’ve abandoned the party; and the rest of us all learned something new about kale, winter squash, and/or how many children narrowly escape terrible fates because their parents are tempted to name them after obscure puns and geeky in-jokes. All in all, I’d declare it a major success all around.

Me? I brought the pie. I always bring the pie.

At Thanksgiving, that pie is always pumpkin.

Pumpkin pie touches a lot of old family traditions for me. (I’d like to tell you it’s an “old family recipe” as well, except that my family’s old recipe is basically just the one on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin puree can.) My mom, my brother, and I got pretty fanatical about our holiday pumpkin. For starters, we always made two pies — or otherwise ensured that sufficient pie survived past Thanksgiving dinner for the following day’s breakfast. Then began the sneaking: each of us creeping into the kitchen throughout the day to shave off the tiniest of slivers from what remained, each of us later adamantly denying having ever done so. We were always lucky (and surprised) if enough remained for dessert a second time.

My father — who likes pumpkin pie fine, but not more so than apple — watched all this occur with bemusement. He always knew better than to intervene in the ritual, and he resigned himself to eating leftovers of the mincemeat pie my mother always insisted on making, even though no one especially wanted to eat it.

One year my mother forgot to add sugar to the filling. Culinary mistakes like this happen; sometimes the end result is salvageable, other times not. I can say authoritatively that pumpkin pie with forgotten sugar belongs on the “unsalvageable” list, though I must also confess that the idea of a pumpkin-pie-less Thanksgiving drove me and my brother slightly mad. We attempted to stage a rescue by sprinkling granulated sugar over our slices and mashing it into the unsweetened custard, declaring between bites: “I almost can’t tell the difference!” But we could. And no one sneaked slivers the following day.

Pumpkin pie requires cinnamon, ginger, fresh-grated nutmeg, and ground cloves. Accept no substitute.
Pumpkin pie requires cinnamon, ginger, fresh-grated nutmeg, and ground cloves. Do NOT be taken in by that thing called “pumpkin spice.”

Cooking was not a family affair when I was growing up. My mother cooked; the rest of us stayed out of her way and her kitchen unless otherwise instructed. Pumpkin pies were different. My brother and I both helped with those. Even before I moved into my first apartment and begged my mother to write up recipes for some easy standbys — “with extremely specific directions, please” — I knew how to make those. (Wondering how specific? Try this specific: “Uh, mom…this step in the chili recipe that says ‘sauté onions’ — how many minutes should that be for?”) After two decades of making my own pumpkin pies, I still reference the same sheet of ingredients and directions she typed out for me in 1995.

My brother — a food philistine whose palate rarely requires more than boxed mac-n-cheese or a can of corn — remains virtually sybaritic about pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie and pancakes, I understand, are the only items that he takes exclusive control over in the kitchen. Teaching my niece about the proper making and eating of pie ranked for him on the same level as taking her for her first ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland. Which is to say: life doesn’t get much better than this.

I hope this is enough to make you understand. When K asked me what I planned to bring yesterday, the answer without hesitation was “pumpkin pie.” Of course pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is always pumpkin pie. 

So why — when I came home Wednesday evening and saw my freshly-baked pie sitting on the sill where I had left it to cool — did I begin to weep?

I don’t always know at first, when I trip into these moments of sorrow or anger, where the emotion is coming from. I tried thinking back to last holiday season, only to realize I don’t remember making a pumpkin pie last year. Or for any time during the last two years. Though I’ve made plenty of other pies in that time.

pie_Rhubarb Coconut Honey Tart
March 2013: rhubarb coconut honey pie = little too drippy for my removable bottom tart pan

In fact, the last pumpkin pie I can remember baking was on Thanksgiving Day, 2012. That was the fall my mental health finally hit rock bottom, and just a few weeks after I was at last able to get off the couch and begin cooking anything at all.

By the end of that November, I was on a roll. Cooking, baking, sautéing, jam-making, pickling, frying, roasting, slow-cooker’ing — gradually it all came back to me. And with it, a restoring sense of self.

I made no plans for that Thanksgiving other than turning several sacks of vegetables into foodstuffs. I filled my fridge and freezer with entrees divided into single servings and ready-to-go elements for other meals, like caramelized onions, roasted chunks of squash, and arugula pesto. I made enough soup to last for weeks. I used every piece of tupperware I owned.

And — of course — I baked a pumpkin pie.

April 2013: mango and sabayon cream tart = current acme of my pie-making career
April 2013: mango and sabayon cream tart = current acme of my pie-making endeavors

I felt happy, for the first time in a long time, as the warm scent of ginger and nutmeg filled my tiny kitchen. I had managed to find the sweet spot in my fickle gas oven, so that when I pulled the pie out, the custard was evenly baked (with just the right jiggle left in the center) and the crust just beginning to turn brown. I felt awash in nostalgia for home, and my family, and the traditions of my childhood.

I snapped a few photos of my tupperware-filled refrigerator to send to friends as a sign of my progressive return to the land of the living. I texted a pic of my cooling pie to my mother. She responded right away.

She was so sad, she told me. She cried all the time. Because of me. And then she uninvited me from Christmas.

“It would just be too hard, having to play happy family,” she wrote. 

I texted back agreement: if visiting my parents for the holidays must entail “playing happy family,” best for everyone if we just skipped it. I finished decanting my seasoned cauliflower puree into the last remaining yogurt tub I use for storing soups. I waited until the acorn squash — stuffed with barley, mushrooms, and dried cranberries, and topped with a slice of fresh mozzarella — finished baking. Then I went to a diner and ate a burger with fries.

For dessert, I had a slice of the cherry pie. It was a small, flat triangle, with too much corn syrup in the filling and not enough butter in the crust.

It’s been two years since I thought about that pie, or this story. And I’m not telling it today to make my mother out as a bad guy. My issues over the last few years have affected her, and both my parents have struggled to understand why their guidance of “just decide you want to be better!” did not prove more effective in transforming their suicidally depressed child. Today, they are both as supportive as they are able to be — incredibly supportive, I’d describe them, given how much ossified damage from their own lives my process has demanded that they confront.

I even hope to find myself in a kitchen with my mother again some day, as one of us carries over the pie plate filled almost to overflowing with its raw ingredients and the other pulls out the oven rack in preparation. Just probably not on another Thanksgiving.

I’ll be spending that day with friends.

November 2012: pumpkin pie = an old family recipe
November 2012: pumpkin pie = an old family recipe

*    *    *   *   *

Pie recipes featured above:

Rhubarb coconut honey tart (recipe includes a gluten-free crust, though I used this fully-gluten-y pate brisee from Martha Stewart instead)

Mango and sabayon cream tart (for this, I did use the recommended crust, as adapted from Mark Bittman)

Pumpkin pie (modified as follows: add 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg; skip the salt)

*    *    *   *   *

“Rethinking Pie” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Pie

  1. I loved how a pie spun into all these memories. I think of food a lot in relation to many memories and relationships in my life. It just goes to show that sometimes a pie isn’t just a pie. Beautiful storytelling.


    1. Thank you so much! Food is often such a resonant topic, with webs of connections stretching across childhood, relationships, culture, traditions, a sense of home…


  2. I think I might have mentioned to you that my chaplaincy training (officially known as CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education – and not practiced ONLY by “pastors”) involves a significant amount of personal deconstruction and (hopefully) reconstruction. It has been hard, even painful, at times, yet great personal profit appears on the horizon. One of the key elements, at least for me personally, has been the consideration of “Bowen Family Theory.” The foundational element is that the family, rather than the individual, is the most basic emotional unit when it comes to understanding who we are and why we do what we do. I’m reading a book that provides a good overview of Bowen’s theory: Extraordinary Relationships, by Roberta Gilbert. Since we swim in the same part of the gene pool, I am wondering if you might find it interesting. In any case, please come and bake a pie for us. Pumpkin is fine…just don’t forget the sugar!


  3. Well yum! Pumpkin pie has to be my favorite, yet we skipped that yesterday. The daughters made mixed berry crumble, a rhubarb & peach galette, and a chocolate vegan pie–all tasty and a nice change. Glad you had a good day.


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