I am a pie person descended from a lineage of pie people.
Each year, often during May, my great grandmother Clara baked two or three lemon meringue pies. Why lemon meringue? Why May? Thirty-five years after tasting those pies I wish I’d asked her those questions. The internet says that the best time to harvest lemons is January, and Clara used a standard recipe, combining eggs, lemon juice, sweetened condensed milk to whip up her tart confections. There were no family secrets involved. Clara’s recipe came straight from a cookbook. She was far more esteemed for her cakes. Something was truly off if her Tupperware cake carrier was empty of poundcake on Sunday afternoons. She made the ready availability of poundcake seem rudimentary. I might be slightly resentful of her abilities. It’s not easy to pull off a pristine pound cake. Determining how much butter, eggs, and all-purpose flour to use is far more complicated than any pie.
Pound Cake has taught me that when it comes to leavening, 7-Up works miracles.
Aunt Robertine made strawberry pie. It seemed like an inverted strawberry cheesecake and I still have only a lukewarm appreciation for cheesecake. Aunt Linda made truly treacly mincemeat pie for Christmas. It matched the excessive performance of seasonal cheer she forced on everyone. It wasn’t until I was nearly an adult that I encountered pies that are favorites like sweet potato and pecan.
Still, pie seemed humble. Unassuming. Just…there. However, it seemed that the universe of cakes, with its bourgeoisie, Marie Antoinette undertones, possessed more glamor, more “class.” On both sides of my family, cake chased away pie when we set tables to mark special occasions. The coconut and pecan laden dreck that is German chocolate cake remains a family fave. For my dad’s birthday cake, I succeeded at recreating my Aunt Dorothy’s signature seven-minute icing without asking for her recipe.
I exercise my right to remain silent about the democratizing effects of commonly googled recipes.
The change of seasons prompted my foray into pie baking.
It was 1990. My mother had lined up cans of Comstock apple pie filling and Pillsbury premade pie crusts. It was her turn to watch some of the neighborhood kids while on winter break. Four friends and I whipped up ultra processed desserts, plopping our creations in recycled Marie Callender’s pie tins. Later that evening, my father winced at his slice. He politely drowned it in vanilla ice cream while muttering, “Good job.” After dinner, he defrosted a frozen Mrs. Smith’s for his private holiday gluttony.
Given these sad circumstances, Grandma Clara’s lemon meringue had zero competition.
To our delight, her pie blended fresh eggs, fresh lemons from her tree, C&H sugar, real butter, and a lard crust. Endowed with otherworldly powers, she whipped up fluffy meringue with mere egg beaters. The toasted meringue resembled the melting snowpack of the Sierra Nevadas, defiant seams of brown in foamy white. During the golden hour, the first plated slice mimicked the yellow and white light dancing on the walls. The pie needed nothing else. No whipped cream. No milk. No coffee.
When I was eighteen, Clara began to suffer deeply from Alzheimer’s. After losing her husband, she was placed in a residential treatment facility. By that time, it had been five years since I’d had one of her lemon meringues. My mother and I went to her house to clean her weathered kitchen. The same yellow light blessed it. My mother wanted to toss everything. There are kitchen items I continue to regret not having saved.
I did manage to save my grandma’s rolling pin.
It wasn’t the typical wooden variety. It was a midcentury aluminum affair which could be chilled in the fridge, thus enabling a baker to roll out their pie crusts more effectively. I saved her Wesson Cooking Oil Cookbook too. It had a pie crust recipe that was reputedly bulletproof. Twenty years ago, lard was still associated with poverty. It wasn’t the trendy fat that it is now. Still smarting from a decade-old failure, I decided to tackle apple pie from scratch.
Over the last twenty years, my apple pie skills have evolved and matured. I’m no longer Wesson dependent. Sure, Wesson’s fail-safe crust was a confidence builder but it never really yields those flaky, heavenly, brown layers that rain on chunks of caramelized apple. And one can be far more economical with sugar if one doesn’t solely use Granny Smith apples. They should, though, be used for structure. Conservative cinnamon is nice but additional spices, like cardamom and nutmeg, elevate apple pie. If one is feeling extra fancy, grate in some sharp cheddar cheese with the flour and lard for the crust.
“I’m just scrolling Facebook and pitying all of y’all that use store bought pie crusts for Thanksgiving. I can tell nobody cared to teach you, huh?”
By my early 30’s, I could confidently brag about my abilities to knock out memorable, creative pies. I was becoming like Grandma Clara, pound cake expert.
“Maybe you can come teach us how to do it right?”
Time and again, I’ve gotten such sheepish requests. They mostly come from gay men afraid to practice domestic arts. Some are ex-boyfriends who couldn’t change a tire or make rice with the assistance of a rice maker. Realistically, there’s no room for play, no time for trial and error.
Pie season begins with lemon. Citrus gives way to strawberry (which should be tried with rosemary!). Cherry (add bourbon!) is next, followed by peach and concord grape. Fall is apple time. As it gets colder, it’s on to sweet potato, pecan, quince and buttermilk. It’s as routine as Clara and her production line of pound cake.
We should all bless ourselves with ritual.
So it begins again.
I stare at a bag of lemons Cam brought me this week. It’s eight o’clock and the light caresses the orbs. I wonder if my grandmother ever watched the light dance on the lemons growing from her tree. One needn’t squeeze lemonade from them. Always make time for decadence. The light is gorgeous in the kitchen. But the light won’t be there forever.
Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at djlarsupreme.com and medium.com