A Lifelong Legacy

 

 

My Life with Pie

Although you might well wonder how pie (or any dessert, for that matter) could possibly serve as a defining component of anyone’s life, it has been a significant feature in my most memorable moments, beginning when I was a toddler.  As a result, I initially assumed that pie was an ordinary part of everyone else’s life!  After all, it is reasonable to assume that what is normal for us is normal for everyone else — until we discover otherwise!

My grandmother in Colorado had a sour cherry tree gracing her back yard; that tree produced ample fruit to satisfy the family’s craving for cherry pie as my mother and her four siblings were growing up.  I recall visiting my grandmother and watching her use a special tool to pit the cherries for the pie to be baked that day.  This tool was truly a marvel — the cherries were emptied into a hopper, and with the turn of a handle, this wonderful implement spat the pits out one side while ejectng the cherries out a little chute on the other side. At age three, I reveled in the moment I was privileged to operate the handle of that cherry-pitting machine.   

A few years later, when we lived in Boston, my mother introduced us to the marvels of rhubarb, a sour celery-like stalk with tangy bursts of flavor when sugared and baked in a pie.  Rhubarb quickly found favor with the entire family and joined the ranks of regularly featured treats on our table.  Mom baked pies at least twice a week, as regularly as she did laundry.  I had a friend down the street who ostensibly came over to play with me but actually preferred watching my mother bake pie. I proceeded to inform her that it would be far more interesting to play a game together than to watch my mother do something so boring.  (Years later, my mother informed me that the parents of that child were alcoholics, and her mother never cooked or baked anything from scratch; THAT was why my friend had been so intrigued with watching my mom produce pies; I felt shame and compassion upon learning this news.)  My parents also told me that the reason we had rhubarb pie so frequently one particular spring and early summer was that my dad had been out of work for six months, and the rhubarb grew wild in the back yard. 

My favorite variety as a child was cherry pie, as I savored the sour acidity of the cherries combined with the sweetness of sugar and the depth of flavor of the lemon juice and almond extract my mother added to the filling.  On a rare occasion when we had a meal in a restaurant, I would search the menu for cherry pie; after all, it was my favorite dessert!  Although my parents gave me permission to order it a time or two, my mother warned me that it might not meet my expectations.  She was right.  The restaurant pie crust was leathery and flavorless compared to my mother’s flaky concoction, and the filling was syrupy sweet and insipid.  Needless to say, the light was dawning…. my mother was a pie-baking genius, and my life was far from normal!

My sisters and I grew up at our mother’s elbow watching her bake sundry other treats, but pies were always the most coveted dessert.  On occasion, when mom took a pie to a church bake sale, my father made a point to pay a premium to purchase that pie back for our family — much to my mother’s chagrin!   After all, my dad reasoned, nothing else was worth buying!   

Of course, making pie crust became part of our family DNA.  One of my most sorrowful moments was the day my aging mother called me and asked me for her pie crust recipe.  She had been suffering from dementia, and I wept as I recognized the magnitude of her requesting information that she had known so instinctively.  Somehow, my mother was being stolen from me!  What profound sorrow I felt as I tearfully related the details of my mother’s own pie crust recipe to her!   Nonetheless, I am thankful for her legacy…. 

Who would have dreamed that, when my father sold my parents’ home and my sisters and I hurriedly divided our mother’s many pie pans among ourselves, that I would inherit a pie pan that still bore a piece of masking tape with “Davis” written on it in my mother’s handwriting?  That pie pan had been sold and re-claimed at many bake sales.   The bit of masking tape inscribed with my family’s name was a poignant reminder of my family culture.  Somehow, my grandmother’s miracle-working cherry pitter also landed in my home.   Together, the battered pie pan and the antique cherry pitter symbolize a legacy of hospitality with family and friends gathered around the table. (Ironically, rhubarb has of late narrowly supplanted cherry as my favorite!).  

Comfort in the Commonplace: Banana Bread

As a passionate cook who enjoys experimenting with food and learning gourmet techniques, I have nonetheless discovered the power of ordinary comfort food. Unfortunately, banana bread happens to fall in that category. Why unfortunately? I personally detest bananas; even the slightest fragrance of bananas triggers an aversive response in me. Although there are no legitimate grounds for this dislike (apart from personal preference), I certainly can offer tales from the family history of this classically American recipe.

My mother traditionally baked banana bread (rightly classified as cake outside our national borders) as a means of using overly ripe bananas deemed unfit for eating out of hand. Although this sweet was a frequent item on our table, my first vivid memory of it was at the lunch table one Saturday. My two younger sisters were toddlers, and the older of the two was about to take the first bite of the coveted treat. My father had consumed his piece of banana bread more rapidly than the rest of us and only had one bite remaining. Just before my sister took her first bite, he claimed that the best way to eat banana bread was to top it with ketchup (the ketchup bottle had been left on the table after our main course). Shocked at his assertion, we all watched in disbelief as my dad decorated his last bite with ketchup and enthusiastically popped it in his mouth. He subsequently proclaimed it to be absolutely delicious! Although the youngest child remained oblivious to this ruse, the middle sister proceeded to top her entire slice of banana bread with ketchup prior to bravely consuming it as if it were a wonderful taste sensation! My mother and I could not fathom Dad’s trickery of a three-year-old who adored him enough to try such a disgusting combination of flavors! Of course, said sister no longer eats banana bread with ketchup and forgave our father decades ago, but the memory has continued to entertain us!

My journey with banana bread began around the age of ten, at which point I had already been allowed to bake by myself for at least two years. My mother was generous in her instruction and allowed my sisters and me to learn alongside her; we literally grew up at her side in the kitchen. She taught us to ensure the bananas were properly over-ripened, to mash them well, and not to over-mix the batter. She explained how to grease the pans and how to fill them; on occasion, she had crushed pecans or walnuts — or even the coveted black walnuts — for us to add to the loaves prior to baking. We learned how to verify that the final baked product was actually done and to allow the baked loaves to rest in their pans on a rack for ten minutes prior to removal. These very basic techniques were incorporated in our “internal” cookbooks and have continued to affect how all three of us daughters bake. Without fundamentals, baking would be a daunting task instead of a routine pleasure!

Although my adult tastes have changed, and I personally actively dislike this traditional sweet loaf, I have realized that my American friends have a wealth of positive associations with this ordinary baked item. Banana bread may be ubiquitous, but good banana bread is hard to find! It should be redolent with ripe banana, moist but easily sliced, substantial enough for toasting, and not cloyingly sweet. Banana bread mastery is, after all, more “caught” than “taught,” which is probably true for most cooking and baking methods.

In its best form, cooking should be a communal process with comforting results; cooking and baking should ideally be associated with laughter, conversation, and appreciation for lives lived in the context of a shared table. THAT is why I continue to prepare certain foods I personally dislike — the lovely memories compel me, and they trigger similar associations in the hearts of my friends and family!

 

Kitchen Rules? Not Always!

One summery day, I dashed into the kitchen from the grassy courtyard area behind our apartment. The door was standing a bit ajar, apparently to allow the intoxicating smell of fried, sugary treats to disperse. I recall marveling at the sight of homemade doughnut twists neatly placed in rows on cooling racks atop the kitchen table (the same site of the breadcrust-stuffing crime a few months prior). The twists were newly-fried and boasted an abundant coating of crystalline sugar. Herself an ardent fan of tastes, my mother offered me a generous treat for a two-year-old: an entire sugary fried twist all to myself. Clearly, I have never forgotten it! Such homemade delicacies more than compensated for the brown-sugar-and-butter sandwiches she made on occasion using Wonderbread; the sugar sandwiches were a favorite, but the bread was not!

While my mother creatively plied her culinary prowess within the fairly strict limits of the family budget, my father worked hard to provide for us but was less than experienced in the kitchen. Several months after the doughnut twists had made a permanent impression on me, we moved to our first house, and my father underwent his first cooking test. My mother was in the hospital delivering my sister, which left him with the daunting task of feeding a toddler for a couple of days. He valiantly made fried eggs for me — eggs which he presented to me with a grand flourish and proudly called “turned-over eggs.” Tasting the somewhat try but delicious sea of firm egg on my plate, I appreciatively expressed my approval. After all, Dad was clearly delighted with his achievement! He also awarded me with a double-dip ice cream cone after dinner.

Of course, I learned early on that, in a mother’s absence, fathers enjoy breaking rules in the kitchen, particularly restrictions they may deem needless. Just as my father doled out a very large ice cream cone to my three-year-old self, my own husband (a few decades later) delighted in purchasing boxed Kraft macaroni-and-cheese dinner for our five children when I was out of town. The kids actually looked forward to this forbidden, preservative-laden treat, and I learned to allow it without protest. After all, winning the hearts of one’s children is worth a few bites of artificial flavoring and coloring!

Of course, his inventions did not remain a secret, as I began requesting these treats after Mom and my baby sister arrived home. To my disappointment, I discovered that Daddy had made the turned-over eggs only because he had inadvertently broken the egg yolks and was uncertain what else to do! Nonetheless, I made a point to prefer those turned-over masterpieces whenever given the option. When I made the mistake of asking for a double-dip ice cream cone, Mom eyed Dad suspiciously. “You DIDN’T give a three-year-old two scoops of ice cream, did you?,” she inquired. He laughingly responded that it must have been the right thing to do, because, “She ate it.” Laughter ensued all around, and I now realize that necessity IS, after all, the mother of invention (as the old adage goes). Moreover, creativity and flexibility are absolutely essential if culinary success is to be secured! Who knew what other adventures remained for my dad in the kitchen? (Stay tuned for more!)

Years later, our children fondly recall these simple treats that somehow became part of our family lore. May we all continue to appreciate the sweet things we experience together!

O Lord, You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You maintain my lot.  The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Yes, I have a good inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6, NKJV)

A Crusty Beginning

My first memories of food and family began when I was about two years old.   Unfortunately, I had a rather inauspicious initiation to the world of culinary arts.   I recall sitting alone at the lunch table (which featured a shiny black formica top with an aluminum rim around the edges) in our kitchen.  My father was at work, and my mother had dashed into the next room for a moment.  As I contemplated the peanut butter sandwich sitting on the plate before me, I recognized I only had a minute or two to act (by any means possible) if I were to avoid consuming the odious crust on that sandwich.   My mother was an impressive cook, but, as a young wife and mother, she unfortunately bought the typical American spongy white sandwich bread for daily consumption.  (I will relate numerous stories later that will redeem her in your sight; do not worry!)  In a flash of genius, I hastily gobbled down the center of each quarter of my neatly-cut sandwich and began packing the offending crusts into my little two-year-old nostrils.  THAT, I thought, would serve as the perfect hiding place for those cast-off, inedible remnants of an otherwise tasty lunch.  Unfortunately, my mother flew back into the kitchen just in time to apprehend me in my treachery!   Horrified, she shrieked, “What are you doing?,” and deftly flipped me on my back onto the tabletop.  She proceeded to extract the compacted crusts from my nostrils as quickly as possible, no doubt fearing a potential visit to the doctor for the procedure.   I was astonished at her reaction, as I did not understand that packing bread crusts into one’s nose was a less than salubrious tactic.

As a mother of five children, I now understand her alarm.   Her speedy response was certainly effective:  never since have I attempted to stash unwanted food items of any kind (especially not bread crusts!) in my nose.   Moreover, who would have ever guessed that I would harbor a longstanding aversion to white bread in general and American white sandwich bread in particular?  Who would have guessed I would bake all the bread for my husband and children in the decades to come?  (Ironically, the crust is now my favorite part of any loaf of bread!)

Don’t despise the day of small beginnings! (Zechariah 4:10)

 

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