Friday, November 11, 2005

RevGalPieBlog

How do I feel about pies on the list? Varies:

1) Apple Pie
I make a Dutch apple pie that is my daughter's favorite. Easy to make, too.

2) Cherry Pie
Since PH's family is from Michigan, cherry pie is a big fave. I never understood it until i made one with real pie cherries(the sour kind). Now every year, in their very brief season, I buy as many quarts as I can in our famer's market, pit them and freeze them so we can have real cherry pie throughout the year. If only I had a big freezer!

3) Pumpkin Pie
This is a favorite of Litigator's (my 21 y.o. son). In the holiday season, I make many of them. He eats them for breakfast, dessert, snacks, whatever.

4) Chocolate Cream Pie
It's chocolate. What more can I say (except that I am weak in matters of chocolate)?

5) Pecan Pie
My PH's favorite. I could make one every day of the week and he'd eat it. He wouldn't gain an ounce, dangit. When I'm feeling very indulgent, I make him a chocolate pecan pie.

I'll finish up with a lemon meringue pie story from my childhood:


On Sunday afternoons, we would walk the two blocks to my Aunt Marie’s apartment for family dinner.

Aunt Marie was my father’s cousin, a woman in her fifties who bore a sad resemblance to Boris Yeltsin. She was witty and intelligent, a woman with a doctorate who worked at a women’s college in administration. She kept piles of the New Yorker magazine on a windowsill, and had a collection of coffee cups from around the world, though she herself never traveled. As the single daughter in her family, she bore the responsibility of care for her 96 year old mother, who was blind and bedridden, but still lucid and sweet.

For all her intelligence, she was – like most of the family – alcoholic, so the Sunday dinner often was a challenge. Alcoholism took a similar path for all the affected members of the family. Most were functional. They got up, went to work, came home, drank to a state of semi-consciousness, slept and rose the next day to repeat the cycle. On the weekends, there was a bit more drinking, but they still managed to get to Sunday church, at least by the 1 p.m. Mass, before starting the drinking for the day. My father, who worked in a soda bottling plant and was a Teamster shop steward, followed the same pattern. He’d often go to a local bar after that 1 p.m. Mass, for “breakfast.”

It being the weekend, Marie was usually in an altered state by the time we rode the elevator up to her apartment. Sometimes, dinner had been prepared for several hours and was either mummified or cold; other times, it was still in the oven, which may or may not have been turned on. Raw duck is not pleasant, especially when you’re eight.

Often, my father’s brother Ed and sister-in-law Helen came, with my cousins Peggy and Michele in tow. Michele was a year younger than I and always sweet, but Peggy, a bit older than me, could be cruel. Occasionally, my other uncle, Tom, a priest, came. He was a garrulous Scotch drinker, and the favorite pastime of the three brothers, after they had taken the edge off with a couple of shots of Johnny Walker, was to argue driving directions. The volume of the conversation increased as the amount of alcohol consumed added up. It was a small apartment, and hot. It was not conducive to meditations on the food, but given the quality of the cuisine, that was probably a good thing.

My mother, an angry woman on her best day, felt the need to bring something. She did not care for my father’s family; she saw the family’s group alcoholic tendency as a failure of will, and a club to which she did not want to belong. Nevertheless, she felt the need to impress, so she brought dessert.

I digress here to talk a bit about my mother’s cooking. She was Alsatian by ancestry, and thus felt comfortable with German and French cuisines, at least the basic grandmother food rather than haute cuisine. For the most part, she cooked by feel and taste rather than by recipes, and was generally successful. The one place where she felt insecure, and relied on the recipe books, was baking. Like other homemakers of the 1950’s, her other source of recipes for baking were the backs of cans and boxes. Cakes were Duncan Hines, though she made buttercream frosting from scratch.

A psychiatrist could do a case study on why my angry, insecure mother would elect to bring something that did not showcase her natural gifts as a cook when going to her husband’s family dinner. When cooking in her own house, she’d often skip making dessert and offer something from the local German bakery, Koelsch’s. She’d expend her energies on the main courses rather than dessert. No one minded.

Nevertheless, the bringing of dessert to Aunt Marie’s on Sunday became a ritual that we followed for a number of years, and one of the frequent choices was lemon meringue pie.

The process of the pie was simple. My mother and I would return from Sunday Mass by 10, she would make me a mushroom omelette to break the Communion fast, and she would set to making the pie.

The crust was made from a Jiffy box mix and baked. Then the filling would be made from My-T-Fine lemon pudding mix. There was a capsule in the box which was filled, most likely, with lemon oil, to add the requisite zing. The hot filling was poured into the crust, and my mother would use the egg whites not incorporated into the filling to make a meringue. She’d sculpt a veritable meringue monument on top of that filling, then dust it with a bit of sugar and put it into the oven to brown the tips of the meringue. Then, most important, the pie had to set for a few hours. It would then be put into the pie carrier for transport to Aunt Marie’s.

It was a reliable dessert, for which she’d gotten appreciative comments from the clan in the past, so it became a regular in the rotation.

And so the Sunday came during which the pie was forever transformed into something other than dessert: it became a symbol of the whole sad, troubled dinner and the family that populated it.

It was late autumn. The air was chilly, and I wore tights under my Sunday dress – we dressed for dinner - rather than short socks. I was, perhaps, nine. I was not looking forward to another boring Sunday afternoon at Aunt Marie’s, where I was often shunted into Grandmother’s bedroom to chat. I had a book in my coat pocket in case things really got bad, but it was hard to find a quiet corner, so I doubted I’d get to read. I pestered my mother to let me carry the lemon meringue pie – just general-purpose pestering, the thing that nine year old girls do so well. She relented. My father, testy at wearing a tie and jacket on Sunday afternoon even though he knew this was what he would do for every Sunday afternoon for the foreseeable future, was grumbling about how he’d prefer to stay home and take a nap.

As we got to the apartment building, I had to take a step up to the entry. Whether the tights were too tight, or my patent-leather shoes too slippery, or my father coughed from his perpetually burning Pall Malls, I tripped.

Hands forward, pie box sailing through the air, knees scraped on the hard cement.
I began to cry. Whether it was from the scrapes that had torn through my tights, or my fears of my mother’s anger about the condition of the pie, I don’t know. She dusted me off, picked up the pie box (which had landed right-side up), wiped my drippy nose with a Kleenex, and pulled me through the door. As we waited for the elevator my father said, “How’s the pie?”

She peered in, and said, “It’s fine.”

“You mean she dropped it, and it didn’t break all apart?” He always referred to me as “she” unless he was angry. Then he’d use my full name.

“It’s fine.”

And then my father said the words that, in today’s world, would have been grounds for divorce, or murder: “It must be made of concrete or something.”

The temperature in the hallway dropped markedly, and it was even chillier in the elevator as well. I could read my mother’s face. She had made the effort to make a pie for these drunken ingrates and now the chief drunken ingrate had insulted her pie.

We went into Aunt Marie’s warm, smoky living room, and my father, never good at social situations even with his own family, compounded his problem: “Guess what we brought you for dessert? It’s concrete pie.”

By this time, the aunts had spotted my torn tights and bloody knees and asked what had happened. My mother, with barely moving lips, said, “Mary was carrying the pie and tripped and dropped it.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the aunts said. ”We can just have some ice cream for dessert.”

“No, no,” my father now, “it’s fine. The damn pie is fine. Ann must have made it from concrete. The damn pie didn’t move. The kid’s all scratched up, but the damn pie is fine.”

“Well, good, then,” the aunts, ”we’ll have concrete pie!”

They must have thought themselves witty, but I knew there would be no living with my mother for the rest of the week. Dessert time came, the pie was served up, there were many remarks on how tasty the concrete pie was. My mother didn’t have any.

“If it’s made of concrete, I’d better not have any. Too heavy. ” Mother believed they all thought she was fat. Perhaps she thought that obesity trumped alcoholism in the pantheon of sins, and their judgment was upon her.

I wondered, as the dinner drew to an end and we started to walk home, whether my mother would say anything to my father about the concrete pie. I wondered if he would ask her why she seemed so angry. This, though, was a long-established way of life for them. No words need be spoken. They had defined themselves and followed those definitions once again.

There it all was: the little yellow capsule with the lemon oil, the bitter zing hiding under the sugary meringue fluff, the concrete that scraped and caused us to bleed.

My mother brought the concrete pie – for it was called that ever after – to dinner at Aunt Marie’s house for several years after, even after Grandmother died, and Aunt Marie became mentally unbalanced after a mugging. She finally passed away in that hot little apartment. My father died in an accident shortly after that. My mother lived for almost thirty years more.

She never made lemon meringue pie again.

5 comments:

Songbird said...

Oh. I wish I could give your mother a hug somehow.

Quotidian Grace said...

Your post makes a compelling short story. It reminds me of how Proust's Remembrance of Things Past begins as memory is prompted by a madeleine. In your case memory is prompted by songbird's pie meme.

mibi52 said...

Songbird, she was a bright, troubled, loving person who I now realize (at 50 plus years)was a very lonely person. She could have used lots of hugs that she didn't get over the years. Just another indicator of your tremendous heart that this would be your reaction.

QG- I wrote this little piece of memory last year, but it seemed perfect to share as part of the meme. It seems food and smells are the two most memory-inducing things. That lemon pie was delicious (I do make them from time to time)and just like Proust's madeleine, I can still taste it in my memory.

Songbird said...

mibi, could you shoot me an e-mail at revsongbird@gmail.com?
I tried to send you something and it bounced back. Thanks!

PPB said...

Aw, what a story.
PPB

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