“No matter what I do, it never turns out like Mommy’s,” Nancy complained. “The texture is wrong, the color is wrong, and even the flavor is different...I just don’t get it!”
Because they live just 10 minutes away from each other in Ohio, my mother and sister are often invited to the same potluck dinners. Both tend to take the family specialty: real Southern pecan pie from a recipe that’s been carefully preserved for generations. So detailed are the instructions — and so much concentration is needed to follow them — that Mother used to kick her three kids completely out of the kitchen before she’d even put her apron on. She rarely made pecan pie unless it was an extra-special occasion, and then only if we begged her. Lewis, the oldest, and I tended to push the hardest, afterwards taking turns peeking around the corner from the living room to check the progress of the timer once she’d placed things in the oven. No loud noises were allowed during the baking process since the center of the pie might fall, and we didn’t dare crack the door for a peek since it would break the even temperature needed to make the nutty topping come out just right.
Her labor always paid off well, however, for the instant Mom lifted the finished product out onto the counter the most wonderful, syrupy smell in the whole, wide world would envelop the entire house. It was so irresistible that Lewis and I instantly turned into heathens, shoving each other aside as we jockeyed for the first slice. Dad, meantime, would be lured upstairs from the television set while Nancy actually unlocked her bedroom door to come join us. Clearly pleased with her own handiwork, Mother would precisely cut the wedges, dole them out, and top each with a few generous dollops of ice cream. As the warm, dark and totally decadent filling oozed out from underneath the crunchy crust, it would slowly swirl in with the melting vanilla, creating liquid bliss in the bottom of each bowl. So rich was, and is, the recipe that frequent swallows of either milk or coffee must be taken in order to wash down the bites, and forkfuls are often followed by exaggerated displays of eye-closing, chest-grasping, and of course, an abundance of deep yummy sounds.
For decades after our family had moved north from Alabama, Mother’s pecan pie continued to make her the dessert Queen, and it seems only logical that both her daughters would have picked up the technique merely from living with her. Yet Nancy’s version, despite her best efforts, simply couldn’t compete in a side-by-side taste test ... and it was definitely puzzling. “Maybe you just copied things down wrong,” I suggested over the phone. “Go get the recipe and read it to me.”
“It’s in Mommy’s own handwriting,” she declared before setting down the phone and hurrying from the second floor down to the kitchen, taking the stairs two at a time on her way back up. A little breathlessly, Nan began reciting, “One cup of light corn syrup, one half cup of sugar, two eggs ...”
“Wait. Do you have the right file card?” I interrupted.
“Yes! I’m listing the ingredients as they’ve been written,” she replied impatiently. “It says here to mix in a teaspoon of vanilla and then a half-stick of butter before whipping things together and pouring into a pie shell ...”
“No, no, no that’s not right,” I broke in. “That isn’t Great-grandmother’s recipe!”
“Sure it is! Mom gave it to me when I asked for it right after buying this house!” Nan insisted.
Slowly, a light began to dawn in the back of my head. Something wasn’t right here. “Sweetheart, the family version uses dark brown syrup and brown sugar, and the ingredients are whipped together in sections.”
Truly confused now, my sister questioned, “You mean yours is different? How can that be? Where did you get the recipe?”
Matter-of-factly, I confessed, “Mom was so secretive about it when we were kids that I just climbed up on the kitchen table one afternoon, dragged down her old cookbook, flipped through the pages until I’d found it, and copied things down.” When there was no response, I added gently, “It appears you’ve been given the version that’s printed off the back of a corn syrup bottle!”
There was another long, drawn moment of silence before my hapless sister exploded, “WHHHHAAAAAAT?” into the receiver. “You mean she did this ON PURPOSE? So my pies wouldn’t be better than HERS?” Together, we went crazy with laughter at the downright cleverness of it all, and that evening my sis got the corrected, family version. Good sport that she is, however, Nancy continues to bake the fake one when it’s clear that Mom will be attending the same potluck. ❖
Mom’s labor always paid off well, however, for the instant Mom lifted the finished product out onto the counter the most wonderful, syrupy smell in the whole, wide world would envelop the entire house.