- Pie Love You, Cake Do Without You
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In the beginning, he acted like a man who hadn’t eaten a home-cooked meal in twenty years. His first wife had been too unhappy to cook and the second one, too angry. He couldn’t get over my cooking. He didn’t cook, but he’d sit in the kitchen and watch me frying up chicken livers or making Lowcountry crab cakes out of a Charleston cookbook or rolling out a pie crust, and his handsome face wore the balmiest, most satisfied look that I’d ever seen on a man. I’d grown up among southern cooks: my maternal grandmother was from Kentucky and my paternal grandmother from North Carolina. They knew their way around the southern [End Page 110] kitchen, and I have their recipes to prove it—though I never saw either of them consult a cookbook. My Kentucky grandmother, Elizabeth, made a twelve-egg angel food cake from scratch that was as tender as fluff and always accompanied by cups of boiled vanilla custard, served chilled, that you dipped slices of the cake into. Her mother, my great-grandmother Mary Yeager, had taught her to churn butter, and Granny had much respect for butter. You never spread anything but on your toast or the yeast-risen bran rolls she baked when you visited her. Granny was a superb pie maker. Her signature dessert was a fairytale concoction called Coronation Butterscotch Pie made with caramelized sugar and slathered with turrets of meringue. She loved to tell the story about that pie saving her marriage.
Despite the culinary delights that came out of her kitchen, Granny was a slow and dreamy cook, forgetful, easily distracted, and disorganized. During the Depression, after she and my grandfather lost their house and lived in a rented cracker-box, he located a German girl who, for room and board, helped Granny cook and clean. But Granny never mastered the art of domestic proficiency. Hosting family reunions, my grandfather always employed a cook to help prepare our evening meal and tidy up afterwards. The one who became our patron saint was a soft-spoken, gently efficient African American woman named Maggie. She worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Granny, and at 4 p.m., when they began their dinner preparations, the kitchen was off-limits to us children. Because of Maggie, Granny stayed on task and we ate on time. Many years later, after a disabling stroke, my mother became slow in the kitchen, too, but she did not want to give up cooking. For inspiration, she hung a picture of Maggie above the stove and carried on.
My North Carolina grandmother, Ruth, a jackrabbit in the kitchen, made cakes more than she baked pies. She served a killer skillet cornbread and deep-fried her own hush puppies. Both my grandmothers fried chicken up a storm. In the summer Grandmother Ruth stirred up the sweetest succotash I’ve ever eaten, a toss of garden fresh baby lima beans and Silver Queen corn, the kernels as tiny and white as baby teeth with lots of fresh black pepper and just the right amount of bacon fat. We sprinkled vinegar and sugar on our sliced German Johnson tomatoes, and she made a watermelon rind pickle so luminous and translucent green it could have come from the Emerald City of Oz.
My mother loved to bake pies, and my first cooking lesson, when I was ten or so, was learning how to make a piecrust. The only pie I didn’t try to bake was the Coronation Butterscotch pie. Its history intimidated me, but Mother was a whiz at it. Only after she stopped cooking did I give it a go, much to my sons’ delight, and for all the trouble it is to make, it’s become a holiday staple.
Today, I’m a big fan of The Moosewood Cookbook, Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, The Silver Palate, and the many recipes offered by Melissa Clark and Mark Bittman that I’ve clipped from the New York Times. But...