On Food and Holiday Stories

by Memoir Mentor on January 4, 2012

I’ve decided this blog post will combine two writing assignments I gave my students recently: Write a story about a holiday memory, and write a story about food.

I’ve  been thinking a lot about food in the last two months, and the scales show it. It’s natural, after all. As Mom and Grandmother, I’m in charge of holiday food preparation (we’re traditional at our house)–and Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two biggest food holidays of the year, right?

Ree Drummond

I discovered “The Pioneer Woman” (TPW) on the Food Network in mid-December, and since then my cooking and waistline have taken off on a new trajectory. After being thoroughly enchanted by TPW’s Christmas show, I checked out her blog and felt like the last person arriving at a gala party. I consider myself a foodie of sorts, and I wonder how I could be so out of the loop. Why, she (Ree Drummond, aka TPW) has a mind-boggling 20-plus million people visit her blog every month. Amazing! Where have I been?

I may be a little slow on the uptake, but I’ve scrambled to make up for lost time. Since watching TPW’s Christmas show, I’ve made her cinnamon rolls TWICE (delivering them to my nearest and dearest the way she did on her show, but without the cowboy duds), her prime rib, cream gravy, and Dutchess potatoes (served on Christmas Eve to rave reviews), and her Italian Chicken Soup (last night’s dinner fare). I’ll say this in my behalf: I’ve spent substantial time looking through the comments on TPW’s blog, and it seems to me that most of of her followers say things like, “Sounds like a yummy recipe. I’ll have to try it.” I just wonder how many of them walk the talk like I’ve done, and in such a short amount of time!

TPW has carved out a great niche for herself in the foodie sector with her city-girl-turned-ranch-wife narrative. That, plus her lively personality and mouth-watering recipes (cinnamon rolls!) have garnered her a well-deserved following. My friend Lorna says I must read her books. Really, how does TPW find the time? She even home-schools her four kids!

This rather long intro, leads me to the  story I’ve prepared to fulfill the two assignments I gave my students. When it comes to writing, I’m usually slow to practice what I preach, but consider this story an effort to fulfill a resolution I set for myself three days ago. There are areas where I, too, need to Walk the Talk.

An Ode to Barbara’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

When I married at 19 with minimal cooking experience, I could have been intimidated by my new mother-in-law, who had been a high school home economics teacher before she married. But Barbara was welcoming and gracious, sharing many of her recipes and cooking techniques with me over the years. She knew everything about the basics of cooking, particularly baking. Thanksgiving gave her ample opportunity to show off her baking talents to a very appreciative audience. Pumpkin chiffon pies were one of her specialties.

She typically made her pies the day before Thanksgiving to free herself for other cooking tasks the day of. When her pies were completed, she stored them on wire racks in her laundry room and warned anyone heading that direction to be careful not to disturb her pies.

Barbara prided herself on her pie crust and assumed the role of final arbiter of its quality, assessing the degree of flakiness and worrying about it becoming “soaked” overnight from absorbing too much moisture from the filling. These assessments were mostly made to herself in a muttering voice while we all sat at the table wallowing in a sensory overload with every bite of her incomparable pie. I always seemed to be sitting to her left, a witness to her mutters from time to time.

I had never before tasted pumpkin pie the way she made it. It was light and fluffy, the pumpkin custard folded into whipped egg whites before being cooked on the stove and poured into her baked pie shells. She always made enough pies for everyone in her large family to have two pieces–one an hour or two after dinner, and another later in the evening. She cut the pies in generous wedges after slathering the tops with a thick layer of sweetened whipped cream. Eating Barbara’s pie was like biting into a fluffy pumpkin cloud that melted in your mouth like cotton candy.

I liked the lightness of her recipe compared to the standard custard pumpkin pies I’d been used to, particularly after a heavy Thanksgiving dinner, but some of the “in-laws” who later joined the family didn’t share my opinion. One year after dinner, a lively discussion ensued about the merits of Barbara’s pies compared with the traditional recipe and one of the in-laws came up with humorous labels to distinguish them. Barbara’s pies were “air pies,” he pronounced, and the familiar pumpkin custard pies were labeled “solid state.” Barbara took it all in good humor and the labels stuck.

We lost Barbara a few years ago, and I miss her. Besides teaching me how to cook, she taught me many life lessons I deeply appreciate. This Thanksgiving I looked for her pie recipe and it disturbed me when I couldn’t find the recipe card in my files. I remember exactly what it looked like: Well used, it had pumpkin-colored fingerprints on its edges, the directions written in blue ink in Barbara’s clear hand. Frustrated in not being able to find the card, I went online, Googled “pumpkin chiffon pie” and found a recipe that looked similar to Barbara’s. However, when my daughter-in-law announced that her husband, my son, had “shamed her into making a pumpkin pie” for Thanksgiving, I decided to put off making mine until next year. My daughter-in-law’s pie was delicious but, alas, it was Solid State.

I bet TPW has a recipe for pumpkin pie on her blog. I’ll have to check it out, but judging from what I know of her cooking proclivities, I’d guess she’s a “Solid State” kind of gal.