Every holiday for as long as I can remember my Mother has made a lemon meringue pie. The bright yellow contrasted with the snow outside at Christmas. It competed with the daffodils at Easter.
As a child, I’d watch her make it using My-T-Fine lemon pudding topped with a fluffy meringue all in a homemade crust. The ruffles in the edges formed by my mother’s finger.
It was fussed over as well as cursed. A baking cautionary tale. The crust was never right. The filling often failed. All sorts of things happened to this pie:
- Cool it too quickly, and the meringue weeps.
- Add too much water to the filling, and the crust gets mushy.
- Put in too hot an oven, meringue cooks too quickly and crust burns.
Mom scrutinized each pie looking for both flaws and perfection. Her own worst critic.
No matter the outcome, the family didn’t care. It was that cool citrus taste on the tongue that soothed. To me, it was the expression of my mother’s love. The pie is wrapped up in my memories of her preparing those meals. It’s my favorite. Instead of a birthday cake, I’ll take a pie. She knows it.
The other night I asked her about cooking in the family, precisely those things made by my paternal grandmother. My Mom is the one living older adult that still remembers Nana cooking in her kitchen. To my surprise, she said, “I always loved your grandmother’s lemon meringue pie.”
“What? That’s your pie.”
She laughed. “No, it isn’t.”
“Your grandmother made the best pie. I’ve tried to copy it.”
“No matter how many times I tried I couldn’t duplicate your grandmother’s pie. She’d show me, then I’d try. I had her write down the recipe, but she’d accidentally leave out an ingredient. No matter how many times I watched her, I couldn’t make the same pie. It never worked out. ”
Now that my Mom has reached the age where she’d rather buy a pie than make it, I’m interested in making my own lemon confection. But this new information about the pie’s origin has called everything into question.
Whose pie is this really?
“How did she make it?” I asked. “Did she use instant pudding the way you do?”
“Nope. Your grandmother made it from scratch. Fresh ingredients. She was an old-fashioned woman who never used a recipe. She’d made it so many times she didn’t need one.”
Nana was a woman of another century who lived on limited means. I didn’t think of her as poor, but looking back that’s what she was. She made do with what she had.
The ingredients in the pie are simple. I know my grandmother made her crusts from flour and Crisco. The flour was courtesy of the food surplus program of the Kennedy Presidency to aid the less well-off. Once a month, she received powdered milk, flour, and cheese. An enormous bar of yellowish-orange cheese always sat in her refrigerator. As children, we didn’t know where it came from. Once I was old enough to ask, it made me sad to hear that she “went without.”
She’d worked as a young woman, but once married she stayed home to raise five children. Her self-employed husband ran the family painting and paper-hanging business. A trade he’d learned from his father and grandfather. It was a family business. Work fluctuated with the season, and everyone contributed to the family’s survival.
Her crust was perfection. Flaky and flavorful. She’d taught my mother how to make the same base for the pie, it was rest of the pie that was the problem.
The filling of lemon, eggs, cornstarch and butter was what my mother couldn’t duplicate. As a modern woman, my mother did what was necessary. She bought a box of pudding mix. My-T-Fine was the only one that would do.
The yellow of the pie pudding fills my mind with memories.
My grandmother loved to sit with me and color. Her favorite crayon, “yella” she’d say. It was in an accent passed down with the generations.
In the summer, it was my job as a very little child to roll lemons on her enamel topped table. The citrus scent filled my nose. Even today, lemon makes me think not just of pie but of warm days. If I wanted lemonade, I worked for it. Lemon after lemon rolled until soft. I could feel the hard fruit soften until I thought they were ready. She’d test them to see if they were the right feel and give them back for more rolling if not. I’d press down on them intent on getting them right the first time.
Next, I’d watch her cut those in half and use her glass juicer to squeeze the liquid out of the fruit. It was a cloudy milky yellow when mixed with water and lots of sugar that became tart and sweet on the tongue. The taste of summer.
Lemon yellow is not my favorite color, but it’s forever associated with a tall woman with wrinkled hands and blue eyes. If taste is genetic, then I’ve inherited her love of the fruit. It’s reflected on my tree at the holidays in a large glass slice of pie. Lemon, of course.
At the next holiday dinner, I’m going to surprise my mother and try to make grandmother’s pie. Alas, I don’t have her recipe, but I’ll find one in an old cookbook and give it a try. Maybe I’ve also inherited her talent for this particular pie. We’ll see.