Monday, March 12, 2012

My grandmother's pi(e) is better than Your my grandmother's pi(e)

This Wednesday, March 14th, is Pi(e) Day.
(Because it's 3.14)
(Get it?!)
(I didn't really get it either, don't worry. But I guess it makes sense to some math-y people out there.)

In honor of Pi(e) Day, I am going to strike an item off of my Top Five Life List. This is very exciting news INDEED as my Life List is practically moulding from sitting on the shelf in this humid climate. Back in November at Camp Mighty I chose a few things for my Top Five that were stretches, to say the least. And to balance it out I chose a few that I considered "do-able" - not lofty or far-fetched, something I could complete when I was feeling overwhelmed or underachieved. Which pretty much sums up December-March this year.

So, time to make some fucking pie. My grandmother's lemon meringue pie, to be precise. (Precision! For all those math-y people!) When I wrote about this in November, Jen said "Idea: what if you posted your grandma's recipe and several of us, around the world, made it on the same day and ate it together? And then toasted your grandma? And then blogged about the experience of making it and told stories of our own grandmas?" Jen, I love you. And I think that is a rad idea. Let's put on our best aprons and make some grandma magic, shall we? Everyone, I want to hear about your pie, and your grandmothers. Sarah is going to be here to hold my hand and beat the egg whites into submission while I sniffle into a tissue and think about my grandmother.

I have two grandmothers, actually. My paternal grandmother is an accomplished home chef, of the enormous casserole and lots of wine variety. She had a gorgeous gourmet kitchen filled with le Creuset and a professional Viking range/grill/double oven thing that took up an entire 6 foot long section of wall. She cooked for masses of people, and she did it with style. And a bottle of white wine. Sometimes, a box of white. Depends on the holiday and level of chaos. Love you Grammie! But she was not a baker, really. I don't remember a lemon meringue pie at her house - unless my other grandmother brought it over.

The grandmother in question - the pie baker - is my maternal grandmother, Mabel. Mebs for short. I grew up around the corner from her house, and I wear her wedding rings as my own. I think of her every single day of my life. Mebs was not a home chef - she had a very basic kitchen filled with very basic ingredients, and I don't remember her drinking wine except at church. She cooked most food until it was almost inedible DONE if you know what I mean. But oh, her pies.

Mebs made pies for almost every holiday. It is a huge part of my childhood memories, pies cooling on the kitchen table while I sat on the stepstool under the wall phone eating whipped cream off the beaters. She passed away during my sophomore year of high school, and her loss was - is - something that causes me unspeakable amounts of sorrow. I mean, I honestly can't even really talk about it out loud, so I am going to write about it for a minute and we'll see if I can pull it together afterwards to make some pie. Okay, tissues. Here we go.

Some back story. The women in my family live until basically forever. They are the hardiest, nuttiest women - and I had THREE great-grandmothers around when I was growing up. All three were bat-shit crazy, with varying degrees of sweetness to temper the old lady-ness. Mebs' mother - Also named Mabel - lived to be 106 or something ridiculous like that, and until she was 98 Mabel tore around town in a Dodge Dart with the celing panel hanging down over her head. She was about 4 feet tall, and sat on a stack of pillows to get high enough to see through the middle of the steering wheel and peer over the dashboard. She was always called "Great Grandmother" - no cute nicknames, and certainly not "Mebs" - Mabel was all business and showed no signs of slowing down. The phrase "tough old bird" pretty much describes her to a T. And her daughter, my grandmother Mebs, while more refined and much less insane, was also not showing any signs of slowing down. At 80 she was still picking us up from school in her Grand Prix, rocking the high heels, and handing out Cinnamint Lifesavers to anyone who asked, or needed one. I had no doubt that my grandmother would outlive her mother by a good 25 years.

Until she didn't.

My great grandmother Mabel fell in the bathroom one day and broke her hip. She was discovered on the floor of the bathroom several hours later by Mebs, who promptly called an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived, and the EMTs were talking with Mebs about her mother, and loading my great grandmother into an ambulance, my beloved grandmother Mebs had a stroke. A second ambulance was called.

It was probably the single most chaotic day for that retirement complex ever, and there was a lot of confusion because two elderly women arrived at the hospital via ambulance within 10 minutes of each other, from the same address, with the same first name. My great-grandmother was probably complaining loudly about everything, and being a real pain in the ass. Mebs had been rendered silent by the stroke. She never spoke again. She hung on, paralyzed and silent, for how long I honestly cannot remember (and I need to keep it that way for my own mental well-being). In the end, probably because she knew she would live another 25 years trapped in that silent, paralyzed body, stuck in a nursing home with terrible food, in a room that always smelled of adult diapers and desperation instead of lily of the valley and lavender sachets, Mebs took control of the situation in the only way she knew how. She stopped eating. I do not remember when she died, and only vaguely remember her funeral. I know I was 15. I was also drunk for the entire weekend and stayed out for most of the night wandering Haley Farm with a boy. My grandmother must have kept a close eye on me from where ever it is that she was, and  made sure I got home safe and sound eventually which was a damn miracle consdering the circumstances, my mental state, and the company I was keeping. The entire weekend is a blur, and I am glad - who the hell wants to remember losing one of the people they loved most?

I want to remember her baking pies, and teaching me how to whip cream and later how to make meringue (which she only showed me how to do once before the stroke). She cooked meat until it was gray, and veggies until they were limp, but the woman made the most amazing pies and damnit her legacy needs to live on. And so, we are all going to make lemon meringue pies.

Yes, even you.
We can do this.

I will be using my grandmother's recipe, which is in her 4th edition, 1952 copy of Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. I have her notes in the margins, and I will share them with you because my grandmother would want me to. This cookbook is something I treasure, something I would rescue in a fire. It has her handwritten notes, odd pieces of mail, and recipes clipped out of magazines. It is a time capsule for me.

1/4 cup cornstarch and 2 Tbs flour
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups boiling water
3 eggs separated
1/3 cup strained lemon juice
2 Tbs butter
1/2 tsp grated lemon rind
baked pie shell
1/3 cup sugar

Blend cornstarch, flour, sugar and salt in saucepan. Add boiling water gradually and blend thoroughly. Cookk over direct heat, stirring constantly, until thick and clear (about 3 minutes). Beat egg yolks (my grandmother's note says to add the lemon juice to the yolks) and add some of the hot mixture to slowly begin to warm the yolks so that they don't cook too quickly. Pour back into saucepan and stir to blend, cooking for two minutes more, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add butter and lemon rind, mixing well. Pour into cooled pie shell. Set aside to cool.

Beat egg whites, until stiff, adding sugar gradually, continue beating until thick and smooth. Pile lightly and quickly on top of the pie filling right to the edge of the crust. Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes until meringue is lightly browned, then let cool on a rack completely before cutting. (The pie was the first thing my grandmother made on a holiday, so it cooled all day long while she prepared the rest of the meal.)

A step by step journal will appear here later, and if you choose to make a pie in honor of Mebs, please let me know - I would love to hear how it turned out.

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