At least three trees worth of pecans. But finally I have perfected the recipe. After eating slices of the pecan pies I cook every year around holiday time, people have told me, in all seriousness, that I am a good cook.
These are the same people who spend the rest of the year slugging through chicken breasts I have poached almost to extinction. Who grin and bear my beef stew before quietly sliding their bowls toward the dog.
I should celebrate. I should victory dance around the kitchen. I should pour a shot of the bourbon that I bought “because I needed it for the pie.” But when I take a bite of this dessert other people swear is delicious, I am left wanting more. I guess in the end I didn’t want to eat my grandmother’s recipe for pecan pie. I wanted a slice of one of her pies.
From the beginning I knew the recipe wasn’t exact. She gave it to me when I was a couple of years out of college, living in Boston. I called her while I was standing in the kitchen of my studio apartment, watching the snow fall. The kitchen was standing room only. And my memory of Boston is that the snow was always falling. July had to have happened at least three times while I lived there, but it’s the parkas I remember. The feet of white that covered, then iced, the sidewalks.
“Can you believe,” I said into the phone, while she rummaged around in her recipe file a thousand miles away, “none of the people I am eating Thanksgiving dinner with have had pecan pie?”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she said she actually could believe it.
And that was that.
As she read me the recipe she paused here and there to mutter things like, “That’s not enough pecans …” But then she would keep going.
“This is the recipe you use every year?” I asked when she was done. I wanted to confirm this pie would come out like hers, and the muttering had me concerned.
“Well I haven’t cooked a pie with a recipe since you were in diapers,” she answered.
And that was also that.
Years after that first pie — which ended up fine but not outstanding enough to convert those apple pie eaters to people who liked pecan, much less to people who thought much of Texas — I stood by her side while she made her pies, carefully noting every ingredient she added.
When the pies went in the oven, I tried to slip away so I could write it all down. But she had vegetable chopping to do, so I stayed to help and we got to talking. By the time we were done solving all the world’s problems and I wrote down what I had seen her bake I must have mixed something up. Otherwise my pecan pies would taste just like hers … wouldn’t they?
They would if you believe an egg and flour is just an egg and flour and that is that. I believe in occasional magic though, or at least some magical thinking. Sometimes Julys disappear. Love and dedication can be ingredients, like pecans you shake from the trees. There are foods, especially at the holidays, that can take us back. These foods can erase 10, 20 years of life just with one slice. That’s the magic of the holiday table — and it does call for a victory dance.