All pie images by Stacy Johnson.
We are really excited about this first piece from new contributor Stacy Johnson. Originally from Arkansas and now living in Pennsylvania, Stacy recently tackled her first pie. Here she shares her thoughts on holidays, pie making, and the importance of connecting across generations.
Growing up in small town Arkansas, less than 10 miles from most all of my loved ones meant that come any holiday, we were celebrating. Summer holidays called for picnics and afternoon swims on Petit Jean; Easter brought ham and all the fixing’s including an enormous egg-hunt. Thanksgiving warmed us all with hugs and extra smiles and pushed our meal into the “feast” category; and then there was Christmas- well, Christmas was in a league all of its own:
Walking into my grandparent’s home on Christmas Eve, the warmth of the wood stove took the sting of chilly night air away. Yearly, we were greeted with singing Santas, ringing jingle bells, dancing reindeer, angels in worship to their Savior, and grandparents decked out in Christmas colors or silly Christmas hats. Mountains of gifts overtook the sitting room floor and my sister and I excitedly scouted out those with our names on them.
Snacks galore were waiting in the kitchen. There was fudge, there was cheese dip, there were candies, and veggies with ranch dip. Without vary, every year we could count on two heavenly chocolate pies, with the perfect amount of white fluff atop, sitting out in an unspoken “off-limits” section of the kitchen. We all knew these pies were for our Christmas day pleasure. And, my-oh-my, were they worth the wait.
Year in and year out, these chocolate pies accompany all of our special holiday moments. No one knows the recipe and no one else is ever asked to bring a chocolate pie to family functions. Why would we? There is not a one that compares to that of Mamaw Connie’s sheer bliss in pie-form. Even folks not fond of chocolate have a slice of this pie, usually I have dessert first, to ensure that I don’t miss it.
With that former bit of background information, I’m sure you will be able to relate when I tell you that as of now, with a move to the grand state of Pennsylvania under my belt, I am aching for holidays back home. Call me crazy, but because Christmas memories bring me unspeakable joy, I start playing carols early and letting my mind dazzle back in time to childhood and the brief phase of listening for ho-ho-hos and reindeer paws on the roof. There was about a week span in early November where I was beyond lonely and spending much time in silent tears as my daughters played upstairs. My sister, who shares each of these special moments in her memories, moved to California the same year I made my journey north. We spoke often the week I was in my nostalgic depression, for she was experiencing the exact same holiday blues. The thought of missing the season in our hometown with our precious family who strives to keep traditions alive, was just quite a load to bear.
After one long phone conversation about our Mamaw and Papaw and how it wouldn’t be long till they’d be keeping the little ones’ updated on Santa’s whereabouts by watching the news, I laid my emotional self down on the couch and allowed a few tears to fall. See, Christmas memories are all happy and magical when everyone you love is close, and all is as it was from years gone by. But when one piece of the puzzle is missing, or when a familiar ring of laughter ceases to be present, Christmas memories take on a new form: bittersweet…
Then out of nowhere like a whisper to my spirit, a thought came, “Why don’t you wipe those tears off, put on your apron, send the girls outside to play, and try your hand at a chocolate pie—it’ll make you feel- not only close to home, but also accomplished, because you’ve never made a one from scratch before.”
Of course, since no one knows Mamaw’s recipe, it was time to get to Google-ing! There was a bit of amazement in my searching as I found a recipe titled, “Grandma’s Chocolate Pie.” The lady who’d shared it called herself, “Homesick Texan,” and immediately I could relate. She gave a similar history on her Grandmother’s pie and how no one really knew how she made it. “Click and PRINT! That is perfect,” I thought to myself!
It was then time to hunt for a simple first timer’s crust. This, I was quite nervous about, “Would I be less of a woman, should I not be able to make a pie-crust properly?” I knew I needed a crust that called for butter and not shortening… For one, I did not know what shortening was, and for two, I did not have shortening on hand- to my knowledge. I scrolled across a title that seemed appealing enough on the CHOW website; it read “Basic Pie Dough Recipe.”
Miraculously, as if by Divine inspiration, I had all the ingredients on hand. So I got to work! I knew I would need no interruptions as I attempted such a task, so out my girls went and the house was mine. I cranked up some classic holiday tunes and put all my crust ingredients in my blender. Yes, the recipe called for a food processor, but hey, processor/blender, doesn’t it all do the same thing?! Well, no! Not so much. I then dumped my partially blended crust into a bowl and finished mashing it and rolling it out. Woo-hoo, it actually looked right, into the fridge it went while I started the filling.
The filling proved to be much easier than I had anticipated. Because we are southerners, chocolate gravy is pretty much a staple in our house and the filling used all the same ingredients, plus egg yolks. I was familiar with this process because of my gravy making skills and so my nerves were a bit more calmed as I beat the filling into a thicker-than-pudding, not-quite-custard state.
As I pulled my crust out of the oven, I was quite impressed. I did it! I had actually successfully made a pie crust, and pie filling! I could do this! Although I lacked skill in “crust crimping,” nothing was burned and the chocolatey aroma filling my kitchen took me back to my Mamaw’s fudge-filled, pie scattered work-space. And, I was happy…
The happiness continued for only a minute longer as it was time to “whip up” the meringue. I use quotations on “whip up” because- to whip, usually means it’s done fairly quickly…Twelve minutes later and sweat dripping from my forehead, I decided the meringue was as fluffy as it was ever going to be. “What had I done wrong,” I pondered. I had been sure to let my egg-whites sit at room temperature and I added the required amount of salt. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that the sugar should come later, thus my first ever go at meringue ended up on a paper towel that in my frustration, I chunked into my sink:
I thought I’d give the blasted fluff one more chance to create a “pioneer- woman” out of me. I went through the exact same process as before, still not knowing that the sugar came after the soft peaks formed, I was again disappointed. But this go-round, I decided I would not waste another “yolk” of my time on the ever-so-anger-inspiring meringue. I topped my beloved first-attempt at pie-making with the cruel little bit of fluff I had, and when it came out of the oven, I was pleasantly surprised. Surprised, not because heavenly peaks of meringue like my grandmother’s were formed, but surprised, because it didn’t look half-bad, and I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.
Over the course of my alone time in the kitchen, my heart had been mended; I was actually feeling quite replenished and confident in sharing my creation with my sweet understanding girls. We waited until after dinner to divvy up a few slices and to the satisfaction of my soul, we devoured them. As we inhaled our connection to home in dessert form, we talked about the flavors and textures and how they were different, and yet similar to Mamaw’s. They made me promise that my next go at a pie would be a family affair, since I was an expert and all now.
The following day, I called my sister in Cali-land and shared how my whole persona had been rejuvenated just by tackling a recipe that I had never tried and that tied me to our roots. I explained the ins and outs of my experience and what I had since learned about the art of meringue. Her voice suddenly sounded peppy as she looked through her cabinets and informed me that she’d have to call me back in bit, she needed to make a quick trip to the grocery store. Funny how talking about a love for a pie made year after year in Arkansas, can spread a connected joy between two sisters, over the phone, one on the east coast-one on the west.
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As a former language arts teacher, turned homeschooling mom, Stacy enjoys reading and writing and sharing a love for both with others. Currently living in Williamsport, PA with her husband and two daughters, her small town Arkansas upbringing provides the inspiration for most of her writings. One of her favorite past-times is studying the first, second, and third century followers of Christ and their way of life. She is encouraged daily to be a more selfless person by their example.