There was Nancy, eating lemon meringue pie in Amsterdam. She messaged me, that’s how I knew, and she’d made it from scratch just like our mom used to do when we were children, and Nancy, too, when she was probably ten. You need to make this for mom, she insisted.
Food is one of those universal associations, a time-traveling commodity whisking us in an instant to the tables of childhood.
This is how I came to be in the kitchen with my daughters (nine and eleven) a few evenings ago gathering ingredients for lemon meringue pie. I’d already sent a message to Nancy asking for the family recipe, but being too many time zones apart, I had to chef on alone.
I settled on my trusted standards: Grandma’s pie crust recipe and Better Homes and Gardens for the pie. I heard from Nancy the next day. I left the recipe in Amsterdam and today I’m in Paris, so I can’t help.
If the mere mention of the pie from my sister caused food flashbacks, both the creation of and the tasting of were full time warps. The part where you beat the egg whites stiff? This obviously was the pie-making job my mother gave me, because the moment I saw the white peaks form, I was seven years old, barefoot and covered in egg splatters, all astonished at the transformation.
Many great chefs point back to their early cooking with their mothers or grandmothers as a meaningful element in their later careers. I’ve also read accounts of women who know little about cooking because their mothers didn’t allow them in the kitchen.
The Language of Baklava (Diana Abu-Jaber) convinced me I needed to make a significant place for food in my relationship with my kids — from the choosing of ingredients at the market, to the preparation of the meal, to the lip-smacking enjoyment of it. Abu-Jaber says she “comes from cooking,” and notes that how you cook and eat, and how you feed your neighbors defines who you are.
The lemon meringue pie-making process took several hours. After the rolling, mixing, beating, cooking, and cooling, and well past the children’s bedtime, the tangy dessert was ready to eat. We gathered around the hearth and ate rich heaven. I had not eaten homemade lemon meringue pie since I was a child, and may I say, it was an awakening. That a mere taste would have such power of reference was profound.
My mom was asleep by this time, but the next day I offered rather casually, “Would you like a piece of lemon meringue pie?” I’ll tell you what, the sight, smell, and taste of that pie was a trifecta which broke right through her dementia and she positively glowed like a lemon. “This is delicious!”
I asked if she knew what it was and she called it by name. She proceeded to have a long, lucid conversation with me about her mother, her children, and her grandchildren. And as providence would have it, this day was her mother’s birthday. “She’s looking down on us from heaven,” she murmured, scraping the last bit of lemon filling from her plate.
It’s a wonder how my mom’s lemon meringue pie, circa 1977, Cochise County, Arizona, and my sister’s and my 2012 renditions à la Amsterdam and Oregon all imprint such similar trails of crumbs, caches of flavor, in the brain. In forty years, my older daughter will say to my younger, you need to make lemon meringue pie for mom.
Grandma’s Never-Fail Pie Crust
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups shortening
5 tablespoons water 1 tablespoon vinegar
Mix egg, vinegar and water, add to dry ingredients and shortening (mixed). Take enough for one shell at a time and roll out. Makes 4 or 5 crusts.
Lemon Meringue Pie
from Better Homes and Gardens
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups water
3 slightly beaten egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter, cut up
1/2 – 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
1/3 cup lemon juice
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon lemon juice
6 tablespoons sugar
1. Prepare Baked Pastry Crust. In a medium saucepan stir together the 1-1/2 cups sugar, the cornstarch, and flour; gradually stir in water. Bring to boiling, stirring constantly. Reduce heat; cook and stir over medium heat for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Gradually stir about 1 cup of the hot mixture into beaten egg yolks; pour yolk mixture into remaining hot mixture in saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil; cook for 2 minutes more, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in butter and shredded lemon peel. Slowly stir in 1/3 cup lemon juice. Keep filling warm while preparing the meringue.
2. For meringue, in a large mixing bowl beat egg whites and 1 teaspoon lemon juice with an electric mixer on medium speed about 1 minute or until soft peaks form. Gradually add 6 tablespoons sugar, beating on high speed about 4 minutes or until stiff peaks form and sugar dissolves. Pour warm filling into cooled crust. Immediately spread meringue over filling, carefully sealing to edge of crust to prevent shrinkage*. Bake in a 350 degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Cool on rack for 1 hour. Chill 3 to 6 hours before serving. Makes 8 servings.