Many family historians know that recording your family history does not only include recording birth dates and death dates of all our relatives. It’s also important to remember what happened in their life in between the dashes… who they were, what they valued, and what they loved to do.
On my mom’s side of the family, spending time in the kitchen has always brought my family together. When I was young, cooking wasn’t a chore. It was a time to spend with my mom, my Nana, my aunt and my cousins, and occasionally my uncle and my Papa. It was a time to talk and learn and laugh. Almost everyone perfected their favorite recipe: Papa made his peanut brittle, my aunt Pat loved peach cobbler, my mom baked excellent bread and coffeecakes, my uncle George cooked bean soup, and I made speedy brownies. Especially during the holidays, the kitchen was always full of happy cooks.
One of my Nana’s many talents was baking the perfect homemade pie. I know that everyone thinks that their grandma is the best baker in town, but Nana’s pies were truly the best pies around. I’ve never really eaten a pie that can rival it.
Surprisingly, my Nana, Millie Drake, didn’t learn how to bake from her mother. She actually learned to cook and bake from her father-in-law, Charles Drake. Charles had lost his father when he was a child, and lost his mother when he was a young adult, so he probably learned how to cook on his own. Nana grew up in town with many siblings, and her mother always took care of the cooking on her own. When Nana and Papa got married, Nana quickly had to learn how to cook and help manage her father-in-law’s farm. I’m not sure exactly where she learned how to bake a pie, but it was likely from him.
Being connected to the farm meant that there was always plenty of fruit and berries to make into pies. After many years of practice, she had perfected her pie crust. In our family, it was said that you could either be a bread maker or a pie maker. It was hard to get both perfect. If your hands were used to kneading bread, you’d tend to knead the pie crust dough too much and it would be tough. If you excelled at making pie crusts, you would probably under-knead the bread dough. (I’m trying to excel at both, but I’m not sure how well I’ll do! I need many more years of practice.)
Here’s Nana’s recipe for her pie crust and apple pie. Like many older recipes, it’s not something that you can make just from following the recipe. Her written recipes are usually sparse on directions, and just rely on background knowledge. I learned to make the pie crust by watching how Nana’s hands carefully folded the ingredients together, and listening to her reasons for adjusting the measurements for one thing or another. Things like the weather can affect how much milk to add, so you have to watch the dough and constantly adjust. You can’t just mix the flour and shortening, you need to cut the shortening into the flour until it’s crumbly. You can’t mix too much, otherwise it doesn’t stick together well. Likewise, her “recipe” for apple pie filling doesn’t include any directions, just ingredients. And even the measurements would change from one recipe card to another! Most of the spices were adjusted to taste. A good cook can always rely on instinct.
Nana was well-known in our town for her homemade pies. Nana and her friend Jan Campbell used to make dozens of pies for Genoa’s Pioneer Day in August. The pies would be sold at the pie sale. When I was young, I remember going to Mrs. Campbell’s house the day before the sale. Her large kitchen was filled with friends and family making pie crust, cutting fruit, assembling pies, or tending the oven. The pie-making extravaganza was something I looked forward to every year, but it was an exhausting day of baking. I’m sure Mrs. Campbell, my mom, and Nana were relieved when they finally retired from doing the pie sale.
Nana’s pies could bring the family together. Most Sundays when I was growing up, my family would get together for a meal. My aunt and her family lived next door, and my Nana and Papa lived close by, so it was easy to see each other often. Nana would make some kind of dessert for Sunday dinner… usually a pie, but sometimes Mississippi mud pie or berry crisp. If it was July, she’d make a pie out of the black raspberries that grew in our backyard. If it was fall, we’d get apples from Edward’s Orchard and we’d have an apple pie. My uncle used to work in the Department of Agriculture in South Carolina, and he gave her a recipe for peach pie that he’d acquired from a local peach farmer. Sometimes she’d get Door County cherries to fill her pies. It was always fresh fruit, and it was always delicious! We’d also have a whole spread of pies for Thanksgiving… Apple Cranberry, Mincemeat, and of course Pumpkin! My Papa had his own special way of mixing up the pumpkin filling.
Whenever I make a pie, I think fondly of Nana and how she loved to share the sweetness of life with others. Nana passed away last summer. We ate the last pie that she made at Thanksgiving last year. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be making the pies. I’m thankful for all her life lessons, and for teaching me how to make something sweet for those I love. These are traditions that I hope to keep alive with my children someday.
Rolling out the dough for one of the pies this year.