Since I moved out of my parents’ house, I have felt unmoored on Thanksgiving. We did not have a lot of traditions in my family of origin, but we did Thanksgiving well, and I have always felt the need to replicate it somehow. In recent years, I’ve realized that this is impossible and probably undesirable anyhow. You can’t go home again and all that. And now I have my own little family, and I want to create something new with them and for us.
But it’s not time yet for a Feast here. We have a very picky four-year-old and a one-year-old and we don’t love having lots of friends in our house at one time, but we don’t live near any relatives and —
I hold a lot of hope for proper Thanksgiving Feasts and Gatherings with Joy and Gratitude and Community and Amazing Food, because for me this is the heart of this holiday (with my apologies to its historical origins). But not yet. In addition to being all about Joy and Gratitude and Community and Amazing Food, in fact before I am about any of those things, I am a woman and a wife and a mother and a worker in the real world. I do not have infinite resources. I am tired every day. Every day, I am, as joyfully as I can, pouring myself into my family and my community and my work.
There isn’t enough left for Grand Things. Not yet.
Let me sleep six or eight uninterrupted hours at night again first, because chronic-sleep-deprivation-will-make-anyone-a-little-cray-cray.
So each year in our recent past, when I plan our Thanksgiving, I try to consider what is most efficient. How can we get the most out of this thing, and feel like we didn’t skip it, and give our daughters some foundation for later celebrations that will be larger and more Feast-y? And how can we do that without it taking four days of cooking and cleaning and not doing anything else and spending two weeks’ grocery budget on one meal? Really. How?
This year my answer was pie.
This year I made my paternal grandmother’s, Alice’s, pumpkin chiffon pie for the first time in my life.
My mother made this pie for our family’s Thanksgiving meal for as long as I can remember. It is my pie of origin. This year I decided to do nothing else — to buy Parker House rolls and a pre-cooked turkey breast (for Heaven’s sake!) from New Seasons and steam some Brussels sprouts — but this pie. I used to be a baker, you know. Pie ought to be my thing.
In the name of efficiency, and of increasing my chances of success, I bought some pie dough from Grand Central on Monday. It came frozen, two 10-inch discs rolled into a cylinder. By Tuesday evening they were defrosted, malleable. I fitted them into pie pans and somewhat awkwardly crimped the edges. When I worked at Grand Central, I made hundreds if not thousands of pounds of pie dough, and crimped hundreds of pastry circles into pans…I figured I was rusty, but I had it.
I blind-baked the pie shells. I forgot weights. The shells sagged beyond rescue in their pans. I laughed off my mistake, sprinkled the cooked dough with cinnamon sugar and ate slices that evening and in the middle of the night after getting the baby back to sleep again.
On Wednesday I cooked two more pie shells, and painted them with melted dark chocolate. I made a double batch of Alice’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie filling. I called my mother when I had questions.
On Wednesday night, I tucked the pies into my refrigerator and said a little pastry prayer. They were my Thanksgiving. I felt hopeful.
On Thursday, I cut into the uglier of the two pies for breakfast. I whipped heavy cream. I let Finch pour in a whisper of vanilla. I admit it was surprisingly thrilling to break into pie in the morning in our quiet kitchen. There was no gigantic bird brining in our refrigerator. We did not have to hurry through breakfast so that I could start mixing bread or chopping vegetables. There was just this pie, on Thanksgiving morning. And since I was the grown-up, I could eat it for breakfast if I wanted to. And I did want to.
I chopped up some candied pecans that my mother had mailed to me, and I sprinkled them over the whipped cream on top of my slice of pie. I poured a cup of coffee. I sat with my family and with this pie, this family recipe, that I had finally made.
…and it was okay. It was okay pie. It wasn’t at all bad pie. But it wasn’t very good, either.
The recipe is fine, but my execution of it happened to not be fine. I used my own pumpkin puree. I was so jazzed up about it, too. I had grown these pumpkins, grown them in my own dirt from seeds, and then I made them into pie. I had three Sugar Pie pumpkins which I roasted and then passed through the food mill. They did not, did not, have the same flavor that canned pumpkin has. So my pie wasn’t very pumpkin-y at all. Not tasting very pumpkin-y is pretty much the death knell for pumpkin pie.
I ate that first piece, and so did my husband, nice guy that he is. But by the time we had eaten our dinner and given the kids small cups of whipped cream with sprinkles for dessert and washed them off kind of and put them to bed, by the time I had hoped we would have some warm spiced cider and another slice of pie together before tackling the dishes and putting ourselves to bed at last, by that time, neither of us wanted this pie anymore.
I made some snappy, alienating remarks and then a cried a little while I did the dishes. I cried because of the Holiday Crazies and because I had made a pie that wasn’t very good, and I am supposed to be a baker, or once was a baker, and what the hell if I can’t make a pie. I cried while I did the dishes because I am a mother of two little kids and as such am tired most of the time. I cried because my creativity in general is stalled and I’m frustrated, and because I finally made my grandmother’s pie — the one that my family ate for years at meals I remember fondly — and it wasn’t very good.
When I finished the dishes I took one-and-two-thirds pumpkin chiffon pies out to our compost bins and chucked them in. I’m so glad the City has a food composting program.
And do you know what I am going to do tomorrow? I’m gonna go buy me a pumpkin pie, and I’m gonna eat it for breakfast.
And next year, I am going to make this one again, and it’s going to be better.