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by Margaret Cullison


Food comes immediately to mind when reflecting on the holidays of my childhood. I remember sitting by a window near the kitchen stove, basking in the warmth of the winter sun behind me while playing with my most prized present that year, an oil painting set. Not old enough to be expected to help, I watched my mother preparing our Christmas dinner and asked her more than once how much longer until the special meal was ready.

Dad liked a bowl of mixed nuts in their shells — walnuts, almonds, hazel nuts and pecans — for snacks during the holidays. Sometimes we had Brazil nuts, their exotic shells so dark and oddly shaped that I thought them too strange to eat.

Mom would put the nut bowl in the library, with nut crackers and pickers at the ready. We children enjoyed the laborious task of cracking nuts, picking out the tasty meats and eating them. Pieces of shell must have been scattered on the floor, but we lived in a household where some messiness related to eating was tolerated.

Mother wasn’t big on desserts and didn’t serve them after every meal. She paid more attention to the savory dishes she created, although she was fond of pies. People usually excel at cooking what they like best to eat, and her pies proved that point. Pie almost always finished off our holiday meals.

Except for one unfortunate year, when Mom steamed carrot pudding on the stove for hours and served it with hard sauce. I didn’t like the dense sticky pudding or the sweet sauce. This must have been the family consensus, because the carrot pudding never showed up again.

Pumpkin pie is surely the most popular dessert served for Thanksgiving dinner in our country. The recipe Mom favored came from Bernice Lewis. A widow older by some years, she had been Mom’s closest friend from the time she first came to Harlan as a young bride. Bernice had an especially jolly sense of humor, and Mom loved to laugh.

When the young man I later married made his first visit to Harlan, Bernice was invited for dinner on a late summer’s evening. Mother served one of her crisp lettuce salads with lemon and oil dressing, garnished with capers. When she passed a plate of salad to David, he said, without hesitation, “Looks like a mouse has been running through this.” Bernice giggled, as did the rest of us, and David scored an early point towards winning my family’s acceptance.

I’ve served this pumpkin pie to my own family each Thanksgiving for years. My sons still expect it when they come to my house for that feast day. I usually add a little more pumpkin to fill a 10-inch pie plate, so there’s some leftover pie for breakfast the next morning.

      Bernice’s Pumpkin Pie
      1 ½ cups canned pumpkin (more can be added, if desired)
      1 cup evaporated milk
      ½ cup brown sugar
      ½ cup white sugar
      2 eggs, beaten
      1 teaspoon cinnamon
      ¼ teaspoon allspice
      ¼ teaspoon cloves

Mix spices with sugars and add to the beaten eggs. Add remaining ingredients. Line a large pie pan with unbaked crust and brush with egg white. Add the filling.

Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees on bottom oven rack. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Move pie to middle rack and bake for an hour or until the filling puffs up and center is set.

Other than my two grandmothers, we didn’t have any relatives living nearby. Most of my parents’ families had moved away from Iowa. This was not the norm in our small town of Danish and German families whose gatherings ran to thirty or forty family members. It made me feel slightly deprived not to enjoy the closeness of a large family like my friends did.

But my parents had developed a circle of friends with whom we got together for family dinners. Sometimes we shared a holiday meal with one of these compatible families, either at our house or theirs.

Company for Thanksgiving dinner called for a second pie, and it usually was pecan. Mom’s recipe came from the Red Oak Express, her hometown newspaper. She went back to visit her parents as long as they lived there, until 1940, so I suppose she acquired the recipe before that time. Mom spoke often of her pleasant childhood in Red Oak, and it seemed almost an ideal place to me.

Both pumpkin and pecan pies are best with home made crust. Although my mother never would have used one herself, a ready-made crust can be substituted, which makes these pies even easier to prepare for a harried holiday meal. Serve them with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

In her cookbook, Mom calls this pecan pie an “excellent recipe!”

      Red Oak Express Pecan Pie
      3 eggs
      1 cup light corn syrup
      2 tablespoons flour
      ½ cup brown sugar
      Pinch of salt
      2/3 tablespoon melted butter
      1 teaspoon vanilla
      1 cup pecan meats

Beat the eggs and stir in the corn syrup. Mix the flour, sugar and salt together; add to the eggs and syrup. Then add the butter, vanilla and nut meats. Pour into an 8-inch unbaked pie crust.

Bake pie at 325-350 degrees for an hour or until the center is firm.

Mom’s Note: Use 1½ recipes for a larger pie.

Page Two of Holiday Desserts>>

©2005 Margaret Cullison for SeniorWomenWeb
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