A few weeks ago my parents celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. If you count the 5 years they knew each other before they got married, that’s a pretty awesome amount of love. It’s also a little scary. Zilla and I are only on year 5.
I happened to call my grandma the day of. “It’s you parent’s anniversary isn’t it?”
“It is,” I said. At her age, it really was good of her to remember.
“I didn’t call or send a card,” she said. “But I suppose they will forgive me. It was a wonderful wedding. I remember it. I was there.”
And for the first time I realized something that has been obvious but, I’ve just never thought of before: My grandfather was there too. They were in the middle of, or just through a divorce.
“I never liked your meatloaf, anyway,” was apparently what he said as he walked out the door.
That was thirty years ago. I’ve only met the man once, when I was about four. I remember running through an old abandoned grave yard in North Florida with his new younger-than-me son, by his new younger-than-my-mom wife. My “uncle” and I were hunting for tiny, tiny frogs. For years afterward, if my mom talked about that trip, it was to say that the new-wife didn’t cook.
When Zilla and I got married, one of our friends gave us a book called The 5 Languages of Love. It is thin and purple and covered in cursive writing. I think there is a couple, holding hands, walking into the sunset. I hate this kind of book. It has sold 5 million copies.
And yet here it is, still, reminding me of important lessons. People show their love in different ways. Some people need to give and get gifts. Some people need space. Some people need to hold hands. The book didn’t say this, I do: some people need to cook.
When I think of my mom, and I think of love, I think of lemon pie (or perhaps her version of my grandmother’s spaghetti, but that’s another post.)
Last week I made a lemon pie for Zilla. I made a graham cracker crust, like my mom always did. I crushed the graham crackers and mixed them with melted butter and white granulated sugar until it was the consistency of wet sand and thought of my mom.
Making lemon meringue pie with my mom is one of my earliest memories. So early, that all of my lemon meringue pie memories involve standing on chairs. I pulled out the breakfast table chair to get to the cookbook above the fridge; I dragged the chair over to the stove to stand on it; I stood on the chair, barefoot, to stir the lemon custard.
Most of the pie making, for me, was about waiting for the custard to get thick. “Is it thick now, Mom?” “Mom, how about now?” “Is this a simmer?” “What about now?” “Mom! Is this thick?”
“Not yet, honey.” “Keep stirring.”
I wore a ruffled half-apron, which was meant to go around the waist, tied halter-top style over what would one day become boobs. I dripped blobs of custard onto the floor when I held up my wooden spoon.
My mom and I used the Betty Crocker—or maybe it was the Better Homes and Gardens—Cookbook, covered in what I would now call Italian tablecloth plain, that, I think, my mom got when she and my dad were married. The recipe for lemon meringue pie was discolored and covered in splotches and glued to and ripped off from its neighbors. I liked this. I could always find it without having to use the index.
My mom always made her lemon meringue pie tarter than the recipe called for—more lemon juice, almost double, and more lemon zest. I don’t remember my mom’s face, or her expression, while we were cooking. I remember her hands, grating zest, cracking eggs.
I was so busy watching them, trying to learn.
This makes me a little sad. People’s hands always do. The shape of their fingers and the beds of their nails are almost as personal as their smile.
When the mixture was finally thick enough, she slowly poured in the yolks in a ribbon. All at once, the custard turned yellow, like the late afternoon sunlight, and the kitchen smelled like lemon.
I started off saying we made lemon meringue pie, but at the standing-on-chairs-age, the truth is probably more like mom made lemon meringue pie despite me. She made them for the people she loved. For my dad, and for his best friend, for whom lemon meringue pie was the only exception to a no-sweets rule. She made them for my birthday. She made them when my grandparents—my father’s parents—came to visit. I wonder now, if she was ever making them for herself?
Or if I’ve ever made a pie just for me.
I know my mom’s answer to that, or I think I do. What she loved was not so much lemon meringue, but chocolate cream pie, the kind my grandma used to make for my mom’s birthday, when she was little, and occasionally, still does.
I remember a children’s book my mom used to read me called Angel Food Cake for Angela. Angel food cake was not something my mom made, but it was something she loved. In the book, Angela’s mom wrote secret love notes for her daughter in the flour she used to make the cake. My mom used to put real love notes for my sister and me in our lunch boxes. I always had the idea that this was because my grandma wrote love notes in the flour she used for my mom’s chocolate cream pie crust as well.
Meringue comes after the custard. My mother’s meringue is the best I’ve ever had. One day, when I was about seven, I turned on the electric egg beater, which weighed a ton and used to belong to my great grandmother, who was from Iowa via Ireland, and let a lock of my then much blonder hair fall in the beater. I got the whole two foot long lank zipped up to my scalp in a second. It looked like my hair was in a giant curler, and it scared me, and it hurt.
My mom ran over and pulled the cord out (which was ancient and ungrounded) and kissed me and released the beaters form the heavy handle motor. She sat me down on the chair properly and unwound my hair. Forever more, all cooking adventures required rubber bands. Which didn’t really matter, because I didn’t usually make the meringue. And mom always did after that. She had, and I suppose still does, a way with soft peaks and the texture of beaten egg whites. She can stretch out the meringue on the top of the whole pie and then pull the beaters up to let the meringue flip over so the whole surface is covered in soft little peaks, like the tops of a twenty soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones.
And when she took the pie out of the oven it was golden brown all over. My sister was so tempted she once stuck her finger right in the top.
I made Zilla a lemon meringue pie right after we met. He requested it for his birthday. I was pleased. I thought it was a choice that boded well and bespoke good taste. And, he’d never even had one like my mom made it, with extra lemon and with graham cracker crust!
So I made my first lemon meringue pie on my own. I was cooking professionally at the time—pastries no less—so this was not technically hard, but it was strange, strange to realized that this recipe was something I always made with my mom, and that even then, it had been a long time since we’d made one together. What was essentially my first recipe, even thought I knew it by heart, now seemed strange. No one made cornstarch custard pies anymore, or graham cracker crusts, or meringue topping. The recipe was dated, like wearing bell bottoms, or painting your kitchen orange.
Zilla ate half the pie. He said it was delicious. In the interest of health, he took the rest to work.
So I made this pie for this man I was newly dating and then—oh, the innocence–he came over a day or two later and announced that another woman—who I now call that bitch — had made—of all things!–a lemon meringue pie for him too.
He was elated.
Can you believe the luck, his face said. Two pies for me!
I blinked. I was not elated. This did not feel like luck. To me, this recipe, any pie, is an intimacy, a testament of love. Was he not as free he said he was? “Why,” I demanded, “is some woman making you a pie?”
“Because it’s my birthday?” he asked, though his face had changed. He didn’t know what, but he knew something was wrong.
“You don’t make a pie for someone else’s boyfriend, period.” I said, “and especially, you don’t bring it to work.”
He looked around. He looked trapped. “Yours was better.”
I kept glaring.
“And it was ugly. Her meringue was all messed up.”
Thanks, mom. I thought. And what is that fury? It was the first time I had ever felt jealous. I realized it must be true love.
I nodded. The girl moved out of town. We moved in together and got married.
Last week, six years later, I made him a second pie.
Paintings by the wonder Wayne Tiebaund. I think he likes pie too.