Pies comfort me; they devastate me. Fond memories of days long gone and painful recollections of days that can’t be forgotten loom in the simple ingredients—butter, flour, Crisco, ice water, sugar, milk, apples or peaches or chocolate—that make a pie, well, a pie.
Certain pies intimidate me; other pies scare me. How many people will admit to such a thing? Do I have a case of “pie-phobia?” It’s ludicrous, I know. I can picture it now:
Pie Phobia: symptoms include intense fear of failing to make a perfect crust; frequent loss of sleep over what it means to “scald” milk. Expect the potential avoidance of slicing pie lest the ideal slice not appear on the plate.
In case you haven’t noticed, pies accentuate my anxious nature. I come from a long line of accomplished home cooks—and pies were the specialty of the women on both sides of my family. But there’s a particular pie my Grandmother Hildegarde used to make that evokes all sorts of emotions within me. The early memories I have of her pie started out like you’d expect—happy, pleasant.
However, these positive memories vanished when I was about fifteen years old and witnessed my grandmother lose herself over a piece of Black Bottom Pie served at my family’s annual Thanksgiving Day lunch.
The pie, a classic Southern dessert, has a chocolate crust that cradles a chocolate and vanilla custard filling. As if two types of custard weren’t enough, the pie is garnished with fresh whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
Hildegarde spent the night before Thanksgiving Day preparing the pie with the culinary fearlessness that comes with years of experience in the kitchen. My father once told me that she would frequently stay up all night baking desserts for special occasions and holidays. Hildegarde would make a dessert again and again until she felt it was perfect. No one could rival her Black Bottom Pie.
When Thanksgiving Day arrived, my aunts, uncles, brother, parents, and grandparents gathered around Hildegarde’s formal dining room table. She was a traditional woman when it came to hosting a dinner or lunch. For my grandmother, only the best would do. She served the pie on an antique silver platter reserved for holiday desserts. As she sliced the pie, I noticed that it was soupy. The runny custard slipped through my fork when I attempted to take a bite. I grabbed a spoon near my cloth napkin, and I tried again. I gagged at its taste. I watched my family taste the pie, and I saw their faces fall into the same contorted grimace that must have been on my face.
Hildegarde had mistaken the canister of salt kept in her pantry for the canister of sugar when cooking the custard filling. The sweetness of the whipped cream combined with the boldness of the chocolate was overshadowed by her salty mistake.
“It’s spoon pie, Mom. We’ll call it spoon pie instead of Black Bottom Pie,” my uncle said.
Hildegarde didn’t respond. Instead, she put a small piece of pie to her lips and recoiled.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t know what happened.”
“It’s ok, Mom,” my dad said. “We’re all full, anyway.”
My grandmother quickly cleared the table. I thought I heard her weep quietly in the kitchen. We never mentioned the incident to her again.
That Thanksgiving was the last time I ever had a piece of my Grandmother’s Black Bottom Pie. Her pie changed, and she did, too. She soon forgot who she was, who we were, and her Black Bottom Pie.
Twelve years passed, and I discovered her Black Bottom Pie recipe card in the family cookbook I’ve been sifting through for the last few months. I studied the recipe. I cursed the recipe and its ambiguity. How am I supposed to know how to scald milk? How do I tell when the custard is set? What do you mean, “one 9-inch pie crust?” Where’s the recipe?
I realize that there’s this little thing called, “Google.” It’s not the same, though, as asking a real woman to give you her tips for the no-fail pie crust. Google can’t tell you how it feels to test custard for the right consistency.
I spent an entire Saturday baking Black Bottom Pie.
Heavenly. I’d forgotten how rich and incredible this pie was. The only downside was my custard fell when I sliced it. My pie wasn’t flawless, and I’m ok with that. There’s more to life than crafting the perfect pie.
From Emily Hull at Meringue and Memories.com