My favorite food in the whole world (well, in my world) is pumpkin pie. I like lobster, steak, shrimp, a really good hamburger, German chocolate cake, and black raspberry pie, but if I could only have one thing to eat for the rest of my life, it would be pumpkin pie. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of it, and I like my pumpkin pie plain—no whipped cream, no ice cream—just pie.
However, I am a bit of a snob about pumpkin pie, because my pumpkin pie has to be made using the Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe. And I think if one is going to use their recipe, one should also use their pumpkin, so for me it’s pumpkin pie made with Libby’s pumpkin following the Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe. And not Libby’s Pumpkin Pie Mix. Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin! You have to add the eggs, sugar, spices, and evaporated milk yourself.
You might remember that for years, the pie recipe was on the inside of the Libby’s label. (I’m showing my age here!) You had to remove the label to get to the recipe for their Famous Pumpkin Pie. They finally wised up and put the recipe on the outside of the label on the back of the can. Improvement Number One.
Anyway, this means that I never order pumpkin pie in restaurants any more. I used to, but I was always disappointed. When you eat out, most of the time, a chef prepares your food, and chefs want to make signature dishes or dishes that stand out from other chefs’ dishes. That’s why we now have dishes such as Truffle Mac and Cheese and Orange Ricotta Pancakes. Chefs have created Chai Pumpkin Pie and Praline Cream Pumpkin Pie. Cooks, not chefs, know that great pumpkin pie doesn’t need gimmicks. It only needs Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin and the Libby’s Famous Pumpkin Pie recipe.
I had my first pumpkin pie-making experience as my sister Kay’s “assistant” two days
before Thanksgiving in 1972. By that time Kay and I had started contributing to our extended family’s big Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners, where all the adults brought a dish or two, while Aunt Alice always made the turkey, ham, dressing, and gravy. My specialty at that time was a cranberry Jell-O salad which contained ground, fresh cranberries, crushed pineapple, chopped apple, orange juice and a little orange peel, celery, walnuts, and Jell-O. My mouth is watering just thinking about it, but there was always a lot leftover. Hmmm. My sister had taken over the pumpkin pie-making duties from our grandmother who at 73 still made the mince and the apple pies.
I happened to stop by Kay’s apartment on the evening she was making the pumpkin pies, and although I had never baked a pie, as a bride of just six months, it seemed like a good time to start. Kay said, “I’ll make the crusts here at the counter, and you make the filling at the table. The ingredients are on it already. Don’t forget to double it.” I swear those were her exact words.
We talked and laughed and worked away, and in no time Kay was pouring the filling into her lovely crusts. “Gees, this filling is so thick,” Kay said off-handedly. “Mine’s always thinner.”
“Maybe you don’t beat the eggs as much,” I offered, as if I knew anything about it.
Kay popped the pies into the oven. We started to clean up the kitchen, and Kay went over to the table to gather up bowls, mixer beaters, measuring spoons—things to be washed. “Where’s that other big can of pumpkin?” she said.
“I used it. You said to double it,” I said.
If you’ve ever seen anyone fly from a table to an oven, you will never forget it. “You
don’t double the pumpkin!” she said, obviously agitated. “With the big cans, you double all the other ingredients, to make two pies. The recipe is for one pie using half of the pumpkin in a big can!” She said this while pulling the pies out of the oven.
As she set the pies on the stovetop, I said, “Well, that’s stupid. I thought you meant to double, you know, double everything.” I could tell she wasn’t happy, and I could see she was calculating how much damage I’d done. She was working out how she could salvage the pies.
“So you put in enough pumpkin for four pies. Doubling the rest of the ingredients was enough for two pies,” she said while pouring and scraping the filling out of the crusts and into a large bowl.
“Yeah, that sounds right, but it’s still stupid,” I said. “Why were there two big cans of pumpkin anyway?”
“Because I’m going to make two more pies tomorrow to take to my in-laws’ Thanksgiving dinner,” she said.
“Oh,” was all I could muster.
“What time is it?” Kay asked looking at the kitchen clock. “Okay, you’ve got time to get to the grocery store. We’ll need two more cans of evaporated milk and eggs. I’ll make two more crusts.” The grocery store in our town closed at 9:00 p.m. in those days.
I did as I was told. Kay got everything straightened out, and a couple of hours later, she had four pies. I was never asked to help make pies again. For years the pumpkin pie story was told at every Thanksgiving dinner and occasionally on Christmas Eve. Eventually, Libby’s changed the recipe on the big can to use all the pumpkin and make two pies. I’m thinking that I wasn’t the only one to have made that mistake. Improvement Number Two.
Now, as good a pie-maker as my sister is, her pumpkin pie was served one Thanksgiving in the early 1990s, and the first person to take a taste made a face and said, “Ew!” Kay’s head jerked up, and she said, “Sugar! Oh, my gosh! I forgot to put in the sugar!” She knew the problem immediately! People were struggling to swallow their first bite of the sugarless pie or looking for a place to spit it out. Everyone, that is, except 10-year old Ian who had a sugar allergy. He had never had pumpkin pie (and very few other desserts), and he thought it was delicious! The remainder of that pie went home with him. That no-sugar pumpkin pie story immediately joined the double-ingredient pumpkin pie story as a family Thanksgiving staple.
Now here is the tragedy, at least in my holiday world. I now make the pumpkin pies which I love so dearly for my family, and I have finally reconciled myself to the fact that I will go to my grave without ever making a pumpkin pie with a pretty crust. I come from a long line of wonderful pie makers. According to Mother her grandmother, my great grandmother, was a wonderful pie maker. I know, first hand, that my grandmother was a stellar pie baker.
Sadly, my mother was a pretty lousy cook. One of her oft-uttered quotes at the table was, “That’s not burnt. It’s just a little extra brown.” We all knew it was burnt, but we had to eat it anyway. However, Mom was an excellent pie maker. When Dad would take us kids blackberry, or even better, black raspberry, picking, my mother always created lovely and delicious two-crust pies from the berries leftover from her jelly making, one of the other things she excelled at in the kitchen.
One reason that Mother was a lousy cook was that she could always find something more interesting to do than stir a pot or watch what she was cooking. There were two kitchen windows near the stove which looked out at a wonderful recreation area and playground. While standing at the stove, she could look out her side, kitchen window and watch children swinging, teeter-tottering, sliding, playing tetherball or whirling on the merry-go-round. She might watch a family or an organization picnic in the shelter the Kiwanis Club had built.
Taking a few steps to the right, she’d be at the kitchen sink looking through her front, kitchen window, where she could watch a tennis match or two different baseball games. She could watch people walking along the brick sidewalk that was in front of our home where the street was blocked off and was never paved for a block and a half on either side of our house.
Some of those walkers would be friends who might stop by for a chat. Sometimes Mom would hail a walking friend to come up on the porch to discuss the latest project of their mission circle at church or the Civic League. Mom could also watch tugboats with loaded or empty barges going up and down the Ohio River, or she might watch a train across the river on the Ohio side pulling dozens of cars. It wasn’t so much that Mom was easily distracted, but she had so many interesting things going on outside her windows, much more interesting than the dinner she was cooking.
Finally, the phone was on the side wall just behind where Mom would stand at the stove. Imagine how tempting it was to talk to her mother or sister or a friend while she was stirring a pot. Imagine how easy it was to stop stirring to check her calendar or untangle the phone cord or just sit on the nearby step stool to take a load off her feet for a few minutes—all to the detriment of the pot of chili or slumgullion on the stove.
Here’s how terrible a cook Mom was. She made up her own spaghetti recipe! After having a taste from a plate of spaghetti my dad had ordered on one of the few times they ate out, Mom decided she could make it. Spaghetti became Mom’s quick, go-to recipe. She put the water on to boil for the spaghetti. While the water came to a boil, she browned some ground beef. After she threw the spaghetti into the pot, she put a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup into the skillet with the meat. As the spaghetti cooked, she’d stir the “sauce” and supervise one of us kids as we set the table. In no time the spaghetti was drained and on our plates covered with meat in tomato soup. My sister was the only one who wouldn’t eat it. She ate butter on her spaghetti. Ironically, she ended up marrying into a wonderful Italian family of many great cooks, and she now makes spaghetti sauce to die for! The rest of us ate Mom’s nasty concoction. Mom could, however, make great pies!
And I can make great pumpkin-pie filling, thanks to Libby’s, but I cannot master the art of rolling out a pie crust. I have read about pie-crust making. I have watched videos on pie-crust making. I have been making pumpkin pies for forty years now, and every crust I have ever made has to be patched beyond belief to fill the pie pan and cover all the cracks and gaps. It is exasperating.
AND I never make just one pie. I always make two (might as well use one big can of Libby’s, right?). So I get two chances for a decent-looking crust every time I make pumpkin pie, and it doesn’t matter. The crusts on both pies look like crap! I hasten to add that the crusts taste great. They are just unsightly, and it is sooooo frustrating. I make pumpkin pies (incidentally, the only variety of pie I’ve ever made) at least twice a year, and I’ve made them up to four times a year. It doesn’t matter. Every single crust I’ve ever made was ugly—tasty but ugly.
Here’s the evolution of my latest attempt, basically a recreation of every other pumpkin pie crust I’ve ever made.
It starts out easily enough. I mix up the dough and mold it into a ball.
Sometimes I chill it for a while; sometimes I don’t. Doesn’t matter. I start rolling, and the disaster begins. I can’t get it to come out nice and round, and I could live with that if only it didn’t fall apart when I try to transfer the crust to the pie pan.
Often I gather the crust up again and reform it in a ball and start over, sometimes more than once! It’s enough to make a grown woman cry in frustration.
That doesn’t help either. As I pick up the crust to put it in the pie pan, it begins to fall apart. By the time the poor thing hits the pie pan, it looks like it ran into an atomic bomb.
I decided to abandon the crust-making process about a decade ago. I bought those Pillsbury crusts from the dairy case. I have friends who rave about them. You open the box, unroll the dough, and slap it in the pie pan. Oh, it looked so pretty—tasted pretty much like cardboard, but it was attractive. My family insisted that I return to the “ugly but delicious,” homemade crusts.
I have become pretty good at the art of pie-crust patching. Sometimes I can just pinch a crack in the crust back together. Sometimes I squeeze off part of the overhanging crust, press it between my fingers and place it where a big hole in the crust shouldn’t be. Sometimes I take some overhanging dough, roll it into a small ball, and roll it out again before putting it over a large gaping tear in the crust.
Eventually, all of the cracks and holes and gaps are patched. I pinch the crust around the edge of the pan. Voila! Frankenstein pie crusts!
I pour the filling into the Frankenstein crust and pop the pies into the oven to bake. Fortunately, the filling covers a lot of ugly. They actually look pretty good.
Most people will never know that all of that pinching and patching has even transpired. The pies will taste great. Every so often the eater will get a little thicker piece of crust where a hole was patched. More crust is not a bad thing.
I will continue to make pumpkin pies with unsightly crusts, and watch my sister bang out perfect ones, making it look as easy as walking to the mailbox. I’m finally at peace with that. I know that at age 70, I will never attempt a two-crust pie. I’m having tremors just thinking of that horror. I’m finally content with this ugly-crust situation, but I did have a twinge of jealousy as I watched my sister roll out two beautiful pie crusts this past Christmas season without any do-overs or patching.
In addition to never mastering the art of creating lovely pie crusts, I’ve also accepted the fact that I will not be leading the charge to outlaw automatic and semi-automatic weapons across the United States, will not be writing a hit song for Bette Midler, will not be running a full marathon, and will not be shooting a round of golf below par. That’s all regrettable, maybe a little sad, but none of those things results in a delicious pumpkin pie to enjoy, ugly crust or not! And that’s a very good thing!