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My mother's kind of pumpkin pie

A new pumpkin pie recipe was no match for a family favorite.

By Mollie Cox Bryan / November 19, 2008

While trying out a new pumpkin pie recipe for a cookbook I was writing, I was suddenly struck by a feeling of betrayal. For the recipe I was using was not my mother's masterfully prepared pie that I always loved and anticipated at Thanksgiving. Even though she encouraged culinary exploration of a sort, certain recipes were deemed unchangeable in her kitchen. Pumpkin pie is one of them. Yet, here I was making a "spicy" pumpkin pie with brown sugar, molasses, and half-and-half, ingredients she would not recognize as part of the recipe pantheon. The spicy pumpkin pie gave me pause. What is it about my mother's pumpkin pie that I hold so dear?

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My mother was always the pie baker. Even when she had help, she insisted on making the pie filling. Mom leaned against the counter, turned the mixer on, and I'd watch that frothy deep orange mixture swirling around in the white Pyrex mixing bowl decorated with olive green daisies. She always ended up smeared in pumpkin. We'd all be engrossed in our own task – peeling potatoes and chestnuts – when all of a sudden, she'd squeal, which would prompt my Aunt Mart to burst into giggles over the splatters of pumpkin everywhere and Mom's lack of eye-hand coordination. Was it because of her refusal to wear eyeglasses or her weariness? After all, she worked as a maid at a hotel all day long and then came home to bake her holiday meals.

Aunt Mart, Mom's oldest and dearest friend, sat at the table with the rolling pin, making the dough or patting it into the deep pie dish. Half-finished glasses of Coke and Fresca were scattered around the counters. Once, their nighttime pie baking went on too late and they dozed off, listening to Herb Alpert on the stereo, each curled up in a quilt on their own ends of the couch. They woke up to burning pumpkin pies at 2 in the morning. Another time, Mom's lack of coordination gave way in the early morning hours and she dropped several pies all over the floor.

Watching the thick, smooth, orange filling in the pie shell go into the oven was fascinating to me. I anticipated the changing of the liquid filling into the solid custard and longed for the first warm piece. Warm pumpkin baking scents filled our mobile home. I still think of it as one of the most all-time comforting smells. Mom sacrificed one pie every year to her helpers. We cut into it with abandonment – we wanted it warm and sloppy, with Cool Whip melting over it, often on Thanksgiving morning.

For years, Mom made several types of pies at Thanksgiving to appease different members of our family: mincemeat for my great-grandmother, apple for my grandmother, custard for my father, and maybe two pumpkin pies. When the passing years took away my grandmothers and my parents divorced, my mother stopped making any pie but pumpkin – her favorite.

Since then, Thanksgiving and pie only meant one kind: pumpkin, which was a freeing experience for Mom. Each year, she made about six or eight pies, which her dinner guests ate happily, for they are not just good, but extraordinary.