Comfort Food

The annual mega-caloric holiday baking frenzy is over and I am left with one fruitcake, a few extra pounds, and half a jar of shelled pecans.

Every year, I swear that this will be the last time I send seasonal goodies to the several people who don’t appreciate my time and efforts (there are, of course, many more who absolutely do, and I’ll probably be struggling to get out those final pans of cookies and fruitcakes on my deathbed).  But like a migrating wildebeest, I seem unable to break from the ancestral path.  The holidays activate my normally dormant baking gene, and now, a month into the New Year, those lingering pecans still beckon, although from a slightly different quarter.  They whisper that they have it in them to make one more pecan pie.pecan jar

Pecan pie is a quintessential expression of Southern holiday cheer, with a calorie count roughly equivalent to the molecular density of a neutron star. For that reason, I normally forgo the pleasure in favor of lighter Southern treats, like blackberry cobbler.  But the discovery of a new recipe—the latest one features a hit of bourbon—can lower my resistance dangerously.  And the territory ahead is fraught with more than subsequent, unpleasant moments with the bathroom scales.  Personal history is where you find it—even unexpectedly in a back issue of Southern Living.

Pecan pie was one of the holiday necessities of my younger years.  My dad, a man of monastically simple tastes (The only jewelry he ever wore besides his wedding band were several sets of steel cuff-link and tie bar sets.  And to my mother’s distress, he insisted on swapping the initial yellow gold wedding ring for one in white gold.), had a strange passion for something as unashamedly, exuberantly decadent as pecan pie.  When the finish of thirty years in uniform wandered him and us, a wife and two daughters, back to San Antonio and the purchase of a first house, one non-negotiable criteria for said house was the presence of pecan trees.

For those who lack the time, there is a decent commercial alternative.  At least in certain parts of Texas.

For those who lack the time, there is a decent commercial alternative. At least in certain parts of Texas.

We wound up in a modest single-story wood frame with two enormous pecan trees in the back yard.  They were a domestic variety that produced a yearly crop of large, thin shelled nuts.  Only later would I discover the rich joys of the much smaller, hard-shelled native pecans that set fruit biannually and make up in flavor for what they lack in ease of cracking (the Chinese have lately developed a taste for pecans, and their demand for large, uniform, paper shelled nuts dispensable from a vending machine might, unchecked, hazard the survival of the old ancestral trees.  So I’ve heard.).

A lot of pecan pies rose from that yearly bounty, and I ate my share, to the detriment of my adolescent waistline.  But it happened only in my teenage years that I considered the strangeness of my dad’s taste for something that his kinfolk in places like Kentucky and Tennessee were unlikely to have known.  The pecan is warmth loving, one of the iconic trees of the Deep South; pecan pie wouldn’t likely have figured on the holiday menu anywhere that gets regular snow.

I’m not sure exactly when, but my mother, a Louisiana girl, one day solved the mystery with the sort of casual revelation that comes with a delayed fuse, and is liable to explode in many unexpected directions.

She explained that only months after their marriage (c. 1948), my father had inexplicably asked her to bake him a pecan pie. Slightly mystified, she had done so; he had tasted the result, and been instantly hooked.  But only later had he clarified his request, telling her one of the few stories he ever would of his time as a POW, how one of his fellow prisoners had talked and talked as he had starved with everyone else about his mama’s pecan pie.  Starving men spend a lot of time talking about food.

My mother never learned the name or fate of that southern boy.  But after four decades of marriage, before Dad lapsed into the coma that would end three days later with his death, a dam broke.  So I learned after, names and stories never spoken in all those years tumbled out, racing against a clock that was winding down to zero.

Perhaps the name of that boy and the rest of the story were there amongst all the accumulated debris of pain and memory.  Perhaps not.  Mom listened in bewilderment, wrung out with years of care-giving, feeling that mix of relief and pity and impending loss that made it impossible to catch any of it as it floated by and vanished.

So I am left with a mystery and a jar of pecans and an untried recipe.  Calorie count aside, I do not make pecan pie lightly.

LMJ 2.6.17

PS: courtesy of Southern Living and Ms. Sylvia Sublialdea, HUNGRY.TEXAN.COM–Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie

8-10 servings

1/2 (14.1oz) package refrigerated pie crusts / 1T powdered sugar/4 lg eggs/ 1 1/2 c firmly packed light brown sugar/1/2 c butter melted and cooled to room temp/1/2 c granulated sugar/1/2 c chopped pecans/2 T all purpose flour/ 2 T milk/1 1/2 T bourbon/1 1/2 c pecan halves

Preheat oven to 325 F.  Fit pie crust into 10 in cast iron skillet. Sprinkle crust with powdered sugar.  Whisk eggs in lg bowl until foamy.  Whisk in brown sugar and next 6 ingredients.  Pour mix into pie crust and top w/ pecan halves.  Bake at 325 F for 30 min.  Reduce oven temp to 300 F and bake 3o min.  Turn oven off and let pie stand in oven with door closed for 3 hr.

( Suggestion {mine} : After eating, hit the gym extra hard and avoid the scales for a week.)


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One Response to Comfort Food

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