I am not a good cook. My mother Martha was not a good cook either. (If it was Thursday, you could be sure we were eating Tuna Casserole with crushed potato chips on top.) My first job, back in 1964, was as a writer in Ladies’ Home Journal’s food department. “I can’t believe you’re telling seven million women how to cook!” my mother would often exclaim. (Of course I wasn’t writing recipes—the ladies in the test kitchen were doing that. It was my job to write the text that went with the recipes, with a heavy reliance on words like “crunchy” , “delectable”, “golden brown”, “rib-sticking”, “taste tempting”, etc.)
But my mother and (later) I always knocked ourselves out at Thanksgiving—it was part of our Scandinavian/American heritage. When I was a child, we would often drive the forty miles to Aunt Olive and Uncle Clarence’s house in Princeton, Minnesota, at Thanksgiving, where our grandmother and aunts would be laboring over a vat of boiling oil, making those three-dimensional cookies called “Rosettes”. (You need a decorative iron mold on a long metal rod, coat it with thin dough, then plunge it into the boiling oil.) I remember we’d all eat until we were sick—cleansing the palate with sherbets between courses so we could eat more—and then the men would loosen their belts and fall asleep while watching football on television and the women would retreat to the kitchen to clean up and gossip.
Ever since I got married forty-one years ago, I’ve made a big production out of Thanksgiving – even in the years when we were living with our three children in Greece, where the traditional ingredients were never available. (Daughter Eleni, in her travel memoir “North of Ithaka” describes a particularly hilarious Thanksgiving when I cooked turkey in the very primitive conditions of my husband’s mountaintop childhood village while Dina, the acknowledged cooking queen of Lia, endeavored to out-cook me, ending up with a charred Turkey that everyone preferred to my golden-brown one.)
So for 41 years I’ve been doing Thanksgiving—streamlining the procedure drastically every year because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.) They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other things. Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.”
But because I like to bake, I generally make four pies or three pies and a cake. This year I made three of the pies on Monday night—a “reduced calorie” pecan pie with maple syrup instead of corn syrup, and a “chocolate-kahlua” pie which somehow became a Thanksgiving tradition many years ago when I tried out the recipe. Now I could leave out the turkey and no one would complain, but they sure would miss the Chocolate Kahlua pie. The pumpkin pie I’m making today.
But to get to Apple Pie. Some people (like author Joyce Maynard, who often writes about her famous apple pies) are born with a pie-making gene that’s usually inherited from their mother. There was no apple-pie gene in my family. So every Thanksgiving I try a different apple pie recipe, in the hopes of finding the prize winning Apple Pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow) to my family’s eyes.
I haven’t hit on the perfect recipe yet, but this year, on Monday night, I baked a pie based on a recipe I tore out of the New York Post. The article seems to be about what wives of NY Jets football players cook at Thanksgiving. Now, I know even less about football than I do about cooking, but I noticed the apple pie recipe with the title “Apple Pie Made Woody Marry Her!” Woody is Woody Johnson, owner of the Jets, it seems, and the recipe looked very simple, so I figured why not? If it landed this lady a “mogul husband” I’d giving it a try—even though I landed my mogul husband forty some years ago by learning to make Greek Coffee.
Among other things, the recipe calls for “Five large peeled apples, chopped.” When I went to my supermarket on Monday before my pie-making marathon, I reflected that I love Thanksgiving because (1.) It’s non-denominational—everyone can enjoy it except maybe the Native Americans—and (2.) Only at this time of year do you see the market jammed with crazed shoppers trying to find some exotic recipe ingredient (dried cherries, fresh ginger, craisins ) that they never buy at any other time of the year.
I finally found the last package of chocolate wafers--needed for the crust of the Kahlua pie, but it was way at the back of the top shelf so I convinced a leggy blonde shopper pushing a baby nearby to climb up on the bottom shelf and reach it for me.
(Food shopping at Thanksgiving can be hazardous to one’s health, as I reflected yesterday when, visiting the newly opened Wegman’s in Northboro to get some of their adorably frosted Turkey cookies to use as place cards, I passed by a woman who was being wheeled on a gurney out the door to a waiting ambulance, escorted by about a dozen EMTs and trailed by Wegman’s employees looking worried. As I stood aside to let the gurney pass, I heard the injured woman say “I didn’t even see her coming and then there she was, right in front of me!”)
During my pie-shopping market visit on Monday, I went to the produce department and asked an employee who was stacking fruit, a young man about 18 years old, “What’s the best kind of apple for making pie?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” he stammered, then asked another 18-year old near-by who also shrugged. Then he yelled at an older man, who was spraying brightly colored peppers, “Hey Tom! What’s the best kind of apple….”
Tom didn’t even blink. “You need a combination,” he said. “Pink Lady for the flavor, Comstock for the crunch and also Granny Smith.” He chose for me one Pink Lady, two bright red Comstocks, and two green Granny Smith’s.
That’s the kind of information and friendly interaction with one’s neighbors that is inspired by Thanksgiving. People helping people. As opposed to Christmas shopping, when it’s the law of the jungle to get the last Tickle-Me-Elmo. That’s another reason I love Thanksgiving.
So I cooked the pie that made Woody Johnson marry his wife Suzanne. It’s keeping cold on the porch. On Thursday we’ll find out if I’ve finally hit on The Ultimate Apple Pie—good enough to become a Thanksgiving Tradition, like Chocolate Kahlua. I’ll let you know.