Here’s some stuff about baking and Thanksgiving because I’m soft-hearted.
My grandmother’s sweet potato pies were perfect. Consistent. The kind that sold out at the church bake sale and that my family, bless our dark, selfish little hearts, fought over like cats and dogs.
My mother once bought two pies home from church and hid them in the freezer for later. My sister crept downstairs one night and went to town. My mother was livid, and so was I. She because her pies were eaten, me because my sister beat me to the punch. I was going to sneak down in the morning.
Yes, I was a fucking amateur.
That incident lived in infamy. Both my brothers, who were not home at the time, had to hear about it in excruciating detail. They complained, but again, this was mostly due to having not had a chance to steal the pies themselves.
My father had a better system than all of us. He volunteered in the church kitchen frying chicken or basting ribs and got his pie straight from the source, sliced and served to him on a break (my grandmother was from an era when women fretted over men having enough to eat). He never had to share, and so, when arguments about pie broke out, he could pretend (very smugly) to be above it all. Heathens, his look said, all the while knowing his belly was already full of pie.
My mother’s pies were perfect too. She had the patience for it and the benefit of years of knowledge about actually baking things. I was a wayward child who believed her oven was better suited to shoe storage until well into my adult years. By then, I realized that being in the kitchen with my mother was never about baking (or patriarchy, as I was fond of declaring). It was about connecting, turning a conversation into muscle memory as you kneaded the dough and measured out the molasses.
My mother died of breast cancer when I was 25. It metastasized to her bones just as the adult version of our relationship was metastasizing to mine. You know—that indescribable moment in time when your parents become people, and you actually want to be caught in public with them. That’s when I first starting trying to make my grandmother’s pie. Armed with wine and longing, I imagined my mother was a spirit in the kitchen, guiding me to create the perfect pie crust from the great beyond.
And I needed that spirit.
My grandmother never wrote any of it down. Her recipe remains part myth and part rumor. I’ve experimented with a million incarnations of this pie, trying to get the flavor just right. I’ve spent hours in the kitchen chilling butter, adding a splash of vodka, boiling potatoes, and cursing the sheer madness of trying to make a pie from scratch.
I love you, grandma, but seriously, what the fuck?
Anyway, it goes without saying that my pies are not as pretty. My mother is long since gone, my grandparents and father too. My siblings and I have found great joy in putting together a version of a Thanksgiving dinner that imitates their many recipes. It helps that two of us have partners that can actually cook. We laugh about the memories—my father frying catfish in a lab coat, my mother dusting Russian tea cakes with powdered sugar and smacking away our hands, my grandmother standing by the bake sale table watching as folks snatched up her pies.
I thought I chose a baking contest as the center of this story because I liked the Great British Baking Show and reality tv. That’s not a lie. But what’s more true is that I just care about baking and family, in both cases the kind you cobble together with heart and imprecision.
Baking By Death is murder on the outside with a warm squishy middle.
For reference, here is my ugly as sin pie. It took nearly 7 hours of labor to make, and when I Zoom with my family tonight, I’ll tease them about how I’ve finally won: I have an entire sweet potato pie to myself.*
Notice how I didn’t have the patience to actually crimp the crust or cut it all evenly? Nearly a year of quarantine has taught me that it ain’t a lack of time, it’s a lack of desire.
*Fine, my husband can have a slice.