When I was a little kid, I thought my mom was the world’s best cook. She always seemed to just know how to put things together. Oh, she had cookbooks, but I never saw her use them. She would stand at the stove and throw in a pinch of this and a scoop of that; she’d take a dainty little taste off the edge of the spoon, make a face, and toss in something else.
When I married my husband and met his family, I realized that my mom wasn’t quite the cook I had always believed her to be. Compared to the food prepared by my in-laws, my mother’s cooking was rather bland. She made a lot of baked chicken and boiled potatoes, very few sauces or gravies. It was plain, but it kept our bellies full.
Holidays were the only time she really ventured into fancier dishes. Thanksgiving was her particular favorite, and she would wake up at some ungodly pre-dawn hour to start cooking while she sipped away at bottomless glasses of cheap wine. By the time my sisters and I woke up, the house smelled divine and the kitchen table was at near-collapse under the weight of all of the food.
Mom was usually fairly well bombed by that point, but we pretended not to notice. That early in the day, she was still a jovial drunk. Later, my sisters and I would start placing our bets on which family member would be the lucky one chosen for the annual Thanksgiving Day Fight. By the time we sat down to eat dessert, it was a given that someone would be crying, someone would be shouting, and I would be shoveling in mouthfuls of pie in a frantic attempt at tasting them all before Mom declared the holiday over.
Her specialty was lemon merengue pie. Tart and sweet, with creamy merenge that had nice crispy peaks, it was the perfect finish to any holiday dinner. When anyone asked for her recipe, she shook her head and told us it was a “family secret”.
I never understood why she didn’t consider her own daughters “family” enough to share the recipe with us.
Before she died, I asked her for the recipe one last time. She agreed that her lemon merengue pie was mighty fine and took the recipe with her to the grave.
I missed mom when I got married and she wasn’t at my wedding. I missed her when each of my children was born, and I missed her at odd times of the day or night when I thought of all the things I wanted to ask her. But I never missed her as much as I did on Thanksgiving, when I craved a slice of her lemon merengue pie. I tried countless recipes, and my in-laws tried their own recipes, but nothing was quite right.
I had almost forgotten about Mom’s pie nearly twenty years later, when a small box on the grocery store shelf caught my eye. My*T* Fine lemon pudding and pie filling.
No freaking way.
When I now make that pie at Thanksgiving every year, I tell my kids that it’s an old family secret. And then I show them them the empty box of My*T*Fine and we all laugh.
And I keep the real family secret from them. The one that made my mom get drunk and pick fights on her favorite holiday year after year. The same one that keeps me in my pajamas some days, and sometimes makes me cry for no reason.
Because Depression tastes a lot like lemon merengue pie.