Every time she visited, she baked an apple pie (or two). Every time we visited her, she had an apple pie waiting. Missing one of her visits (and therefore, the apple pie) was a crushing disappointment.
July 4th is an appropriate time to write about apple pie, of course. Baking and transcribing my great aunt’s recipe also caused me to reflect further on the nature of recipes and the connection important people in our lives have to certain dishes.
Usually, when I read a recipe the first thing I do is think about how I would tweak or change it. My great aunt’s pie crust, for instance, is quite different (relatively speaking, as far as pie crusts go) from the one I typically bake. In this case, however, changing the recipe in any way would completely defeat the point of making my great aunt’s apple pie in the first place.
The wonderful thing about eating familiar foods is those flavors instantly trigger memories. I have no trouble recalling sitting on one side of the rickety family picnic table after a summer lunch, watching my great aunt bring one of her apple pies out from the kitchen. Familiar foods are an anchor to past generations.
Sadly, my great aunt passed away about two years ago. It’s easy to remember her through her apple pie, though. As I was cutting through the delicate top crust of the pie earlier Tuesday afternoon, I instantly flashed to an image of my great aunt doing exactly the same thing.
Because everyone in my extended family has exactly the same type of memories as I do, in some ways it seems foolish for any one of us to ever make my great aunt’s apple pie again. It will always be a faint facsimile of the pie she made, because, of course, she won’t have baked it. It’s hard to supplant more than 50 years of tradition, and why would one want to?
This is perfectly proved by my wife’s reaction when eating my attempt to recreate the apple pie. She was seriously underwhelmed, saying the pie filling lacked seasoning. On the other hand, she remembers the apple pie baked by my great aunt to be the best apple pie she has ever tasted.
While we’ve established that attempting to replicate a famous family recipe is foolish, never making my great aunt’s apple pie again seems like a mistake. There’s no better way to honor her memory than to bake the dish she was best known for, and share remembrances of her while we eat it.
I’m honestly conflicted. The way to family immortality is to cook one thing well, and frequently, for a long period of time. My great aunt has claimed apple pie. But do I have a familial duty to keep baking that same apple pie recipe to preserve her legacy? For what it’s worth, my wife says my berry pie is better than my great aunt’s apple pie – or at least the version of it I baked.
Maybe the right answer is also the simplest one: Just bake lots of pies, to preserve old memories and create new ones. I can handle that.