I’ll never forget when I first fell in love with food. To know me, you might think that I was ALWAYS a cook. You imagine me standing in the kitchen, next to my mother, stirring and chopping and mixing, but you’re wrong. Some of you might think that I was exposed to exotic and interesting ingredients from a very early age but that was just not the case. You might even think that I traveled a great deal and learned to appreciate tastes from all over the world. In truth, I had a mother who was terrified of airplanes. My dad used to say that I had “eaten hamburgers all over the world” I should tell you now that Dad was prone to exaggeration. At that point, “all over the world” actually meant a couple of road trips to Disneyland and one terrifying cab ride in Juarez, Mexico. No, my love of food is of much humbler origins and probably not unlike many of your own experiences. In truth, it all began with a chocolate pie.
I was born in Arlington, Texas. A mid-sized city nestled between the larger cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. I was a city girl. Even at 7 or 8. We had restaurants, grocery stores and all of the conveniences that a girl growing up in the 70’s could need. I loved to sing and I loved to dance. I wore the latest fashion styles and listened to the hippest music. I still know every word to every ABBA song out there. Food, for the most part, wasn’t something I usually thought too much about – unless it was a Corsicana Sunday.
Corsicana Sundays were a ritual in my childhood that was met with nearly equal parts excitement and disdain. Corsicana is a small town about 45 minutes south of Dallas on Interstate 45 and was named after the Mediterranean island of Corsica. As you can imagine, a small stagnant Texas town would have a difficult time keeping up with such a beautiful namesake so at some point they stopped trying. When your city economy is built around Wolf Brand Chili, it’s nearly impossible maintain the exotic reputation that being named after Corsica implies. Both of my parents, however, grew up in Corsicana and, as it seemed to me at the time, were the only people who ever LEFT Corsicana. Consequently, all of my family was there. The grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides spent their entire lives within the city limits and rarely ever ventured beyond the Navarro County line. So every three weeks, it was Corsicana Sunday. We’d get up, put on our Sunday best (at that time, people still wore their Sunday best to church) and go to Sunday School. We’d then skip “big church” (which was always a bonus in my book) and make the 90-minute drive so that we could be at my Grandmother’s house in time for lunch.
Lunch at Grandmom’s wasn’t a huge affair. Our family isn’t as big as many. It was always just Mom, Dad, Me, Grandmom, Granddad, Uncle Don, Aunt Lou and my younger cousin Kimberley. There were never enough chairs so Kimberley and I would share an old piano bench. Phone books were piled on the bench so that Kimberley could reach the table and they would inevitably shift so that I only had room to half-sit on the bench. Oddly, I don’t remember minding so much. The food at these lunches wasn’t always exactly the same. The entrée that I remember well was Chicken & Dumplings. I loved the Chicken & Dumplings. But there were also times when we’d have roast, or Salisbury steak. I remember my mother’s complete annoyance as she’d watch Aunt Lou “fix” a plate for Uncle Don and precut all of his meat. It was always a topic of conversation on the way home. But regardless of the entrée, there were three things about Corsicana Sunday lunches that were always the same. Spaghetti & Cheese for the meal, Ice Box Cookies with Sweet Tea for snacking, and Chocolate Pie for dessert. Oh how I loved that creamy chocolate pie. Not too rich, not too sweet with a meringue piled high, baked and then chilled to perfection. I couldn’t wait to get through dinner so I could have a piece. It was always a perfect culinary masterpiece crafted with love and I knew it. I only occasionally saw Grandmom make it. On the rare times that I would be there during her early morning cooking sessions, I’d watch TV as she baked and sang, Amazing Grace in a boisterous lilt that echoed through the old framed house . It was always a perfect culinary masterpiece crafted with love and I knew it. Even as a child, I knew that it wasn’t just about the pie. It was about my grandmother and her desire to bake something just for me. I even appreciated the work that went into it, in my own childlike way. After Grandmom became to ill to bake, my Mom tried to take over the chocolate pie duty. It was the same recipe, made the same way and certainly delicious but it was never quite as good. It wasn’t that my mother didn’t love me. It just wasn’t the same. And that is when I realized that food isn’t just about ingredients. It’s about love, and family, and experiences. Emotion affects how we taste. Food has the power to bring back feelings and memories in much the same way as music. I never hear Amazing Grace that my mouth doesn’t water a bit. And I never taste a chocolate pie that doesn’t take me back to Corsicana, Texas and the family lunches that shaped so much of my childhood.
Grandmom’s Chocolate Pie
- 1 9-inch pie crust, baked
- 1 cup white sugar
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- pinch of salt
- 2 eggs, separated, plus 1 egg whites
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar, cocoa powder, flour and salt. Mix well and then stir in 2 egg yolks and milk. Whisk until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of pudding. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract and butter. Pour into baked pie shell.
In a bowl whip 3 egg whites until foamy. Gradually add in 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Spread meringue over chocolate custard, covering completely.
Bake 5-6 minutes until meringue is golden brown. Chill well before serving.