When I took my pecan pie out of the oven, the filling was still a little bit wobbly.
In fact, and more accurately, when I grabbed the lip of my pie tin, the filling was so wet and thin it actually sloshed around in the crust as I brought it to the counter to cool.
That is not how pecan pie should be.
The pie, after about an hour-and-a-half in the oven (twice as long as it should have been), never congealed to that wonderfully firm nutty compote. At best, my filling had the consistency of syrup.
I was attempting to duplicate my maternal grandmother’s delicious pie, as though I could conjure her ghost, or at least the taste of my happy childhood memories. But I failed and my failure brought disappointment.
For some reason, at this time of year I feel disappointed a lot.
I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge on the journey of a lifetime: always looking through the window, yet always on the outside. I want to be a kid again, with my family all around. I want to be filled with charity, but everyone seems selfish, including me.
That is not how Christmas should be.
At first, I couldn’t figure out how my pie went so wrong.
Perhaps it’s because I’m fairly new to cooking. It’s only been within the last five years that I ever started to put any real effort into preparing the food I eat, and there are many things I have yet to master.
When I attempt a roux, it is almost always lumpy. When I brown meat, I fear it is often over or under done, and I don’t know if I have ever whipped eggs and sugar to the point where they perfectly peak.
And yet, the women in my family’s history did these things. My paternal grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born, made many notes and tweaks in the margins of the recipes in her cooking book to adjust them to her liking. She had no formal training and her mother died when Fleeta was 4 years old before she could have been taught.
But Fleeta was tough. And I am intrigued and admire her for learning this soft, domestic skill that she most often used to serve others.
My mother’s mother, my Grandma Lenore, was also an excellent cook.
I don’t remember not liking anything she ever made, including tomato aspic, although I can’t see how that’s possible. And she was also tough. Her mother Monta Pearl Warren died a few months before my grandma’s 16th birthday, and yet, my grandma cooked comfort food in a way that shaped my entire childhood.
So if both of these women, who were both born in 1911 and both had hard lives, developed that skill successfully, I think I must be able to do the same.
I followed my Grandma Lenore’s directions implicitly. I was careful not to add too much water to the flour and Crisco so my crust wouldn’t get sticky and hard. I minimized how many times I rolled it out on the counter so it would be flaky. I patiently whipped the eggs and sugar until they stiffened appropriately, and just as I confidently poured the mixture into the tin, all the while chatting to my sister on the phone, she said, “Of course you know the recipe is for two crusts, right?”
I did not.
Which is why, after boosting the temperature in my oven, and meticulously wrapping thin strips of foil around the exposed crust to keep it from burning, and watching the filling bubble up and over the tin onto the bottom of my oven, it never set. Silly thing.
Silly, metaphorical, $9, lousy, disappointing pecan pie.
I ate it anyway.
Cooking failures are nothing compared to the tragedies and injustices in the world, but this one taught me something.
I think disappointment is amplified at Christmastime. As is loss, and loneliness, hunger and hurt. Perhaps that is the very reason Christmas is the season for rejoicing.
That jubilant hymn doesn’t say, “Joy to the world! My pie is perfect!” or “Joy to the World! I want for nothing!”
Sweetly, it reminds us: Joy to the world! / The Lord is come / Let earth receive her king / No more will sin and sorrow grow / He’ll come and make the blessings flow, far as the curse was found.
Far as the hurt is felt.
Far as, far as, my oven fails.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.
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