"Where's the pie?" my grandmother-in-law would ask behind the screen door.
She was a little woman, close to 90 when we first met, feisty and hunched over with age and needing a walker. She'd ask the same thing every time I showed up on her front porch — the extent of her greeting — rather severe as she squinted and looked me over. She wouldn't open the door until I produced the pecan pie.
I couldn't tell whether she was serious or simply having a private joke at my expense. But it was the same every time.
I loved that woman. We would sit at her table over a slice of pie and a dollop of whipped cream to talk about cooking. Thelma Bowman was a professional cook back in the day — a working woman when many women stayed at home, and she ran the cafeteria at a public elementary school for years. We'd talk favorite recipes and working in various kitchens during her long career. After I switched my own career and decided to go to culinary school, she was one of my biggest mentors.
She loved my pecan pie, a special recipe I'd learned from my mother. When she passed, she left me a lifetime's worth of her cherished recipes, stored in a yellow Bakelite box.
The pie is simple enough. I whisk together some eggs and egg yolks — the yolks give the custard filling extra richness — and add some dark corn syrup and dark brown sugar, whisked in along with melted butter. I always add a touch of bourbon — the liquor enhances the flavors and gives the filling a little extra personality. Then I finish with pecans.
The filling is poured into a homemade pie shell and baked until done.
I make the pie now for my father-in-law every Christmas. Because my in-laws can no longer cook, I make the dinners and desserts whenever we come to visit (their own personal chef, they like to brag to all their friends). My father-in-law always looks forward to the pecan pie.
We'll have a slice with a dollop of whipped cream, as we talk and share family stories. Because stories are what keep history alive. Every bite I take, I think of my mother and my family, the family I've joined and Thelma. That is Christmas to me.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun