Thanksgiving in our family meant pie. Not a single pie, mind you, elegantly presented on a stand after the turkey was cleared, but multiple pies in metal tins, and a variety of different toppings, arrayed on the counter with paper name tags: mince, walnut raisin, pumpkin, pumpkin-cheesecake, sweet cherry, sour cherry, low-sugar cherry, peach, sweet potato, apple. Oh – and pecan, which was the only pie popular enough to disappear in its entirety every year.

What about the others? November after November they remained rarely touched – or barely touched. Soon after guests headed home, Mom wrapped the pies in foil and returned them to the freezer (she had a very close relationship with her freezer) for use at a church supper or a board meeting.

One year we finally asked why she baked all the less-than-popular pies. “They represent our history and traditions and those who can’t be with us,” Mom explained.

When my sister asked for a complete rundown, we discovered that the walnut raisin was for a grandfather who’d tried it in England during World War II, the mince for his mother who’d “gone to glory” not long after, the pumpkin for our beloved Aunt Betsy, low-sugar cherry for an in-law with a sugar problem (he joined in a few Thanksgivings but disappeared after a messy divorce). “Enough,” my sister shouted. “I get it.”

Those pies composed a sort of edible family tree, and you can’t simply lop off a branch of your family tree. No matter how hard you try.

I never cared for the walnut raisin. Sweet cherry was gloppy, sour cherry runny, the sweet potato (honoring relatives from Virginia and North Carolina) was too dense. And the mince? Too weird. I mean suet – really? But our mother’s pecan pie was spectacular: sweet and rich and dark and sticky and beautiful (she always saved the prettiest pecans for the top of the pie). And it tasted creamier than any of the pecan pies I’d try later at restaurants in both the North and South.

A few years ago I finally stole a copy of the recipe from the cabinet near the microwave and discovered that she added a few teaspoons of whipping cream to the butter, brown sugar and corn syrup, ensuring that silky filling. And I found a note appended to the top of the recipe card in 1972: “James’ favorite. Always make every Thanksgiving.”



Serves 8

1 all-butter pie crust

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1 tablespoon whipping cream

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

11/2 cups unbroken pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Partially bake the pie crust, 12 to 15 minutes, until the edges are barely golden.

Melt the butter and sugar over low heat in a double boiler, then add the corn syrup and cream.

In another bowl add salt to the eggs and beat until light. Stir well into first mixture.

Add the vanilla and pecans, making sure to use unbroken pecan halves.

Pour the warm mixture into the prepared pie crust and bake at 400 degrees F for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake approximately 25 minutes more, or until knife inserted in center of filling comes out clean.