Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Harold's Caramel Pie

Dear Readers: Many of you will be in charge of preparing Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends. Before you do, I thought you might enjoy reading something I wrote several years ago about one of our family “traditions.” It’s all true, except for the obvious literary license I have taken with some of the dialogue. A good opening text might be Proverbs 17:22. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”

Harold’s Caramel Pie 

            My brother-in-law swears that his renowned recipe for caramel pie was passed down to his family from a great aunt, who relented on her death bed, and revealed her treasured secret to members of the family huddled around her. Being of Kentucky (“Brier-hopper”) extraction myself, and not altogether unfamiliar with such family traditions, I’m fairly certain that it went something like this: 

            “How much longer you reckon she can hold out, Aunt Lizzie? She’s wheezin’ some’n awful.”

            “It’s untellin’, Martha. She’s powerful stubborn when she wants to be. You young’uns should have seen her in her prime. She could catch a chicken, wring its neck, pluck the feathers, and have it cut up and fried before breakfast. She’ll be missed, sure.”

            “You don’t suppose she’d give us her recipe for the caramel pie before she passes on, do you?” Young Martha’s brawny husband had goaded her into making this request that very morning.

            “Marth,” he had said, his eyes narrowed menacingly, “If you let that old woman die without findin’ out how to fix that pie…” What followed must have emboldened poor Martha so that now she was suggesting the unheard of, wheedling the secret recipe out of the poor dying woman. 

            But, the way Harold and the rest of his family tell it, that’s exactly what happened. And, frankly, I can see all the family gathered around her, with young Martha sitting in the corner, pencil and paper in hand, asking feverishly from time to time such things as, “How much brown sugar did she say?”

            I suppose now would be a good time to say something about my brother-in-law, Harold, himself. My sister may not appreciate me for saying this, but her husband is decidedly…well…different. If he were rich, I could call him eccentric; but since he has always been decidedly middle-class, I’m forced to label him as simply strange. Someone whose daily attire at home has been little more than his under shorts and a tee shirt, for as long as I’ve known him, augmented only by an occasional towel wrapped around his waist if company turns up unexpectedly, could not be considered “mainstream.” At least, not to most people. And believe me; this is only one of his peculiarities. Mind you, he can look quite handsome and debonair when he ventures out. His sleek black hair (now silver), patrician nose, and pleasing smile, never fail to turn heads.

            But it’s his two culinary masterpieces that have endeared him to our family, while, at the same time, causing untold frustration. We all love his memorable fudge, which is never quite perfect enough in his own estimation; and, as far as his caramel pie…well, we would all gladly die for it. Any maddening idiosyncrasies he may possess are all forgiven after the first bite.

            At Christmas, Thanksgiving, or any other large family gathering, someone is always sure to ask, “Did Harold bring the caramel pie?” Once we’ve been assured that our palates will indeed be afforded this ultimate treat, we’re all able to relax and enjoy each other and the rest of the meal.

            How can I describe it? It’s as though you had somehow acquired the most perfect caramel morsels ever made, and they were now gently bursting in your mouth, then sliding sensuously down your throat on a fluffy pillow of meringue. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.  Some, struck inarticulate by the taste, will say, “This sure is rich!” as though you’d given them far too big of a piece. It never fails, though, they always manage to wolf down every last crumb, often scraping the plate quite rudely.

            But the trouble started for me when my brother-in-law found out his daughter had given the recipe to me. Remember, it’s Harold’s caramel pie—Harold’s secret recipe caramel pie—and, after all, it’s not as though I am “blood kin” or anything.

            “You shouldn’t have given it to her,” he fumed to his daughter. “Oh, Dad, for pity sakes, she won’t let it outside the family,” Debbie had argued. But I knew the situation was still strained when I happened to mention that sometimes when I made it, the filling didn’t always “set-up” just right, and he snarled, “Your tablespoons were probably even.  Anybody should know they’re supposed to be slightly heaping.” This came in a withering tone that really said, “What did you expect? It’s a family thing.”

             Family thing or not, this baby is not easy to make, no matter who you’re related to. The worst part is that you must never—I repeat, never—stop stirring while you’re making the filling, which can take fifteen or twenty minutes, but will seem like three hours. And, trust me; there will always be something to tempt you away from the stove—nature calling, children crying, phones ringing, fire—but whatever happens, you must never stop stirring. Not if you know what’s good for you. That is, unless you’re just fond of lumpy goo clinging desperately to the bottom of the pan.

            I was careful to drive this truth home to my own daughter, Leah, when she got married and asked for the recipe. (Yes, I threw caution to the wind, and prayed that Harold wouldn’t find out.) She listened intently, nodding her head, and saying, finally, “I see.” However, I wondered if perhaps I had been a little too heavy handed with my instructions when she admitted to me a few years later that once, when she put her little son’s baby seat on the table while she stirred the filling, she was horrified to look over and see the seat (along with Joseph) teetering on the edge of the table. While she agonized over the decision of whether or not to stop stirring, sure enough, the seat, along with her precious child, slipped over the edge to the floor.

          “Mom, did I do the right thing?” she cried piteously to me, hoping for something like absolution, I suppose. But what could I say? I, too, had been torn by such decisions. And as far as we can tell, no real harm came to little Joseph.           

          You’ll be glad to know, too, that the pie turned out just fine. (This only goes to show that children are more resilient than pie filling.) Still, you do have to wonder if the pie was worth the potential disaster. But, then again, those who have eaten it will say the answer is not as obvious as one might think.

            Others have asked for the recipe, but I have been careful not to give it to anyone outside my own family. (I don’t throw that much caution to the wind!) So you will not find either the ingredients or the directions at the end of this story. Nor, I promise you, is it encrypted somewhere within the body of the text.  However, if, for some reason, you happen to be around my deathbed as I am drawing my last few breaths.......










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