A Recipe to Remember Made with Pecans and Love

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert,  is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.

My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker.  I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.

My Dad didn't know I'd caught him taking a taste of the filling he'd just stirred up.
My Dad didn’t know I’d caught him taking a taste of the filling he’d just stirred up.

My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving.  I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.

“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one.  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.

He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.

With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.
With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.

My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.pie-man015

For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great.  I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.

After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches.  One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.

The last step--transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.
The last step–transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.

“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack.  It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.

I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.

My Dad's pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was made with love.
My Dad’s pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was handmade with love.

 

A Veteran Who Voted

I only remember seeing my Dad cry twice.  Once was at the funeral of my Mother, to whom he was married 65 years.  The other was when he stood with my son and I at the American cemetery at Anzio, Italy.

When my Dad was 80-years-old, I took him, along my oldest son, Matthew, then 14-years-old, and my cousin, Claudette, on a trip to Italy. It was the first time my Dad had returned to Italy since there as a young, 22-year-old American GI. That trip was no pleasure visit and came right at the height of the Italian campaign of World War II.

We visit the cemetery at Monte Cassino where some of those who fought there, like my Dad, are buried.
We visit the cemetery at Monte Cassino where some of those who fought there, like my Dad, are buried.

My Dad’s first stop was in Sicily when the 5th Army and his 45th Division invaded that large island. Next came Salerno and Paestum.  Soldiers climbed down the sides of the ships carrying the troops into the landing craft that would ferry them to the beaches just south of Salerno. Regarded as the D-Day invasion of Italy, my Dad once recalled how scary it was to climb down the rope nets into the boats bobbing below. He never talked about how terrified he must have been bouncing across the water, knowing what was to come once the gate of the landing craft dropped, exposing him and his men to heavy enemy fire from on shore. The Allies lost 2,009  soldiers at Salerno, another 7,050 were wounded and 3,501 missing.  He would make one more landing after Salerno, at the invasion of Southern France.  I can’t imagine how he did it.

Rows upon rows of white crosses at Anzio mark the graves of Americans who fell during the Italian campaign of World War II.
Rows upon rows of white crosses at Anzio mark the graves of Americans who fell during the Italian campaign of World War II.

During his trip back to Italy, the one thing my Dad wanted to do was to visit the “American cemetery.” After stopping at cemeteries in Salerno and Monte Cassino, we learned that the American fallen were buried at Anzio. We added Anzio to the itinerary.

My Dad explains to my son how the Battle of Anzio took place as they view the giant map on the memorial wall at the Anzio cemetery.
My Dad explains to my son how the Battle of Anzio took place as they view the giant map on the memorial wall at the Anzio cemetery.

We rented a car and drove from Rome to Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, near the beachhead where the Battle of Anzio took place. There are 7,800 buried here, another 3,100 names are listed on the Wall of the Missing.  On the way in, we stopped at the office where a caretaker on duty gave us a pamphlet and told my Dad where he could find the grave of a friend’s uncle who had been killed when parachuting into the battle.

Together, we walked through the rows and rows of white markers. My Dad stood silently and shook his head. “I’ve never understood,” he said, “why I came home and they didn’t.” Tears rolled down his cheek.  He turned away and walked off, my son followed. They paused, long enough for me to capture a photo, in one of the rows while my Dad tried to regain his composure.

My son and my Dad share a quiet moment together in the cemetery at Anzio.
My son and my Dad share a quiet moment together in the cemetery at Anzio.

Veteran’s Day in this country is November 11. This year, it is preceded by Election Day on November 8. My Dad’s birthday is November 21.  My Dad passed away two years ago. If he were still alive, I am sure he would be disgusted by the campaigns being waged this election. But he would vote.  He would vote not only because he deeply believed it was his patriotic duty, just as serving his country in World War II was, but also for all those who didn’t return from the War as he did.

No matter your political persuasions, I hope you’ll vote this Election Day. If not for yourself, for my Dad and all those who gave their lives like those buried at Anzio, who we honor on Veteran’s Day for they are the true ‘silent majority.’

My Dad stands beside one of the graves of the thousands buried at the American cemetery in Anzio.
My Dad stands beside one of the graves of the thousands buried at the American cemetery in Anzio.

Read more about my Dad’s service record here, written by my brother Brad, and create a page for your own service member. I’ve also written about my Dad’s military service in previous blog postings. You can click on the following links to read those in case you missed them: http://bit.ly/2edw57z and http://bit.ly/2eCZyGu.