Learning to cook and bake with Norma

My mother Norma started me off in the kitchen when I was 8 or 9 years old. Her own mother was very capable in the kitchen and for better or worse insisted on doing everything herself, so my mother and her sister Laurel (better known as Aunt Corky) never got any practical cookery experience while they were growing up. This would come back to bite my mother in the ass, because when she married and left home to start her own household, she’d have to learn how to cook while she was on the job.

Norma was fond of saying that when she and my father first married she was so inexperienced in the kitchen that she “couldn’t boil sh*t for a tramp.” She was exaggerating to be funny and to make her point, that she didn’t even possess the most rudimentary kitchen skills. She managed to teach herself how to cook and bake, but it took quite a while and during her learning curve she had to cope with lots of beginner’s level problems which made life that much more difficult–needlessly. At that point, while she was sweating through the basics, she decided to prepare her own children thoroughly for life out of the nest, so she made sure that we all knew our way around the spice cupboard early in life.

(Apparently my brother did not receive the same level of preparation as did the rest of us girls. One Thanksgiving afternoon when he was living in Arizona, he called home to ask what kind of turkey he should buy to prepare for dinner that night. After explaining that it would take three days to thaw the damn thing, much less prepare it, I think he settled on turkey lunchmeat and instant mashed potatoes with canned gravy.)

My mother had a rare, dry sense of humor, and she practised her wit on all of us kids regularly. Most of the time it was cool to have a mother with such a weird sense of humor, but when she was teaching me to cook it was occasionally frustrating. When I was preparing something I hadn’t done before, I’d ask her “how long do I fry this/cook this/beat this?” she’d reply “Until it’s done.” I thought she was being funny or just trying to annoy me by not answering my questions, but in retrospect I can see that by not answering my question directly she was teaching me to pay attention to the food I was preparing. When I watched it carefully, I could see when it was underdone, when it was done perfectly, and the exact point at which it became overdone.

She taught me to observe my results and to learn as I went along, just like she did, but she did me the favor by starting me out early, before I had the pressure of providing food for my own family. I followed her example and learned to cook, preparing new dishes along the way with an eye on nutrition and frugality. She ended up as an accomplished cook who could also can and preserve foods that she’d grown herself. If there was something she didn’t know how to prepare, she’d learn.

But for all her hard-won expertise, she still had her bugbears, one of which was my grandmother’s recipe for Butterscotch Pie. This pie is essentially a homemade, cooked butterscotch pudding in a pastry crust, with a meringue crown. The recipe itself is only a list of ingredients for the pudding filling–no instructions for what to DO with all those ingredients. That obviously wasn’t a problem for my grandmother, who’d been preparing that pie for special occasions for years and years, most likely from memory.

When I was a child, I remember coming home after school to the heavenly scent of this wonderful, salty-sweet pie cooling on the countertop, honey-like drops of syrup bubbling up on the crown of meringue. It was always such a treat to have her make this pie, and for a while it seemed she’d make it without a special occasion–with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the butterscotch was runny, sometimes it might seem almost curdled, and other times the texture was perfect. It always TASTED fabulous, however, no matter how it looked.

When I think back on it, I realize now that my mother was practising making this pie so she could reliably make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and other special occasions. I think she first began to make this pie just after her mother had died in 1974. Just like any other time when we think we have plenty of opportunities to say the important things or ask the important questions, my mother probably hadn’t asked Grandma how to make the pie. After all, Grandma just made it herself for all the appropriate occasions, so there was no need for my mother to know how to fix it. So Mom had to figure out on her own the proper cooking time for the pudding filling, learning as she went. And like her mother, she kept those steps in her head.

My mother died in 1995, taking lots of important information with her. I still miss her and so often have thought of questions that only she can answer, some as small as “how do I put together these ingredients to make this pie?” and some as large as “what was your father and mother’s childhood like?” And I can’t tell you how often I’ve regretted not asking them. Along with that mysterious pie recipe, I have family pictures of people I don’t recognize and possibly have never even met, and my mother is the only person who could have told me who they were. It’s too late now, by far, but as I’ve discovered, regrets last a lifetime.

That's my Grandma's handwriting, yo!

I’ve kept that same recipe card for Butterscotch Pie, written in my Grandma Mae’s handwriting, and although I’ve not used it yet, I really do want to learn how to make it. I know the logical step is just to gather the ingredients and start experimenting like Norma. Someday I’ll do that, and through trial and error I’ll figure out how to combine these ingredients into that heavenly pie. And even though I don’t have kids to whom to pass this recipe along, I’ll write down the steps and I’ll share it with whoever wants to make it. Hopefully they’ll taste the love that’s such an important ingredient, even though it’s not written on the card.

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