I agree with journalist Bee Wilson, who wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that Thanksgiving is a time of year that inspires reflection. For some it is a moment to think about the meaning of family. But for her and me, there is a simpler message to take away: We should all enjoy desserts in our lives. (That’s not to say we should receive our “just desserts” (things deserved).
What Bee and I find refreshing about Thanksgiving is that, in spite of all the travel delays and the family stories, for once the focus is on the cooking. Since I’m now diabetic (type 2), it is only on very special occasions that I permit myself to have desserts.
My mother was an excellent cook, so depriving myself of desserts is no small sacrifice. She graduated from Sam Houston State College with a teaching degree and a minor in home economics. As her first-born child, I was welcomed into the kitchen, where I assisted her in making angel food cakes (using Swans Down cake flour) on my birthday. I just did a quick web search and found that Swans Down, which originated in 1894, is still available. Visit “swansdown.com” for recipes and baking tips.
She also encouraged me to take part in a summer cooking program sponsored by Dallas Morning News, called “Teens in the Kitchen.” I remember the culmination of that program was baking a “Regatta Cake,” made with baker’s cocoa and iced with frosting shaped to resemble waves on a lake.
Even though I wound up with four siblings, Mother found time to serve us a great variety of desserts. My dad’s favorite was lemon icebox pie. One of the annual fundraisers for our local cemetery was a pie supper, where all the pies were homemade from scratch and the husbands were expected to uphold the honor of their household by paying as much as $5 for the one their wife had baked.
It’s for me to recall several other desserts that I enjoyed as a child. Coconut cake was a favorite, and there were many types of cookies. One of my grandmothers specialized in “tea cakes” (old-fashioned sugar cookies) and my sisters often stirred up the oatmeal-raisin variety made from “3-minute oats” in the yellow box.
Today desserts made from scratch are about as rare as hen’s teeth. Maybe we think they are too difficult to make. But actually they’re not, assuming you have the ingredients and a decent recipe.
To pass on some historical trivia, many of the pies on the Thanksgiving table, such as pumpkin and pecan, are actually tarts, because they only have a crust underneath, not on top.
The word pie probably comes from “magpie,” the bird that collects a jumble of things, because early pies tended to contain a hodgepodge of random ingredients — some savory, some sweet. In “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons — the first cookbook written by an American, published in 1796 — there is a recipe for a pie filled with apples, sugar, cinnamon, wine, raisins — and beef tongue.
By 1866 pies were “the holiday part of dinner,” wrote Jennie June Croly in her “American Cookbook.” By that time, the sweet pies we know and love were firmly established. Croly offered recipes for custard pie, rhubarb pie and coconut pie, cherry pie and lemon cream pie. She even went so far as to suggest that a man who didn’t like pie was not to be trusted.