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Cottrel: Cherish and share the lessons of cooks from Christmas past

Treva and Clark Frazier in the pecans groves of Georgia. CONTRIBUTED
Treva and Clark Frazier in the pecans groves of Georgia. CONTRIBUTED

The same request is made every Christmas. Mom, can you bring Grandma’s Pecan Pie.

I had my Mom’s recipe for years and my pies just never touched hers. Her pecan pies were perfectly crunchy on top and sweet translucent custard in the middle and the crust wasn’t soggy. I tried and tried, but the flavor wasn’t there.

Then one time when I was visiting just before Mom passed away I found a baking tray filled with roasted pecans cooling on the counter.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“My pies,” she said.

“You roast the pecans?” I asked. “You never told me to roast the pecans.”

Mom thought that was funny.

“Of course you roast the pecans. We don’t use raw pecans in baking.”

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That slight adjustment made all the difference. Now that I’m the pie maker I’ve know that when Mom wrote “pecans” in a recipe she means “roasted pecans.”

Our family has been known for pecan desserts for three generations ever since my grandfather left his Ohio farm behind for awhile to manage some huge pecan groves in Georgia.

Dressed in riding pants and with her hair styled in 1926 finger waves, Grandma Treva worked beside Grandpa Clark sorting the pecans and preparing them for sale. Then she went into the little stucco house and with the help of the cook would create pecan delicacies.

She brought those recipes back with her when the family permanently returned to their Ohio farm.

We didn’t have peanut brittle at Grandma’s, we had pecan brittle. Fudge always had pecans in each piece. Many of her recipes, even salads, had a perfect touch of pecans; ground, chopped, or whole.

Of course, Grandma made wonderful pecan pies. Mom took over from her and added her own touches. Now I bake the pies.

Last week I had that recipe written in Mom’s hand sitting on the counter as I baked.

And I had to smile as I worked and remembered that Grandma Treva would only use fresh shelled pecans. She would be excited each year when a package would arrive from Georgia from a friend who was once the family cook. Grandma would sit the net bag holding 10 pounds of whole pecans out for a few days like a trophy for us all to see and admire, then she’d shell them. And she was very quick at it.

Years later Mom used store bought pecans since no one was left to send a bag of pecans from the Georgia groves anymore. She just didn’t have time to do all the hand shelling with four kids, one of which had special needs and needed extra love. However, she still carried on the tradition of roasted pecans in the fudge and pecan pies.

As I measured the pecans I really felt Mom’s presence.

Yes Mom. I almost said out loud. I know these have to be roasted first even though it doesn’t say so in your recipe. I felt like she was beside me cooking. And Grandma was on the porch shelling the pecans.

Last year I used the last of Mom’s Karo sugar syrup to make my pies. This year I used my own new dark bottle. But I had a secret ingredient, I’d kept Mom’s old bottle with just an inch of syrup in the bottom to add to this year’s pie. I wanted to add just one last touch of Mom. It made me smile to know she’d held that bottle.

As I stirred in the eggs I had a flash back to my other Grandma, Mom’s mom, Nellie, stirring the batter and telling me to watch for the yolk to play peek a boo before it disappeared. And, yes, of course I could have a taste of the batter.

As I put the pie all together Mom reminded me to set the oven a bit lower than it said and to set the timer.

Then I started on the next project my Mom’s corn pudding which was another recipe in her hand writing. I already knew she would suggest more onions than was written down.

I’m glad I was home alone that afternoon. Others might not have understood my crying and smiling as I baked. Actually I was enjoying cooking with the spirits and memories of Mom and my Grandmas in the kitchen.

When all was out of the oven and cooling I felt tremendous satisfaction at our group cooking projects. I think they were pleased too.

The recipe cards are frayed and messy and really should be copied over but I’ll keep them just as they are in familiar handwriting.

I’ll have to teach someone new to make the recipes before long and maybe I should recopy for my daughters and granddaughters so they’ll know that pecans have to be roasted even if the recipe doesn’t say so.

Someday I’ll watch from the ceiling to see if they can crack and break the egg with one hand like I did before I broke my pinky and if they hide the yolks in the batter like Grandma Nellie. And I’ll make sure they roast the pecans.

Cherish the memories of your family cooks of Christmas Past, and make sure you leave updated recipes for the cooks of Christmas Future.

Merry Christmas. And as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us every one.”