Friday, December 24, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Mary Waller K.'s Famous Pecan Pie

There is only one pecan pie recipe in the whole world worth baking, and my family is lucky to have a copy.  And here's how we happen to have it: as you may have guessed from previous rambling food commentary, which enfolds the bare bones of a recipe in layers and layers of swaddling narrative, my family's recipes invariably have stories attached.  Even the little typed note cards I found in my grandmother's recipe drawer when my aunt and I divided the contents of her house have indications of who provided the recipe, when it was provided, in some cases, notes about when and how it was tried, and what might need to be altered to make it better.

Our pecan pie recipe comes to us from Mary Waller K., scion of an "old" south Texas ranching family.  South Texas, where pecan pie was invented.  Where pecan trees grow in stately groves as far as eye can see, rolling from the Sabine to the Rio Grande and on to points west.  

As her surname indicates, Mary was descended from one of the pre-Revolutionary Anglo families who promised to become Catholic when they received land from the Mexican government, and in her family's case, the promise stuck, so that she was raised Catholic, a Catholic lady educated by the nuns at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio.  Who taught her to say, "Praised be the Incarnate Word!" when she passed them in the hallways of the college--and so this recipe for a Christmas pie has Christmas roots, insofar as it comes to my family and now to you from a south Texas Catholic lady steeped in devotion to the Incarnate Word of God.

Mary and my mother were fast friends, since they had quite a bit in common, including the experience of being married to professional men in a small south Arkansas town reluctant to admit newcomers into the inner circles of its society--such as that was.  In addition to Mary's devotion to the Word Made Flesh, she and my mother shared a pronounced devotion to margaritas and bloody marys, as well, and that didn't hurt, when it came to the bonding process.

They also had the unfortunate shared experience of having both been dumped by the professional men they married, both of whom opted for younger trophy wives after their mature and used-up wives had presented them with three sons, whom the wives raised as the husbands worked, made money, and, as it turned out, made forays down into Louisiana to find said younger trophy wives.  In Mary's case, the cut of the philandering went very deep, since--adding great insult to dire injury--her husband happened to fall in love with a young woman whose unfortunate nickname was Mutt.  And Mutt ended up with Dr. K.'s valuable family farm land in Louisiana, an inheritance on which Mary and her sons had long depended.

So that, one night when my mother had been visiting Mary and had drink taken, she woke in the middle of the night to find Mary sitting bolt upright in the bed, looking haughtily at her, and saying, "How dare you talk that way about my daddy, you two bit piece of white trash."  When my mother said next morning, over a wake-up glass of bloody mary, "Mary, what on earth?" Mary supposed she had been dreaming of Dr. K., and had dreamt he had said something to slander her father, and so she imagined it was him and not my mother in bed with her.

About the bed and its arrangements: please don't ask.  I never did, when my mother told this story.  Mary did have a pool house attached to her house proper, which was well-appointed and in which her guests normally stayed.  Why my mother happened to be sleeping in Mary's bed and not there on this occasion, I can't say, and I can only assume that margaritas were involved.  Or bloody marys.  Or a late-night commiseration party involving thoughts of Mutts and my mother's nemesis Sherry, for whom my father was prepared to leave her when he died tragically following a car accident a month after he had announced his intent to divorce her.  Sherry, who, my mother replied tartly when I tried out my new-found Catholic piety on her during the days after the funeral, telling her that we ought not to grieve because my father was now in heaven and beyond the torment of his unsettled state of mind--Sherry, who, my mother replied to my pious suppositions, was no doubt rolling around in a feather bed in heaven with my father, if, indeed, my father happened to be there and not where he really belonged.  To her way of thinking.

And so Mary Waller K.'s pecan pie: but saying the name again reminds me of a time when I mentioned another story of Mary's family on a genealogy discussion thread gathering information about Mississippi families, and a woman with the same surname (the Wallers are an old Virginia family, with offshoots across the American Southeast) took hot exception to my telling the following story, and began to pepper the thread with postings in which her surname, WALLER, was always typed in capital letters, to let me know I had mortally offended every Waller in the world by repeating a story a Waller family had told my family.

In which that particular Waller family poked gentle fun at the sound of their surname . . . . As they told this story, Mary had taken her sons to a Waller family reunion south of San Antonio, on the ranch where she was raised, and an elderly cousin came running up when she saw the three K. boys, fixed one of them, tall and blond and good-looking, with a sharp eye, and pronounced, "You're a dead-out Waller, all right!"   Which struck him as such a hilarious proclamation that he and his brothers and mother repeated it over and over to each other following the reunion.  And the Mississippi descendant of this family didn't like hearing that story one little bit, and decided that, in repeating it, I was making fun of her family--never mind that I was repeating a story told by a WALLER family itself, about itself.

Those Mississippi folks can be touchy.  On the same list, another participant asked me to send a picture of myself to her.  Even though I knew that she wanted the picture to poke fun at me, I never expected the reply she sent back when she saw it: Hon, that tie don't go with that shirt.  "That tie" was a Lindsay tartan tie I wear when I want to feel, well, lucky is the proper word, I suppose, and which I was wearing with a  plain blue shirt that sets off the blues in the tartan.

And finally to the pecan pie, which won't be anticlimatic, after all that, I hope.  Having made pastry for a bottom crust, here's what you do: blend 1/2 cup of soft butter with 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of dark corn syrup, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, and a pinch of salt if the butter is unsalted.  Then add 3 eggs, one at a time, beating just enough to blend the eggs into the butter mix.  Fold in 2 cups pecan halves and toss well in the syrup mix.  Turn the filling into a 9" pie shell and bake @375 degrees F 40-50 minutes or until the pecans are brown and caramelized.

And what makes this the best pecan pie in the entire world?  Well, there's first the half cup of butter, along with the sugar and syrup.  Can anything with those ingredients possibly be bad?  And fie on anyone who affects disdain for the cloying sweetness of traditional Southern pecan pie, and wants to fiddle with this recipe and diminish the sugar or add such novelties as brandy or chocolate.

And then there's the step of tossing the pecan halves in the butter-sugar-syrup mix to coat the nuts with the sugars.  This causes the nuts to become toasty, brown, a bit caramelized, and utterly delicious.  

Pecan pie should be served at room temperature, by the way.  Where contemporary cafes and restaurants have gotten the idea of heating baked goods and slices of pie, I can't imagine, but it's a habit I detest.  And it's one you have to anticipate if you don't want a slice of mouth-burning pie to land on your table when you've pointed to a pie sitting in a covered case, and expect it simply to be sliced and brought to your table without being nuked in a microwave.

Whipped cream?  That's gilding the lily, with this recipe.  And certainly not ice cream, as sweet as this pie is.  It's traditionally served all by itself, with a cup of rich, dark coffee to accompany it and to complement the exceeding sweetness of the chess filling of this particular version of the venerable Southern chess pie.

Enjoy, think of the wonderful south Texas lady who famously baked this pie, and a merry Christmas to all.

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