My grandmother Bunny was a self-taught cook. She got married in her early 20s, and when she first approached the stove, she was armed only with a copy of the Joy of Cooking, a scant amount of hands-on experience, and a sense of adventure. She had grown up with a mother who tended to cook vegetables until they were limp and formless and stewed pieces of meat until they were gray and stringy. And she knew she didn’t want to do it that way.
When she married my grandfather, she moved out of her parents’ house in suburban Philadelphia to an old farmhouse on a rural parcel of land in Alexandria, Virginia. She dove into her new home with the enthusiasm that comes naturally to people who are young and besotted. She planted a sprawling vegetable garden and bought a selection of hens from a neighbor.
Many of her first cooking experiments were flops, but a few were such successes that they became permanent additions to our family food lexicon. One recipe that has endured is the one for pinch pie, a pie that isn’t actually a pie at all. It’s a big meringue shell, sculpted from stiffly beaten egg whites on a greased serving platter with the aid of a rubber spatula and two damp fingers. It gets baked at a low temperature for a couple of hours, until the meringue develops a fragile outer crust and browns gently on the whirly tips. Just before serving, the shell is filled with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and strawberries. Sometime during the 1980s, one of my dad’s brothers came up with the idea to sprinkle toasted slivered almonds on top, an addition that seamlessly became part of the recipe.
The first pinch pie in our family was made as a special Valentine’s Day dessert for Bunny’s husband, Dick, in 1941. It was a recipe she cut out of a ladies’ magazine, even though she really wasn’t the ladies’-magazine type. Bunny made the shell in the shape of a heart, and picked white and red fillings to complement the holiday. I’ve always imagined her standing in the kitchen of her farmhouse in Virginia, apron wrapped about her waist, her feet in old canvas sneakers, determinedly whipping those egg whites into serviceable peaks with a rotary hand mixer, excited to present this exotic dessert to her hardworking husband.
In later years, Bunny said that she could do without nearly every modern kitchen gadget except the electric hand mixer, as it made the preparation of this single dessert so much simpler. By that point, every one of her children and grandchildren would request pinch pie for their birthday-dinner dessert. There were long stretches of years during which she made at least one a month.
Bunny always used the same large white serving dish that belonged to her mother for pinch pie. At one point in time, the edge of the plate had been rimmed with a narrow band of gold leaf, but years of use had rubbed away nearly every trace of decoration. I remember helping her prepare that platter for shell building by rubbing it with the wrapper from a stick of butter. Sadly, much of Bunny’s china broke during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, including that platter.
When my family moved to Portland, Oregon, we were no longer within celebratory-dinner range of Bunny’s big house in California. I was nine years old, struggling to adjust to a new city, still completely devoted to family tradition. I insisted that pinch pie appear at birthday dinners, even if we weren’t in California anymore.
For that first solo pinch pie, I called Bunny three times to ask for guidance. It became a tradition for me to call her each time I was preparing to make pinch pie, although by my fourth or fifth go-round, I pretty much had it down. Each time we talked, I wrote down the instructions; I still have every one of those scraps of paper, each offering a slightly different iteration, as if each passing year gave Bunny confidence that I could handle a more nuanced approach.
Bunny died when I was 14, but by then she had imparted nearly all of her pinch-pie knowledge to me. I’ve taken her place in the family as the official holder of the recipe, and am often called on by my parents, sister, and cousins to prepare it for birthdays, anniversary celebrations, and Valentine’s Day dinners.
It’s a responsibility I’ve taken on happily. Each time I pull out my file of recipe notes, I spend a little time visiting with thoughts of Bunny, my childhood, and my very young grandparents cozily eating dessert together on that Valentine’s Day in 1941.
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