Custard Pies and Family Reunions

Egg custard pie was my favorite. Mama stood in the kitchen, Grandma Payne’s recipe card propped at eye level in the window, the green glass mixing bowl in front of her, as she combined milk, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla. She whisked the mixture and poured it into the unbaked pie shells resting on the oven racks. She slid the metal rack carefully into the oven and closed the door. As minutes ticked, the aroma of the baked custard filled the room. She only made them for special occasions, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and family reunions. She always baked two, and two were never enough. Not a piece was left after the first round of dessert.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were close together, but the family reunion was in June. Six months was a long time to wait for my pies, so when the time rolled around, I was excited. Mama spent the morning baking and my mouth watered until I didn’t think there could be any wet left in it. We loaded the car and headed to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

Grandma had been cooking all day the day before and all that morning too. Her kitchen table was covered with bowls, platters, glass jars, dishes, and baskets. Potato salad, baked beans, a picnic shoulder ham, chocolate layer cake, deviled eggs, three kinds of homemade pickle, strawberry jam, buttery yeast rolls, cookies, and fried chicken waited for places in the picnic basket, coolers, and trunk of the car. After arranging, rearranging, stacking, and praying, the trunk finally shut, but the two custard pies were still in the backseat of the car. Mama and Grandpa always rode up front and argued over directions. Grandma and I rode together in the backseat, ignoring them and telling secrets.

“Oh no,” Mama said. “We forgot the pies. Where will be put them? There’s no room in the trunk. It’s slam full.”

“Let’s put them in the floorboard,” Grandma said. “There’s plenty of room for Margaret-Dawn and me if we scootch together a little bit.”

I slid over close to Grandma and she hugged me tight against her soft padding. She smiled down at me.

Mama carefully placed the plastic wrapped custard pies on the floorboard behind the driver’s seat. “Now you watch your feet,” she said to me. “Don’t be stepping in my pies.”

All went well on the drive over the mountain. Grandma and I counted cows, looked for John Deere tractors and whispered secrets about a package of chocolate chip cookies with my name on them packed into the corner of the picnic basket. We laughed at my silly joke about the chicken and the lollipop, and decided what we were going to fill our plates with when we got to the reunion.

Two and a half hours after we left Grandma and Grandpa’s, Mama pulled off the main highway onto the gravel road leading to the picnic shelter. I could see all my aunts, uncles, and cousins up ahead. While the women arranged dishes on the long tables, the men unloaded coolers of drinks and fired up the grill for hamburgers and hot dogs. My cousins were already having fun. Some pitched horseshoes, others unloaded fishing gear. Several flew kites.

The car rolled to a stop and I slid across the seat to jump out the door. I felt the mistake before I saw it, the soft squish under my foot. In my excitement, I put my foot right in the middle of one of Mama’s custard pies. “Oh no,” I said looking down at the sneakered instigator.

“What’s wrong?” Mama asked, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror.

I felt the heat rise into my face. “I stepped in the pie,” I whispered.

“You didn’t!” Mama yelled.

“Don’t you get on her,” Grandma admonished. “She was just excited. Besides, it’s my fault. I told you to put them on the floor. No harm done.” She frowned at my Mama, giving her the look my Mama often gave me.

“No harm?” Mama asked, her own face turning its own shade of red as she opened her door and turned to open mine. She flung it wide and stared at the ruined pie with the imprint of my shoe neatly cratered into it. “Look what you did,” she accused, as I started to cry.

Grandma patted my knee. “Don’t you cry. We have enough food to feed an army in this car. No one will ever know there were two pies. It’ll be our little secret,” Grandma said, winking at me.

Mama rolled her eyes and huffed her anger as she grabbed the remaining pie and turned to the trunk with her keys in her hand. Grandpa opened his door and headed to the back of the car to help her unload. Grandma sat still, waiting with me, handing me a tissue from her purse. “Don’t you feel bad,” she said. “Accidents happen to the best of us. I dropped a whole bowl of watermelon on the floor this morning. You just sit here with me for a few minutes and get yourself together. Let your Mama work off that steam she’s built up.”

I sniffled and stared at the stupid pie.

“You should have seen that mess I made,” Grandma said. “Watermelon from one end of the kitchen to the other. I wanted to cry too, almost did. Then I got to thinking.”

I looked up at her. “You did?” I asked.

“Yep, sure did. More for me, I decided. I cleaned that mess up, ate the pieces that stayed in the bowl ’til I had my fill and threw the rest away. No harm done. Just a little clean-up, that’s all. Reach down there and hand me that pie,” she said.

I reached down and picked up the still plastic wrapped dessert and handed it to my Grandma. She held it in one hand as she fished around in her purse with the other. Finally, she pulled out a plastic spoon and smiled.

I looked at her, confused.

“Clean-up,” she said. “I always carry one of these for just such an occasion.” She wiped the spoon with another of her tissues. She grinned at me. “Let’s unwrap this and have us some.”

“But it’s ruined,” I said.

“Tastes just as good with a footprint as without,” she said, unwrapping the pie and digging in for a bite. Then she handed me the spoon. “See how lucky we are,” she said. “A whole pie all to ourselves.”

I grabbed the spoon and dug in.

“You sure you didn’t plan this all along?” Grandma asked me, winking and wiping the corner of her mouth with her tissue.

To this day, custard pies are still my favorite.

Grandma Payne’s Custard Pie Recipe

3/4 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tbl. flour
2 cups milk
nutmeg

Mix sugar, salt and flour well. Add eggs, milk and vanilla. Mix all well, pour into deep dish unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle nutmeg on top of pie. Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees, then turn down to 325 degrees. Bake until pie is done (knife comes out clean).

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