Home for the Holidays: The Great Belgian Pumpkin Pie Massacre
As a single working mother of twins in the '70s, my mother planned meals based on available coupons and recipes that had no more than four steps; if they could be prepared in fewer -- freezer to microwave to table -- that was even better. Thanksgiving dinner was no exception.
On our holiday table in suburban Los Angeles, the gravy was canned, the stuffing was boxed cubes of stale bread soaked in hot water and microwaved, and the "mashed potatoes" were freeze-dried beige flakes that, when mixed with heated milk, mutated into a purée. As a snotty teenager, during one Thanksgiving meal when my mom introduced the synthetic spuds as "mashed" to our unsuspecting neighbors, I remarked, "Don't you think you should call them stirred potatoes?" She gave me a (deserved) dirty look, and my brother kicked me under the table, causing the cranberry sauce, a garnet-colored replica of the can from which it was birthed, ridges and all, to jiggle. The best part of the meal was dessert, which was always pumpkin pie, though it, too, was quickly assembled like the rest of dinner. I can still hear the fork screeching on the sides of the metal bowl as my mom coerced the canned pumpkin into its arranged marriage to the evaporated milk, sugar and spices, which she then poured into a prefab graham cracker crust. My brother and I would spray heaping swirls of canned whipped cream onto each slice and usually asked for seconds.
More than two decades later, when I moved to Brussels, Belgium, with my husband, John, and daughter, Chloe, the last Thursday of November was like any other day, filled with work, school, laundry and other banalities of daily life. Local friends familiar with the holiday asked about Le Thanksgiving, as the French speakers called it, but I was happy to let the traditional American meal dissolve from our new expatriate life. As the years in Belgium clicked by, though, I began to feel guilty about depriving Chloe of this American rite of passage. She was barely 6 when we'd moved. Didn't she deserve a few family traditions and recipes to pass on to her kids someday? And so I resurrected Le Thanksgiving, my way.
Finding fresh ingredients wasn't difficult in Brussels. For my Thanksgiving feast I chose spindly green beans from an overflowing wooden crate at the local farmers' market and crisp green and red curly-lipped lettuce. Bins of Butterball turkeys were not so common, especially on a nameless Thursday in November, so I settled for a large roasting chicken plucked from the poultry truck at the same market. The Belgian love of potatoes was pervasive, so a mashed variety was a cinch. The pumpkin pie was trickier.
I'm not much of a baker and wanted to buy the dessert, but even with a vast assortment of bakeries in Brussels, I couldn't track down a pumpkin pie. I thought of skipping it altogether, but Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie would have been like the Fourth of July without fireworks. So I embarked on a quest to make it from scratch. "It will be our tradition," I told Chloe.
I couldn't find a pie pumpkin, so I bought a field pumpkin, the kind turned into jack-o-lanterns on Halloween. I nearly severed my fingers cutting the unyielding orange orb into pieces, which I arranged on a cookie sheet, skin down. They seesawed on their curved spines as I slid them into the oven. Chloe pulled out the spices we needed: ginger, clove and cinnamon. In an effort to put a Belgian twist on my American dessert, I chose a local cookie called speculoos for the crust, which we crumbled into a bowl and smothered with melted butter until the mixture was ready to be molded into shape.
We pushed and patted the crust into an even layer, then began to urge it up the sides of the pie dish. It wouldn't stick. We stared at it like it was a biology experiment. I balled it up, added more butter and patted it out again. Chloe eventually tired of the process and left me at this folly until my hands wore a glove of grease and the crust was finally glued in place. After the pumpkin had cooked and cooled, I put it in a blender with the evaporated milk, eggs, sugar and spices, then poured it into the buttery crust before maneuvering my Thanksgiving masterpiece into the oven.
When dinner was finally ready, John carved the chicken into juicy herb-crusted pieces and heaped perfectly lumpy potatoes, which I had mashed by hand, onto our plates. We smothered both with homemade gravy. The cranberry sauce was ruby red, made from real berries. It was a Thanksgiving meal like I had never had. And even though we'd been in Belgium for 4 years, we clinked glasses to Our First Belgian Thanksgiving Dinner.
Then came the pièce de résistance.
The knife slid easily into the pie's soft center and toward the edge of the dish, but the serrated blade couldn't penetrate the crust. As I chiseled and sawed away, pieces of speculoos launched like scorched missiles in every direction. The excess butter had caused the crust to harden and cement to the glass dish.
"It's completely stuck," I said. "I can't get it out."
I had run out of time earlier and hadn't made any whipped cream, so all I had to offer were spoonfuls of brownish-orange mush, which I heaped onto plates like the lunch lady in the school cafeteria. Dubious, we each took a bite. Our taste buds confirmed that something else had gone awry. As I dumped the ruined dessert, dish and all, into the garbage, I noticed the spices that Chloe had pulled out earlier still sitting on the counter.
I read the labels. "Ginger, clove and -- cumin?!" Not cinnamon.
We laughed until our sides hurt and toasted again, this time to the Pumpkin Pie Massacre of 2008.
When November rolled around the next year, I called my mom and asked her to ship me some canned pumpkin, a prefab piecrust and some allspice. I prepared dinner as I had the year before -- the chicken, the vegetables, the potatoes. When it came time for the pie, I assembled it just like my mom used to. It took less than 15 minutes, and when it was ready, we sprayed heaping swirls of canned whipped cream onto each slice, and went back for seconds.
Thinking about all this now, I realize that while the meals of my youth might not have been the best, what I remember is the three of us sitting down to dinner as a family each night at the Formica-topped table in our kitchen. For my mom, what she put on the plate was less important than putting herself in front of us, and the key ingredient she baked into every one of our dinners, including Thanksgiving, was family time.
On that night in far-off Belgium, I was thankful to make this tradition mine and pass it on.