In every family, there are food memories and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. Each year, on birthdays, and at holiday gatherings, the preparation of treasured family recipes and the sharing of their backstories have become a part of the family’s collective food memories. This Memorial Day 2020, the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us are staying at home because of Covid-19 health concerns. Unable to gather with friends and family, I will instead share the food story of my mother’s Memorial Day lemon meringue pie.
As a child, I thought meringue was something akin to clouds and angels. Only a chosen few, it seemed to me, could make a pie that mirrored a cloud burnt by sunlight. When it came to meringue, Mom was definitely in the company of angels. Last year, just shy of 100, my mother joined the angels and to my knowledge, my sisters and I don’t have a handwritten recipe card spelling out how she created her first lemon meringue pie.
A few years ago, while visiting my family in San Antonio, I found a cookbook called “Diner Food” that Mom had probably purchased at an estate sale. It’s a delicious collection of comfort food recipes, including one for lemon meringue pie. Serving the “food of the common people,” roadside diners drew on America’s romance with the old Pullman dining cars of the 1920s. It was comforting fare that came at a bargain price, making diners affordable even in the leanest years of the Great Depression. By the 1950s, diners were an American institution. We were a nation on the move in brand new automobiles painted apple pie á la mode colors. Diners fueled mobile Americans filled with postwar optimism, a sense of prosperity, and an appetite for living.
Like the American diner, lemon meringue pie is itself a kind of American tradition. While pastry shells filled with lemon curd can be traced back to European kitchens, topping the lemon filling with meringue dates from the 1800s. Custard pies came out of kitchens in the pre cholesterol-conscious days when Americans ate eggs with abandon. The filling is a carefully blended and cooked mixture of sugar, cornstarch, salt, water, egg yolks (4), butter, and fresh lemon juice. The meringue is the stuff of air. Egg whites (5) and cream of tartar whipped into peaks, with a dash of sugar and salt and then, more vigorous beating until finally stiff peaks can be formed with the back of a spoon.
The recipe in “Diner Food” warns that every ingredient should be measured ahead and be at the ready. When the filling finally thickens and is poured hot into a pre-baked pie shell, the moment for meringue arrives. The beater hits the egg whites and the cook invokes the angels, praying for miraculous transformations of air and water into snow-capped peaks. Four minutes later, a mountain of meringue is piled onto the still hot lemon filling, peaks are pushed even higher with the back of a spoon, and the pie is put in a moderate oven for 12-15 minutes until the meringue’s peaks and moraines turn golden, as if kissed by the sun.
I like to make this pie for Memorial Day because it reminds me of the years when Mom often looked upward for strength, praying for Dad to return safely from the Pacific Theater in the final months of World War II. It was likely then that Mom turned to her Good Housekeeping cookbook and made her first lemon meringue pie.
In the garden this morning, I cut fresh asparagus and a bouquet of irises and peonies. It is a quiet place to think about this most American of days. I see cemeteries across the country, row after straight row of small American flags by granite stones marking the memory of American veterans–brave sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, who gave their lives in the service of their country.
This Memorial Day, I’ve opened my “Diner Food” cookbook and will once again bake a lemon meringue pie, to honor my father’s service and my mother who kept our home in balance all those decades ago. And this year, in an effort to support Covid-19 food relief in our community, I encourage each of you to visit The Common Ingredient (www.thecommoningredient.com.) It is a recently launched webpage where Missouri friends and family are sharing their food stories and recipes. In times of war and food insecurity, we are all in this together.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.