Let’s talk about shrimp pie. The one I just pulled out of the oven bears very little resemblance to the one my wise-woman mother makes. During a recent visit to her and my stepfather Lee’s oasis in East Haddam, CT, I indulged (overindulged? Nah!) in her perfect version of this recipe. When I returned home to Atlanta, I decided to try to make what has become one of my mother's signature family dishes myself. Like I said, Little Resemblance.
Food is an interesting thing. The smell, the texture, the colors – or lack thereof – all combine to create a family history. The smell of coffee and cigarettes (although rarely do I ever smell them together anymore because nobody I know smokes, and smoking has been banned in most public places, including coffee shops) will always and forever conjure the image of my great grandfather, wearing a white tank undershirt and khaki workpants. He was a gentle soul and I miss him; but that smell will always bring him back to me, even though I was a very small child when he passed.
Food is an interesting thing. It heals. It celebrates. It mourns. It sustains on a daily basis. It journeys with us from generation to generation. In today’s world of far-flung families, fast food, households with two working parents - or one - with no time at all for a food tradition, I fear that passing family recipes from generation to generation is becoming a lost art. Our sense of smell is our most powerful sense. It has the most direct link to our brains, triggering distant memories that we didn’t know we still had. Even though I have not eaten red meat for more than 20 years, the smell of burgers on a grill still makes my mouth water and I think of summer cookouts. It is a ridiculously happy smell. Carefree, warm, summertime – and the livin’ is easy.
I do have a recipe for my mother’s macaroni and cheese and, after countless attempts, I feel I am getting closer to hers. I may never duplicate it, but half the fun is trying and, perhaps that is what’s most important, to always try. If I succeed in making it just like she does, then what? Trying sustains the relationship. With this shrimp pie debacle, there will be phone calls, coaching, encouragement, and the knowledge that I will, in the future, savor her perfect pie again – and I will take notes. Sharing food, learning recipes, standing side by side in the kitchen learning from my mother – wise woman that she is – is the journey. It is life.
My six-year-old son learned to make his own cheese sandwiches (the only thing he will eat, and I will never look at a cheese sandwich again without thinking of him) when he was four, standing on a step stool next to me at the kitchen counter. He also makes Christmas cookies with me every year. Just like I did with my mother.
So, my shrimp pie was the ugliest shrimp pie I have ever seen. It smelled similar to mom’s, but that was the only similarity. The crust was a disaster. It didn’t help that my son was careening through the kitchen and I dropped the crust on the pie and spent ten minutes trying to reassemble the resulting pastry jigsaw puzzle. My fresh herbs, which I bought, then ran out of time to use right away, didn’t freeze well and the cilantro was a horrible casualty. Nevertheless I’ll try it again, with some coaching from my wise-woman mom. The next time it might be better, or it might not. But the beauty of food is that every time I try, it will bring my mother closer to me. We live far apart from each other, but food spans the miles. And even though this time my pie bears little resemblance to hers, my mom was here with me tonight. And I’ll keep trying.
Leslie Germaine is marketing manager for an Atlanta construction company. She is also Lyn May’s daughter.