As children grow up and leave the nest, long-held family holiday traditions change. Sometimes they’re replaced with new traditions, and sometimes the old traditions evolve to accommodate the current shape of family life.
Since their marriage nearly three years ago, Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law have alternated holidays between their families, spending Christmas with one and Thanksgiving with the other. Since they spent Thanksgiving with us in 2015, they celebrated Christmas with us in 2016.
Though we certainly miss their presence on Christmas, their absence on Thanksgiving is considerably more challenging as it affects the logistics of our annual pumpkin pie-making competition. Historically, the four of us siblings split into two teams and compete to see who can make the best pumpkin pie, using the same recipe that Oldest Younger Brother and I have used since childhood.
We aren’t the greatest bakers, though Oldest Younger Brother has shown marked improvement since moving out of the house and learning how to cook for himself. Making the “best” pumpkin pie means not making too many mistakes in measuring out the ingredients and coming up with a result that is generally edible.
Now that Sister-in-law has joined our family, we split up into one team of three and one team of two. But when Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law aren’t with us for Thanksgiving, there’s no fair way to divide the remaining three siblings.
This past Thanksgiving, Dad proposed a novel solution to our dilemma. Instead of us siblings competing, he and Mom would duke it out for best pumpkin pie bragging rights. They agreed that Dad would make the recipe we traditionally ruin – I mean, use – and Mom would make a recipe from one of her cookbooks.
Mom made her pie first, and her efforts quickly began to mirror that of myself and my younger siblings. She somehow managed to cut herself without having anything sharp in the vicinity, with the possible exception of a broken eggshell. It had been a while since Mom last used the mixer, so she had forgotten which direction to turn the dial to shut it off. Regrettably, she chose the wrong direction and pie filling sprayed across the counter.
Dad surveyed the scene and commented, “I made the turkey, and I didn’t use that many dishes.”
“You may have made the turkey, but I made the mess,” Mom cheerfully retorted.
Dad cleaned up the kitchen before starting his pie, for which he used one bowl and no mixer. Mom kept a close eye on him, jokingly criticizing his cooking process: “He’s looking a little messy over there.”
She nudged me. “Don’t have anything to drink before dinner. It might make Dad’s pie look better.”
Dad finished his pie – and both his and Mom’s cleanup – in 15 minutes. Mom’s pie preparation took about half an hour to 45 minutes.
In Mom’s defense, one reason it took her so long to make her pie was because she was simultaneously having a conversation with me, which impacted her ability to focus on what she was doing.
The other factor was Mom’s proclivity for substituting ingredients. Her theory is that if two ingredients are roughly the same color and texture, they are interchangeable. This has led to such occurrences as the Savory Muffin Incident, in which she substituted cilantro for parsley.
Cooking also brings out Mom’s natural creativity, which can lead to her adding ingredients that seem like they’ll mesh well with the rest of the recipe. Given her theory about substitution, this does not always end well.
In the case of the pumpkin pie, she was thinking about adding some additional spices. I ultimately talked her out of it, making the argument that she didn’t want to lose to Dad because she had strayed from the recipe.
Finally, it came time for the moment of truth – which, I must admit, was somewhat anticlimactic. Mom was especially eager to know our thoughts on the pies and which one we preferred, but it was hard to choose.
To my palate, both pies were excellent but similar, with Mom’s tasting a little bit sweeter and Dad’s having a slightly stronger pumpkin flavor. Youngest Brother and Younger Sister didn’t taste much of a difference either. To Mom’s great disappointment, it ended in a draw.
I will confess that my perception of the pies’ flavors may have been affected by the sizable amount of whipped cream I had automatically placed on my slices. After nearly three decades of eating burnt pies with incorrectly measured ingredients, it’s a reflexive act of self-preservation. Without a hefty serving of whipped cream, you might taste the pie, which isn’t always a good thing.
Though Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law are slated to spend Thanksgiving with us this year, it’s hard to say if the pie-making competition will revert to its previous format. Youngest Brother will be a sophomore in college and might study abroad, and Younger Sister will be a college freshman and may or may not come home for the holiday depending on her location. More changes will come over time as spouses, children and job changes continue to enter the picture.
Cherish the traditions you have while you have them and embrace the ways in which they evolve. It might require some adjustment on your part, but the new memories you make and the new adventures you have will be well worth it – especially if they involve your parents mocking each other’s pies.
– Teresa Santoski
Originally published Jan. 5, 2017