20 guests, 19 pies: My Mother’s Demented, Glorious Thanksgiving Baking Extravaganza

What to eat. What not to eat.
Nov. 22 2011 7:24 AM

20 Guests, 19 Pies

What happens when a Thanksgiving tradition gets completely out of hand.

Pie!
The Plotz family's wonderful and absurd Thanksgiving pie tradition

Photograph by Paul Plotz

When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.”

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

From Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At 5:15 p.m., after the turkey and trimmings, after the traditional neighborhood walk, after a few stolen moments of football watching, after the first round of washing dishes, we line up in the study. At first, it is an orderly line, children and older guests at the front, family in the back.

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The pies cover the entire desk, and spill over onto a bookshelf. Several are held in reserve—just in case. (In case of what, no one knows.) In recent years, they have been labeled carefully by the grandkids. The traditional pies are there, of course: a pumpkin, a pecan, several kinds of apple. The line jostles toward the cluster of creamy pies: lemon meringue, lemon cream, grasshopper, and, of course, mocha chocolate crunch (about which more below). In the far corner are the pies that only my father eats: mince, minty sly, ecclefechan tart, and funeral. The two flat golden pies, derby and frangipane, are impossible to tell apart. Hardest to reach, in the center of the table, are the experimental pies: pomegranate, coffee maple-walnut, and crab-apple pie with cider vinegar.

Nineteen pies in all, for a Thanksgiving party of 20.

The first cut is made, usually my mother dishing mocha chocolate crunch for a grandchild. And then, chaos. The line dissolves. It’s every piehole for himself, until, 45 minutes later, we all collapse, insentient, on the floor of the living room.

My mother, a retired English professor, is a doting grandmother, a brilliant scholar, and a great wit. She is thrifty in her tastes—I can’t remember the last thing she bought for herself—and small of appetite. But in this one way she is extravagance itself. Her Thanksgiving pie spectacle—enough pie to feed 80 or 100 guests—is excessive, bizarre, and sometimes even grotesque.

Yet it has also become the only holiday tradition that anyone in our family cares about. My children look forward to pie for weeks. We have friends who once rejiggered their holiday plans just to drop by for Thanksgiving dessert. My own favorite few minutes of the year are the ones just before the slicing begins, when I reconnoiter the pie room, and plan my assault. Apricot this year? Or the new apple crumb pie? A huge slice of cherry or just a sliver?