In a personal essay for the Southern Foodways Alliance, journalist and writer Rosalind Bentley remembers how the women in her family made pies and cobblers out of Florida-grown sand-pears. Bentley beautifully describes harvesting, baking, and delighting in sand-pear pies as a tradition among them that marked the milestones of womanhood and knitted the family together through hardship.
Yet there were moments of light—and they often happened in our tiny kitchen. There’s the memory of Mama zesting lemons against the old aluminum grater for a lemon meringue pie, her lips pursed, humming as she worked. By the time the egg whites were whipped into peaks and spread atop the pie, she’d be three verses into her third hymn. There was old-style banana pudding, bread pudding studded with raisins, and I think once, when I was in Girl Scouts, there was an attempt at caramel apples. On rare occasions, there’d be a sand-pear pie.
I’d watch her work, as she mimicked her mother’s steps. I was too young to see how the rhythm of the rolling pin across the dough and the notes forming in my mother’s throat helped her bear a bone-deep sadness.
By seventh grade, I’d developed my first real crush on a boy. I imagined we’d get married, a union the very opposite of my parents’. It would be perfect in every way. My body was transforming, as were my appetites.
Two events stand out as markers of my budding: One is the day I told my mother we’d be better off without my father and that she should divorce him. At first her face registered shock. As I kept talking she began to relax. On some level, I knew he loved me and I wanted to believe he’d once loved her. But it was too late. She was tired and so was I. It was difficult after their divorce, but with the help of family and my mother’s penny-pinching, we made it.
The other is the day I decided to make a pear pie on my own. I think I was about thirteen, the same age my mom was when she left home. I’m pretty sure it was a Sunday after church. I followed her steps. Measure. Sift. Nutmeg. Plenty of sugar. Chips of butter. The kitchen was redolent as the pastry baked. When I pulled it from the oven, I was so proud. It hadn’t over-cooked, and I just knew it would dribble with honey-toned nectar when we lifted a slice from the pan.