I am grateful for recipes, the kind that are handed down from one generation to the next and to name my favourite of all those recipes would be a challenge because there are a few that are in the Recipe Hall of Fame, but if I was just thinking of me and my memories alone it would have to be my Grandma Sutherland’s Butterscotch Pie.
The image of my grandmother is blurred in my memory. She was short, with thick glasses and her hair was wrapped in something that resembled mosquito netting. I don’t recall her ever smiling and certainly can’t remember a single laugh. She frightened me – not with cruelty or meanness, but with her silence. Affection had no part in her demeanour. I didn’t clamour around her when she walked through our door, I just waited. But I knew one thing that dimmed her severity to a whisper — my grandmother’s butterscotch pie.
My grandmother lived a five-hour drive away from us so the number of times she visited our farm was few. When she did visit, some quiet magic erupted in the kitchen. First, my grandmother cleaned and organized all the kitchen cupboards. She never shook her head or clicked her tongue behind her teeth when she discovered the drawers in disarray or the pantry cluttered. She merely tidied and wiped the sticky exterior surfaces of the ketchup bottle or honey jar. The cans were stacked neatly; the spices were organized alphabetically, which I confirmed making certain the nutmeg came before the paprika.
When all was in order, my grandmother mixed up a batch of dinner rolls. Her fists and wrists wrestled with the dough, turning it over and over until it could rest. She shaped the dough into tiny dinner rolls, spaced them strategically apart in pans that she tucked in like a sleeping baby under a blanket, in the sun to raise. While the buns did their rising thing, my grandmother ironed. She ironed everything from socks to tea towels, pillowcases and hankies. During all this productive exercise she never uttered a word.
I watched my grandmother from under the dining room table or from behind the couch and though she surely knew I was there, she never let on. I examined her short thick legs below her dark sensible housedress, perched above black short-heeled shoes, her cardigan buttoned up tight.
To finish off her visit, my grandmother created her famous butterscotch pie. The recipe could be found in my mother’s worn recipe book with the navy blue cover, kept in the cupboard under the radio. The recipe cards inside were tattered and stained, most of them in my grandmother’s perfect handwriting. I knew she had taken great care in shaping the letters just right, lifting her pen at precisely the right moment, like figure-skating on paper. It was her handwriting that connected us as though all the secrets of my grandmother, her voice, her thoughts, were on those recipe cards.
The first ingredient of my grandmother’s butterscotch pie was butter the size of an egg. I say it over and over in my mind – butter the size of an egg. There was something about that ingredient that seemed almost magical, something parallel to eye of newt or mix together three days before a new moon.
Today we crave exactness, demand precise measure in everything we do from kilowatts per hour, calories per ounce, speed measured in hundredths of seconds, and pen on paper just never seems to happen. Yet it is this recipe that prevails and speaks to me across the years from a place where life seems almost languid, gentle, less demanding in retrospect. Nostalgia, of course, has a way of altering those images, shaving at the rough edges, smoothing away the bumps.
Butter the size of an egg, written by my grandmother’s hand, is a lullaby to me now that lulls me into a placewhere I’m not worrying about my daughters’ future or the state of our economy. I wonder about that egg and even that hen wandering under the maple tree near the barnyard and my longing softens my edges and slows my demands. I find myself wondering who will remember my handwriting, if anyone, and what will I have recorded there on the page.