In the World War II days when gas was rationed, cars were kept running many times by wishful thinking, and the drive from Cincinnati to Dayton, Ohio, was a two-hour journey over country roads, our family made the trip several times a year to visit my paternal grandmother. My little sister and I called her “Grandma-up-Dayton” and looked forward to leaving our inner city apartment behind and spending some time in rural Vandalia, just outside of Dayton. I have a feeling our visits were unplanned most of the time with my father coming home from work on a Friday and suggesting we run up and see his mother. I can still see Grandma standing at the door of her little house, wearing a dark dress and white apron, peering out into the twilight to see who had pulled onto her property on a secluded country road. As we got out of the car, she would smile broadly and say, “Oh, it’s Johnny!”, acknowleging in that exclamation that it was Johnny, his wife and two little girls.
Many times as we came into the house she would say that she had just made a few chocolate pies. She worked as a cook in a high school cafeteria during the day and came home at night to bake a few treats.
Cooking at all wasn’t easy in her small kitchen. There was a large table, some chairs, some cabinets against the wall and a coal/wood burning kitchen stove. Grandma must have had an ice box of some kind, but I don’t remember seeing it. There was an outside door that led to a slope and the water pump. On a stool by the door was an enamel washpan and towel so we could wash up in stone-cold water after making the long trek down the slope and on down the path to the outhouse. There was a 3-foot tall metal lard can in the kitchen which I used as my chair when I was there. There was a small window near the stove and tin cans were tossed out and onto a dump in back of the house. No actual garbage was thrown away – scraps were given to the chickens – so the dump wasn’t really dirty. Sometimes my little sister and I would wander around through the dump looking for different can labels and seeing brands that we didn’t get in Cincinnati. We had to be careful – the real danger was in picking up a can with the rough sawtooth edge that the old can openers used to make.
There was various framed artwork on the kitchen wall, but the one I always loved was one in sepia tone of chubby pigs leaning on a fence with a frame that had tiny metal pigs running along the bottom. At some point Grandma gave me the picture and I had it hanging in my dining room for a good while. Finally, the frame came apart and the picture was damaged, but I still have it and enjoy seeing those cheerful little pig faces.
Grandma always had cream on hand to whip and add to the big slices of pie which already had a 2″ layer of meringue. She was an excellent cook and to taste a freshly-made chocolate pie in that little country kitchen is a lasting memory.
I don’t have the recipe for Grandma’s pie but my version won a ribbon at the Ohio State Fair in 1987.
RICH CHOCOLATE PIE
- 9″ baked pie shell (see here for recipe)
- Two one-oz squares of unsweetened chocolate
- 1-1/2 cups milk, divided
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 eggs, separated
- 2 Tblsp. butter
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar (for meringue)
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla (for meringue)
- 6 Tblsp. sugar (for meringue)
Combine chocolate and ONE CUP OF MILK in 2 qt. heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until chocolate is melted. Stir in brown sugar.
Combine REMAINING MILK with flour in a small cup, mixing until smooth. Gradually stir the milk/flour mixture into the chocolate mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens.
Beat 3 egg yolks slightly, stir a little of the hot mixture into the yolks, blending well. Stir yolk mixture into hot mixture. Cook over LOW heat, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes. Turn into baked shell. Cover with meringue and brown in 325 degree F oven for approximately 10 minutes. Cool on wire rack.
Beat 3 egg whites with cream of tartar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar, a small amount at a time, and continue beating until mixture forms stiff peaks but is not dry. Spread on top of pie, sealing to edge of pastry.
We usually just stayed overnight and headed back home the next day. My father was always irritated that Grandma loaded up our car with food but Mother was so grateful for the canned blackberry jam, produce and boxes of candy bars bought at the school kitchen. I remember one time Grandma sneaked in a full chocolate meringue pie for our trip back home. Along the way, one of our tires went flat and since my father was never prepared with a spare, my mother, sister and I waited for an hour or so in the car along the side of the road for him to come back with the patched tire. We were getting hungry and here was this beautiful pie, but we didn’t have a knife to cut it. Then, my mother thought of the car key, wiped it off carefully and used it to slice up the pie to eat out of hand. Nothing ever tasted better. My oldest daughter was always intrigued by this story and wrote her own blog version of it.
I inherited my grandma’s love of cooking and baking pies is one of my favorite pasttimes.
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