In the winter of 1990 I was a young US Marine stationed in Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield. At a time before e-mail and the Internet, our lifeline to friends and family was the mail we sent and received. I can still remember the excitement and anticipation of assembling for evening mail call.
One evening the mail sergeant called my name and, instead of a letter, handed me a large box from my grandmother back in Oklahoma. One of the great hardships of the war for me was the absence of my grandmother's cooking – her skillet-fried chicken and okra, corn bread, and, most of all, her desserts. But on this evening I was about to take a gastronomic journey home: I opened the box to find two dozen of my grandmother's apricot fried pies.
A buddy from New York approached and asked me what I had received. I couldn't answer; my mouth was full of apricot pie. So I just offered him one.
"These are awesome!" he said. "What are they?"
He had to wait a few moments for an answer, but eventually I explained. As insurance, I offered him another pie to keep quiet. After all, my supply of this Southern staple was finite, and I was pretty sure none of the other marines had any fried pies there in camp.
Once a day for the next three weeks, I indulged my palate and returned home to my grandmother's kitchen, if only for a few sweet bites at a time.
Some of my earliest recollections involve my grandmother's pies and especially her sweet, flaky crusts. She made them from memory and had been baking pies since before the Great Depression. It didn't matter what pie-filling ingredients you gave her, she knew what to do. She would have dazzled the judges on today's TV cooking challenges.
I remember coming across a persimmon tree once while out hiking. It was autumn, and the fruit was soft and sweet. I picked a few dozen and brought them to Grandma. The next day I walked into her kitchen to find a persimmon pie waiting for me.
As I grew, my love of pies never waned. I had pies in place of a groom's cake at my wedding.
I made pies, too. One afternoon I placed a warm chocolate cream pie on the counter to cool before leaving the house to run an errand. My mouth watered just thinking about that pie, and I resolved to have a piece the moment I returned. But when I walked back into the house, something was amiss. The pie's pretty cream topping and its smooth chocolate filling were gone. All that remained was a greasy-looking crust with what looked like a chocolate finger painting on the bottom. What had become of my beautiful pie? Then I saw Ollie, my wheaten terrier, watching me from the corner – licking his lips.
Like Ollie, I'll eat almost any pie you put in front of me. Ask about my favorite, and I'll say I have two: hot and cold.