Pavlovian (Pumpkin) Pie

Pavlovian (Pumpkin) Pie

The days grow short, winter’s bite sharpens the air, and pumpkin spice latte is every coffee shop’s special. I pour through food magazines, reading recipes for pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin bundt cake, pumpkin flan, brandied pumpkin cake, pumpkin crème brulee, and the gazillion other iterations of Thanksgiving dessert that are this year’s must-trys for home cooks.

I inspect them with interest, and then, always, make my mom’s pumpkin pie.

Like Pavlov’s dog, only I am triggered by frosty mornings and the smell of dying leaves to follow her recipe.

Then the inevitable happens: I’ll be somewhere in the multi-stepped baking process — scraping the gooey seeds from a gourd, rolling out the crust praying I don’t rend the delicate dough, or pouring the filling in, careful to avoid bubbles — when the thought pops into my head.

Whoever coined the phrase “easy as pie,” I think, is full of s@#%.

Binging on Breaking Bad is easy. Procrastinating is easy. My mom’s pumpkin pie, however, is decidedly not easy.

Baking this pie is a two-day process at minimum, and that’s just kitchen time. Its creation also hinges on the vagaries of the summer weather, the success of a pumpkin patch an entire state away, and the 500-mile transport of an orange globe.

But whew, is it sublime. And more than that, it has evolved into an expression of love and celebration of my family that’s almost compulsory, a nonnegotiable holiday tradition.

Why do I believe in it so ardently?

Because it begins in the soil. Each summer, Miriam grows a small patch of French pie pumpkins in the corner of her backyard in Wyoming. As long as the weather or the deer don’t get them, these gourds come off the vine like the Marilyn Monroe of the pumpkin world: beautiful, voluptuous, radiant, and just the right size. They seem to glow from within like koi fish or blazing aspens.

After she harvests them, she makes sure to get at least one to my kitchen. Often she drives it down to southern Colorado on a fall visit. But she’s not afraid to package it up and ship it.

Ever received a pumpkin in the mail? Your co-workers will look at you funny.

One fall day when I have a few hours on my hands, I process the pumpkin: digging out the gloppy seeds, carving the gourd into chunks, roasting them until a fork slides easily through, and scraping the flesh into my food processor, where it is transformed into a puree as strikingly orange as a grove of maples in the fall. It takes most of a day and makes a hell of a mess.

And only then is it time to start the pie.

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