Thanksgiving is drawing near, and like many, I’ve begun preparing. There are oversized casserole dishes to locate and wash, ingredient lists to be written, and cups of blackberries that I picked and froze this past summer to be counted. Blackberries may seem like a square peg in Thanksgiving’s round hole, but in my family, they’re critically important and deeply appreciated for one simple reason: Nanny’s blackberry pie.
I grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a small town in the state’s southwest. My maternal grandparents, Nanny and Papa, lived just two miles away, and we saw each other weekly. Until I grew up and moved away, I had no idea how lucky I’d been to have them play such important roles in my life. Both were very poor as children, and only Papa received a college education, but they modeled so many things that can’t be bought: dignity, grace, generosity, humility, the importance of hard work and school.
They lived in a graceful, white wooden home on a corner lot in the old part of town. Near the carport was a grassy area that sizzled for hours each day under the intense Louisiana sun. A thicket of hybridized blackberry bushes once grew there. Papa planted them in the 1960s, and they thrived for decades, including all the years of my childhood.
During blackberry season, Nanny sent my sister and me out to the patch with deep, empty, well-worn bowls. Those berries were the stuff of dreams. Each was the size of a man's knuckle, studded with an obscene number of taut drupes full of sweet-zingy nectar the color of a raven's coat. But the bushes had thorns the size of falcon talons, and we quickly learned that no matter how badly we wanted the fresh fruit, it was never worth carelessly plunging a bare arm in.
Both [Nanny and Papa] were very poor as children, and only Papa received a college education, but they modeled so many things that can’t be bought: dignity, grace, generosity, humility, the importance of hard work and school.
While we picked, eating the best specimens along the way, Nanny waited for us back in the kitchen, sitting patiently at the head of her 1950’s black Formica table. Once our bowls were full, we’d hurry back in to Nanny and her sugar bowl. She watched with a smile as we plunged berry after berry into the sweet snow; sugar perfectly offsets the tanginess of the berries, and we dipped and ate until we felt we'd burst.
What we couldn’t eat, Nanny cooked into blackberry pies. Her pie will forever live in the pantheon of our family's culinary traditions. It's the one recipe that everyone loves. My husband asked that nine of them stand in place of groom's cake at our wedding, my son requests it for birthday breakfasts, my sister makes it for her Italian in-laws, and it’s been a stalwart presence on our holiday tables for as long as I can remember. Everyone fights, fork against fork, for the last piece.
Nanny is gone now, and I miss her all the time. I’ll never forget her love or her lessons, her patient guiding hands. As I set blackberry pies atop my own family’s Thanksgiving table, I whisper thanks for all she taught me: the loving act that is cooking for others, the simple joy in sitting around a table together, and the marvelous balance that can be struck between life’s tangy and sweet elements.
Emily Nichols Grossi is a stay-at-home mother of two spirited sons and a canning and preservation instructor who can’t stop cooking. She also writes and photographs Em-i-lis, a sassy mishmash of all things motherhood and food. She lives in Washington, D.C., but part of her heart remains in Louisiana.