My mother, Sandra C. Greer, was a James Beard/Julia Child/Joyce Chen kind of cook, the kind who can make anything, given a good recipe. And that is also no surprise: My mother is an experimental chemist. An unusual career for a woman who grew up in the ’50s. She once asked her mother to buy industrial-grade ethanol for an experiment; it was the only alcohol my grandmother, a devout Southern Baptist, ever purchased in her life. A sign of her love, and also, how my mother must have mystified her.
Chemistry took my mother away from the South. The flavors of her youth came to me only at Christmastime, when my whole family would climb into the car for the nine-hour trip from Maryland to South Carolina. And there we’d find Louise Thomason, my mother’s mother, fretting in her yellow housecoat, sparkling with joy to see us, hands white with flour, for she was making her annual speciality.
“Half-moon pies,” some people call them, but not Louise Thomason. These were fried pies so delicious that my Aunt Gwen would beg for them each year like a little girl. My grandmother (we called her Weesie) would nod as if considering the effort. “Now Gwen, you know it takes so much out of me,” she’d say, though we all knew she had cooked the peaches and frozen them months before in expectation, a ziploc bag already thawing in the fridge. Butter and flour, rolled out round, half filled with cooked peaches, folded over and fried (both sides) on an electric skillet until crisp. Served to four little boys and two grown daughters and their husbands.
Weesie never taught us how to make these pies ourselves, but we taught her something, my mother and I. It was the winter I turned 19 when I came home from college and told my parents I was gay—hardly a surprise. The surprise came later that night, when I had locked myself out of my car in a mall parking lot and my mother came to get me, sat in the front seat, and said, “I think I am too.” It was incredibly exciting—like finding out your mother is Spider-Man! I didn’t quite foresee, however, that she’d test the waters with our whole family, including my grandmother, by coming out for me first. And seeing what they said.
I don’t know exactly what Weesie said, but I do know what she did: called up the 1996 International Olympic Committee and told them not to carry the torch through Greenville County (her county) because of its resolution against homosexuality. And you know what? They didn’t! They put the torch in a motor home, drove it across the county, and started running again on the other side, headed for Atlanta.
Years later Weesie invited my boyfriend to visit when he was passing through on business. Two days spent preparing fried chicken and collard greens in anticipation of his visit. It shows the extent of her love for me that she brought him into her Christian house as she had once brought that industrial-grade ethanol. Her love also came by mail—pecans from her trees, chocolate chip cookies—until she passed at the age of 76. After her funeral, I found a ziploc of frozen peaches in her freezer, which I brought home to San Francisco and made into a cobbler because I’d never learned how to make the fried pies.
I think of my mother as an archeologist piecing together a long-buried creature, but the creature is not, as you would assume, her mother. The creature is herself. It is little Sandra, creating an ethanol rocket to the sound of her mother’s sewing machine, her sister teasing her with a biscuit stolen from the kitchen. The one who left her hometown, then her husband, for another life. A life of total freedom, romantic and intellectual. A life so different from her mother’s.
Yet one mystery remained: the fried pie. There is no recipe for it in Chemistry for Cooks. Only recently did I tell my mother how I missed these pies, how they felt lost forever. And only then did she nonchalantly produce an index card. “It’s your grandmother’s recipe,” she told me, “but not her handwriting. I wrote it down sometime in the ’70s.” I stared in shock. She had the recipe this whole time? And never made them? My mother shrugged, went back to her work.
Perhaps the recipe was something that just belonged to Weesie, or to Christmas, or to the life my mother had left behind. Perhaps it simply contained too much margarine. So I tried making the fried pies myself, substituting that margarine for butter. They were perfectly delicious. Exactly as Weesie used to make them.
Andrew Sean Greer has authored seven novels, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Less. Its follow-up, Less is Lost, is out now. So is his mother’s book, Chemistry for Cooks by Sandra C. Greer.