Monday, December 01, 2008

On Air Raid Sirens and Apple Pie

A funny thing happens at Thanksgiving. Maybe it's something in the turkey, maybe it's just a by-product of dusting off old food traditions, cooking and eating with family, but something about Thanksgiving makes people tell stories. This year, two stories were particularly striking to me. Sure, both were interesting in their own right, but the real story was the fact that the people telling these two very different tales, from opposite sides of the world, were sharing the same Thanksgiving table.

I spent Wednesday night my sister's house. I've decided that I'm totally over baking pie by myself in my tiny apartment kitchen; the aftermath, exhausted me alone with a sink full of dirty dishes, is just depressing. Thanksgiving would be a giant feast at my cousin Sisi’s house. She was having about fifty people over: her own aunts and cousins, plus a slew of relatives on her husband's side. Sisi depends on us young'uns to provide the "exotic American" dishes (you know, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes) for her Thanksgiving table, so staying at my sister's was the best idea ever: three spazzy kids running around, a dishwasher and a KitchenAid, plus cooking a ton of food with my sister -- what more could I ask for?

Well, Grandma Nanny's apple pie, of course. When it comes to Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law Ray is the best thing that ever happened to my family. We're immigrants, after all, so our Thanksgiving table can be a little unorthodox (gruel, anyone?). If it weren't for him, we'd never know the glory of stuffing or cranberry sauce. And every year, he makes apple pie. By the time I got to their house on Wednesday, two pies were already cooling on the counter (at some point he got wise to making two: one to take to Thanksgiving, one to tear into at home).

Later that night, with sweet potatoes all mashed and streuseled and stuffing ready for the oven, we sat down for the first round of pie and stories. Grandma Nanny, Ray's dad's mom, was known for her pies, he told us, and in her home in Maryland, she'd make at least 8 pies every Thanksgiving, and several different varieties at that. Since she passed away in 1993, Ray has been making her apple pie recipe -- well, minus the homemade crust -- every Thanksgiving. As his daughter listened intently to his story, we could see how much fondness he had for his grandmother, and how much it meant to him to share this delicious bit of her legacy with his family.

It's been a rough year for my sister's family. Then again, it seems like every year has a hefty share of both minor annoyances and significant ordeals raising three kids. Don't get me wrong -- they have plenty to be thankful for, and they know it, but there's always something. Did they really need the electric company to shut off their power one night last week at 9 o'clock? On Sisi's couch, she was telling us about this latest injustice, when Mahzad, one of the in-law cousins, interjected.

"That was my life for two or three years. Maybe ten times a day."

You wouldn't guess it seeing her today, always graceful as she walks in with her husband and two gorgeous daughters, but Mahzad has been through some things. She and her family came to the United States a few years after we did -- she was a teenager at the time -- so they were in Iran through the revolution, and into the war with Iraq. Air raid sirens became commonplace, she told us, but one night stuck in her head. They didn't have a phone in their apartment, so her parents had stepped out to the local phone booth to make a call. She was alone with her two-month-old brother when the sirens started going off. A child herself, she swooped up baby brother and started the trek downstairs to the bomb shelter. She kept her pace as people rushed past her. By the time the sirens ended, they hadn't even made it to the underground shelter, so they just turned back around. But this chilling night was the last straw for her, and one that stays in her head.

"My nightmare is thunder. And fireworks. I become that child again," she told us, as her baby brother, now in his second year of pharmacy school, sat beside her.

I have a feeling that 15 years ago, when Ray first thought of sharing Grandma Nanny's pie with his future family, he didn't have his wife's cousin's husband's niece in mind. And visions of stuffing and pecan pie in a California home surely weren't filling young Mahzad's mind when she was growing up in war-torn Tehran. But there they were, post-turkey lounging as their daughters played together in the next room. Here, it's all just family.

Grandma Nanny's Apple Pie

1 pckg. deep dish pie crust (Ritz or Pillsbury is good)
3 lbs. granny smith apples
1 stick butter (somehow Ray always ends up using more)

Preheat oven to 400F. Line pie pan with one pie crust. Peel and slice apples. Mix cinnamon and sugar. Layer apples and cinnamon sugar in pie crust. Dot with butter. Be generous and pile high. Cover with second pie crust and crimp corners together. Cut a few slits into top crust. Dot with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake for 50 minutes.


  1. Wish you could have met Ray's Grandma Nanny -- every bit as sweet and warming as her apple pie. And Ray certainly does it justice.

    Another strong and beautiful woman joining your lovely family through the legacy of pie.

  2. This post makes me wish my family had a legacy of pie.

  3. Carolyn is right about Grandma Nanny. She was really special, and exactly what a grandma should be: sweet, loving, kind, welcoming, fluffy and great to hug and she always smelled like powder. She must love that her beloved Ray continues making her pie to this day.

    Good post, tannazie. It was a good day and lovely to have all the family and the food and the stories. Nobody does the big family gatherings like us, and we have just enough crazy thrown in to make it interesting.

    Brad, when we adopt you, your family will have a legacy of not just pie, but tequila as well. There's not really much more you can ask for.

  4. Hi Tannaz,

    Thank you for the wonderful post on Thanksgiving and sharing the stories that go along with it. I'm glad you all were able to share a great Thanksgiving together after those experiences.

    The apple pie sounds delicious; thanks for the recipe! :)

  5. Tspwlv, my only request is that you add pool-side BBQs to that list. We could even start a religion and use pie, tequila, and BBQ as the holy trinity. We should probably see if is taken yet.

  6. Um, Brad, you ought to get right on that. Then make a google map of all the places in the world where pie, tequila and poolside bbq are popular.

  7. ok, here we go...

    Ms IslandPearl, after hearing Ray's accounts of Grandma Nanny, and yours and Torreh's as well, I wish I could have met her too! She sounds so lovely.

    And Brad, of course your family has a legacy of pie -- 1/4 of a pie per person at every meal! And now my sister is adopting you? Well, good luck.. But yeah, adopted or not, I think we have already begun creating the tequilapiebbq legacy. And I must say, I'm really proud of what we're leaving the world.

    And ExileKiss, thank you! I'd love to hear about your Thanksgiving, too -- everyone seems to have an interesting story in our LA melting pot...