My Family Recipe

The Butterscotch Pie Recipe Grandma Carried With Her Through the War

This week's My Family Recipe: on inheritance, midlife crises, and time travel.

February  1, 2020
Photo by ROCKY LUTEN. FOOD STYLIST: ANNA BILLINGSKOG. PROP STYLIST: AMANDA WIDIS.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.


The copper mines in my hometown closed in 1987, when I was 13. A few years later the river flooded, nearly washing the speck of a town away. Railroad tracks that used to carry copper today twist through the land like varicose veins, once active but now mostly dormant. Old mining shafts poke up above the trees—lone elevators to nowhere.

But among all that, there’s one vestige of the bustling boom times that gives me promise. I look to it as a map of where I come from and how I might move forward, like instructions on cooking my way out of a funk. It’s a dingy stapled collection of papers called The Little Blue Cook Book, published in the 1940s and compiled by the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of First Methodist Church in Copperhill, Tennessee.

“That was the cookbook,” my mom said. “The cookbook.”

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“And I was struck to the heart at your thoughts about your “wonders” and “worries” and realized that my baking does the same thing for me that you posit it did for your grandmother-a connection that I hope tells others how much I love them when it’s hard to say the words. Because as another quote I love says, “There’s always room for dessert because dessert doesn’t go to the stomach-dessert goes to the heart.” Thank you for a story that I know I will read again and again. And I will definitely make the pie!”
— Elissa
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Mom had a copy, of course, and my grandmother had a copy, and my grandmother’s mother had a copy. All my aunts had copies, and the ladies from church had copies and the ladies from other churches had copies. They all had favorite recipes or submitted dishes with their names listed as credit. It formed a flow chart connected by stains and scribbles across families and denominations and socio-economic lines.

The pages with the most splotches, brown like age spots, tell the best stories. My great-grandmother made a plain One-Two-Three-Four Cake as regularly as some people made cornbread. Her husband worked as a miner and farmer, and together they raised 10 kids on what he grew and supplemented by his meager salary. “He didn’t have teeth,” my mom said flatly. “Well, he had teeth, but wouldn’t wear them.” So the cake sometimes came with a scoop of homemade applesauce.

The pages with the most splotches, brown like age spots, tell the best stories.

The recipes have their stories, but so do the advertisements in the back. Plain black type floating in squares of white space color the town back to life. Take, for instance, the grocery store with two male owners. “I think they were a couple,” Mom said, though no one talked about it openly. She remembered learning this tidbit from my late aunt Cleo, the most progressive of the aunts who had plenty of her own stories to shape her views. She enlightened my mother on all manner of topics through a gravely voice and cigarette smoke in the kitchen.

“Even back then we had gay people,” she’d say.

And that’s the thing with us small-town people. Though sometimes skeptical of outsiders, we’re privy to our own secrets and quirks. And recipes. Not just from nosiness, but from proximity, as well—and from the empathy earned (sometimes not) in knowing one another on a sidewalk level.


Of all the entries in The Little Blue Cook Book, none intrigues me like Mrs. W.C. Posey’s Butterscotch-Pecan Pie. My grandmother carried it cross-country with her from the hills of Appalachia to San Francisco where she lived in a lighthouse with my grandfather during World War II. After growing up in Tennessee, he signed up for the Navy and landed in the Coast Guard instead. Stationed three miles out in San Francisco Bay, he never knew how to swim. But newly married and barely into their 20s, they told stories from that time as if they were too awash in love, youth, and patriotism to feel the tentacles of fear from the sea. And though sugar was rationed, my grandfather had befriended a man who transported it into the city and would slip them broken or damaged bags. As my grandmother liked to say, they practically lived off butterscotch pie.

The recipes have their stories. Photo by ROCKY LUTEN. FOOD STYLIST: ANNA BILLINGSKOG. PROP STYLIST: AMANDA WIDIS.

Long after their return to our town, my grandmother continued to make the pie. She also kept listening to 1940s big band tunes even into the 1980s and 90s. She hummed them constantly in a tinny vibrato while she drove her Oldsmobile or worked as a bookkeeper at my grandfather’s lumber shop. I wondered if the music and pie helped carry her back to another time when she felt young and in love and brave— a time far from the doldrums of her middle age?

Could the pie do that for me too?

In 1964, my grandmother would have been 45—the age I am now. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and she had seen the ugliness of a Jim Crow South. My grandfather used to have to meet a black truck driver on the outskirts of our all-white town and escort him in and out for his safety. Another time, when my grandmother took my mom and aunt on a trip to Chattanooga, they stopped at a diner for lunch. The waitress greeted them at the counter. “This gentleman was first,” my grandmother said, gesturing to the black man beside her. But the waitress never served the man, and she never served my grandmother either.

I wonder if she grieved the loss of innocence that comes with age and time and political upheaval? She must have been proud of Civil Rights progress, but I wonder if the pie took her to a past—though not necessarily a better past—when we, at least, seemed more united against a common enemy?

I wonder if she worried about having enough money to retire, like I do, and I wonder if the pie helped lessen fears as she remembered making it on rationed sugar during a World War.

Did she ever walk onto her front porch, abandoning her pie crust on the kitchen counter for a moment, to take big gulps of air in an anxiety attack brought on by nothing and everything in particular? Maybe she worried about choices and roads not taken that brought her to the kitchen with the stamp of counter space.

Among all the bigger worries, did she think about the swell around her middle and shifting fat cells around her back as her hormones changed? As women these days, we’re supposed to not care about these things. But we do. My grandmother had a hysterectomy in her 40s. My mother doesn’t know much about it, because “she didn’t talk about it much.” I like to think, or hope, that the pie offered a pause to physical concerns, a moment of pleasure she always allowed herself no matter what.

And then I wonder if she ever felt like giving up—not because something particularly awful had happened to her, but because everything can be so hard in the smallest, most relentless ways.

I never noticed these tendencies in her, but I know now that we so often miss them in others among the rush of concerns in our own lives. Did making pie for my mom and aunt and grandfather snap her back into knowing she must stay and that everything would be okay?

By my estimation, the singer-songwriter Patty Griffin would have been 38 when her song “Making Pies” came out. Probably too young for a midlife crisis, but Patty already seemed to know. Her character in the song makes pies for a living and wears a plastic cap on her gray hair. We learn the woman lost her love in the war. We learn she probably doesn’t have children. Then it’s 5 a.m., and she’s walking the block to work.

You could cry or die
or just make pies all day.
I’m making pies.

The thing is, it’s not so much about the pie. It’s the act of making it and then sharing it that matters. We’re forced to slow down for a flash and get squarely in the present where we can see our reasons for gratitude. And then sharing it offers a lifeline, a small connection between us from one kitchen to another.


My mom still has a few black and white photos from my grandparents’ San Francisco days. She still has the cookbook, too. But not much else remains except for a small boat fender made of rope.

One Christmas, my grandfather couldn’t get to shore to buy my grandmother a present. So he stayed up all night tying the fender. He turned a utilitarian piece—used to absorb the kinetic energy of a vessel as it moved toward another boat or structure—into craft.

As a result, the boat fender was my grandmother’s favorite gift, and she kept it her entire life. Then, when she was dying from cancer, she realized she was in a similar position as my grandfather all those years before. But in her case, she was too sick to leave home. With the help of my mother, she “shopped” inside the walls of her house giving away her prized possessions and heirlooms before her passing. She gave me a mink stole. For my brother, vintage wine glasses. She gave my mom the rope fender. I imagine she knew my mother had storms yet to weather.

As for pie, I don’t know what will happen when I make it for the first time. I know I’ll follow my grandmother’s instructions through her stains. I’ll imagine the waves crashing around me as I roll out the dough, and I’ll look for peace and bravery in the fog. And then I’ll give my husband a slice and maybe take some to my friends at work.

It will be my fender offered to them, a piece of me and where I come from, made to soften the small blows.

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Jennifer Justus

Written by: Jennifer Justus

18 Comments

Keri C. February 18, 2020
Brilliantly written! The details bring your family's history to life. I love how you connect the lives of all of the women across the years and your thoughts about them as women your age, not only in their familial roles. Well done!
 
bjm February 16, 2020
What a beautiful story. I had to stop several times to wipe away the tears. I have handwritten cookbooks from my gramdma and my mom. I am 78 and this brings back so many pleasant memories. Thank you for sharing.
 
Sheri P. February 6, 2020
I really loved your story! The pie sounds fab and I can't wait to try it. My family passed along recipes and my favorite thoughts of grandma are baking with her.
 
Cindy W. February 5, 2020
"The thing is, it’s not so much about the pie. It’s the act of making it and then sharing it that matters. We’re forced to slow down for a flash and get squarely in the present where we can see our reasons for gratitude. And then sharing it offers a lifeline, a small connection between us from one kitchen to another."

Ah, Jennifer, this is exquisite — from its first word till its close. And I know I'll be returning to it again and again.
 
Masterfoodie1 February 4, 2020
Wonderfully written story, deliciously heartfelt and honest, food takes us from then to now.
 
ESH February 4, 2020
The Patty Griffin song reference was perfect. Love the song. Love your writing. Love your heart. Love pies!
 
Penelope February 3, 2020
I grew up in Tennessee and my mother's butterscotch pie was one of my favorites. I still have her recipe, written in now-fading blue inkpen on a 3" x 5" index card.
 
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Jennifer J. February 4, 2020
Index card recipes are the best!
 
Juliebell February 3, 2020
Oh my goodness! What a fabulous tribute to your family. I feel as though I know them and want to know more. Copy your beautiful story and tuck it in the cookbook so that this might be shared with your future generations. Thank you so much for sharing your family in this amazingly written story.
 
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Jennifer J. February 4, 2020
Thank you!! I love your idea about making a cookbook time capsule!
 
Damaso A. February 1, 2020
Thank you so much for sharing this. Halfway through I forgot I clicked on this to check on a recipe. It was beautifully written and it felt like you were sitting across from "us" and reminiscing over a slice of pie and coffee.
 
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Jennifer J. February 4, 2020
This makes me happy. Thank you so much!
 
whatshername February 1, 2020
Thank you for sharing this with all of us. So heartfelt.
 
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Jennifer J. February 4, 2020
Thank you!!
 
Jessica H. February 1, 2020
Just beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.
 
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Jennifer J. February 4, 2020
Thank you for reading it!
 
Elissa February 1, 2020
What vivid, heartfelt, utterly lovely stories. And I was struck to the heart at your thoughts about your “wonders” and “worries” and realized that my baking does the same thing for me that you posit it did for your grandmother-a connection that I hope tells others how much I love them when it’s hard to say the words. Because as another quote I love says, “There’s always room for dessert because dessert doesn’t go to the stomach-dessert goes to the heart.” Thank you for a story that I know I will read again and again. And I will definitely make the pie!
 
Author Comment
Jennifer J. February 4, 2020
Thanks so much, Elissa. And thanks for sharing the quote about dessert for the heart. Love it.