Building traditions of our own

I’ve been making and freezing pie crust, savory and sweet, for 8 weeks or so.

Since Sunday, I’ve been cooking custards and the curds.

The first baked pies went in the oven Wednesday.

Friday morning, the savory pies bubbled, the apple pies went in. All told, there were 26 pies by the time I finished.

About 40 people came. They ate pie. They hung ornaments on our tree.

Most of them asked why we did this.

This is the story of why.

Could only fit 16 of the 26 total in this shot. So there are ten you can’t see.

Hard truths

I never knew my family was weird until 1999.

OK, like all teenagers, I knew my family was weird.

But who knew it’s weird to have two pies per person at Thanksgiving?

I found out in Seattle, 1999. My first Friendsgiving. I volunteered to bring the pies.

I called my mom. I got the old faithful recipes — pumpkin, lemon meringue, pecan.

There were going to be 10–12 people. I decided I’d go conservative. I only brought eight pies.

When we finished the night and only 1.5 pies were gone, I saw the blinding truth. My family was weird.

Despite that realization, I’ve followed in my mother’s footsteps, making a gluttony of pie nearly every year. And every year when we’re not visiting my family, I end up eating most of it.


A tradition of our own

Thanksgiving at the Sutton house was the pie holiday.

Thanksgiving 2009

My mom made 10 or more pies for the five of us. Pie was eaten at every meal and snack until it was gone — usually by Saturday evening.

It was our tradition, and the most sacred one. Every year, no matter what else happened, we ate pie and gave thanks for the bounty.

But last year, we lost our way. Sure, we made 14 pies for 12 of us. But staring them down, people wondered aloud if it was time to dial it back.

I felt desperately, hopelessly lost.


We’re not alone in the universe

Even as we looked at the pie and quailed, I received a sign. From Facebook. And Slate. In the form of a piece by David Plotz, recounting his mother’s tradition of baking 20 pies for 19 guests. (Pie works in mysterious ways.)

Even if you aren’t pie crazy, read it. You won’t regret it. It’s about more than pie. It’s about tradition, and family, and building a family beyond just the people you’re related to by blood or marriage.

The epigraph — a quote from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, sealed the deal.

My mother loves those books, perhaps more than she loves her kids. My wife is intimately connected to them— when her grandfather and his brother were orphaned, Rose Wilder Lane took them in and raised them as her own.

Reading David’s story, I no longer felt alone. But where could I go from there?


“Then what’s there to be thankful for?”

David family tradition gave me hope, but the logistics were still against me.

Amy is no more willing to consume an entire pie. My kids can’t stuff their faces fuller. My extended family was still quaking at the 14 pies before us.

I had hope, but I lacked faith.

As my family pondered the pies before us, my wife asked my mom, “Why do you make so much pie, anyway?”

“Evan started it.”

(Huhwut? Come again?)

“Yes. Didn’t you know that? How funny. I used to just make a normal amount of pie. But when he was about 5, I was making Thanksgiving dinner, and he kept asking me for pie. I told him ‘If we eat the pie now, there won’t be enough for after dinner.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘If I can’t eat all the pie I want, what’s there to be thankful for?’”

Now I must give my mom credit. She saw that for what it was — divine inspiration — and she rose to the call. From that day, the pie holiday was born.

Somehow, over all the years, that story was lost.

That story was all I needed. I couldn’t betray my own five year old self. I was put here with a purpose.

I would not fail.


A new tradition

For the better part of a year, I’ve wrestled with the problem.

The old family tradition wouldn’t quite work. I couldn’t just steal someone else’s, either. But bringing in more people was clearly the solution, somehow.

I wanted a tradition of my own, something we could build for our family, without setting aside the one I grew up with.

Most people have their own Thanksgiving traditions, and they tend to be pretty set. Creating a Thanksgiving tradition that relied on friends seemed unreliable.

Unless it’s not quite on Thanksgiving, maybe.


Black PieDay

Yes, I admit that I’m one of those people who scoffs at Black Friday. Sorry, not sorry.

But what if I could bring together others, and make something joyful instead?

I set a goal. Originally, 20 pies, and I would invite…fuck. Our first pass at a “narrow” list was 89 people deep. In the end, our first invitation went to 67.

Friends. A gluttony of pie. A day that people didn’t have longstanding commitments for. That’s a good start.

But to make it a proper tradition, I wanted something to tie it together as more than just a day for stuffing our faces.


Our son — who lives with his dad in California — is here this week. He won’t be back again until December 21st. Last year, our first year apart, he was deeply sad to miss trimming the tree.

So even though it’s two weeks too early, Amy and I set up our tree yesterday.

It was lit next to me as I wrote my draft last night, lit next to me as I finish this now.

Spread out over the coffee table and end table were our ornaments. We invited our friends to hang one when they arrived.

Adding the tree trimming created a more tangible anchor to family.

As we hung ornaments ourselves, we remembered the connections in special ornaments as we hung them, memories of Christmases past, reminders of family that’s not always here.

I hope our guests will remember the small act of hanging an ornament. Something unusual, beyond just the pie. I hope it serves to connect our family to the communities we’re building, often unconsciously, by inviting them to be part of something conscious.

We had work friends and neighborhood friends and poly friends. Families and single friends. New friends and old friends.

And we started a family tradition that’s not quite like anyone else’s, but not entirely unique in the world either.

And as our kids grow, I hope to teach them to love their traditions for their weirdness and their sameness. I hope to teach them to love making pie and sharing pie as much as they love eating it. I hope to teach them that community is what you make it.

At least I hope they’ll learn all those things. And I hope they’ll learn that no matter how weird your family may seem, it’s good to be proud of where you come from.

My birth family, circa 1986

The set list, 2015

Many of my recipes come from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking, From My Home to Yours. I highly recommend this book. Any below from Dorie are marked DG. Recipes from online are linked. My personal recipes are marked ES, and will come later.

Traditional pies:

Pecan (Aarón Sánchez)
Chocolate pecan (DG)
(2) Pumpkin sour cream (DG)
(2) Thanksgiving twofer pie (DG)

Custard and cream pies

(2) Lemon meringue x2 (ES)
Orange cream tart (DG)
Pineapple meringue (custard ran, needs more tweaking)
Florida pie (DG)
Coconut cream (DG, plus a base layer of fudge sauce)
Chocolate cream (DG)
Banana cream (DG, but I reduce spices in custard by 1/2)
Elvis Pie (ES)
Pumpkin cheesecake with caramel-bacon sauce (ES)
Mudslide ice cream pie (ES)

Fruit pies

Traditional apple (DG)
Caramel apple (ES)
Blueberry (DG)

Savory pies

Pollo adovada (ES)
Green chile pumpkin quiche (ES)
Bacon and bleu quiche in red chile crust (ES)
White cheddar and bacon quiche (ES)
Steak and onion
Chicken pot pie (Amy)