In the movie, Ruth Gordon’s seventy-nine year old Maude invites a much younger Harold (played by Bud Cort) into her rail car home. Maude—eccentric, art-loving, vivacious—stands in wild contrast to morose Harold whose faked suicides are sad jokes staged to wring some evidence of warmth from his frosty mother. In the rail car, Maude offers him oat straw tea and ginger pie. While prospects of oat straw tea did nothing for me, I was left dumb in the wake of increasingly irrelevant dialog at the mention of ginger pie.
Ginger pie? I’m no stranger to baking, but I’d never heard of it. At first, I mistook the pie for a physical thing. It had a homespun, old-timey ring that reminded me of something long forgotten. Dandelion wine, maybe, or spring tonic. At first dozens, then hundreds, then—literally—thousands of cookbooks stymied me as I hunted for a recipe. Gingerbread, ginger tea, ginger snaps, stir-fries, ginger syrups, ginger cordials, chutneys, beers, ales, candies, ginger-lacquered duck, and more, but no ginger pie.
Since nothing suggested or resembled what I was looking for, I put together working notes on a recipe of my own. Some of the ingredients were obvious, but I felt as if I were reinventing something that should be easy to find: Pie? No problem—got pans, got dough. Next! A great big mess of ginger. And eggs. And…um… sugar, of course. Plus…maybe…damn. There’s got to be a recipe in one of these books.
But I forged on. Southern chess pie had a sturdy, crack-topped custard that seemed a versatile base—But what kind of ginger? Fresh? Candied? Dried and ground? Preserved in syrup? In sherry? Just ginger juice? I try each of those. Fresh ginger turned out to have the strongest, most assertive flavor, giving racy overtones to an otherwise sweet and homey pie.
Fresh ginger holds promises of liveliness and sass, of exotic and ancient histories. There is a potency in a fat hand of fresh ginger that just might inspire a breath of fire when it's reduced to tiny, tiny cubes and strewn throughout a rum-laced custard.
The search for the recipe and subsequent experiments with what I thought ginger pie should be brought me a deeper understanding of what I was stalking. When I failed to uncover any recipes, I went back to Maude, the root of my inspiration.
Her eccentric, nuts-to-tradition take on life is a big part of the film’s appeal. During a memorial Mass, she psst, psst, pssts Harold’s attention with sibilantly inappropriate offers of licorice. Her wistful reminiscences hint at a past built on old world loves and tragedies. Once a firebrand activist, Maude continues in small ways undermining worldly complacency by finding joy in simple, everyday things; somersaults, a field of daisies, raucous songs, and seagulls, as well as frequent and spontaneous episodes of grand theft auto.
I came to realize that ginger pie was not some old-fashioned recipe fallen out of favor. It was more than that. By offering a slice, Maude extends not only hospitality, but a slyly camouflaged offer of herself and Harold’s first hints of escape from his doleful life. With the point of that pie, she wedges open Harold’s somber soul and floods it with bracing warmth and sweetness, the distillate of her own fading life’s fire and spice. Harold’s change is so profound that he picks up a banjo, abandons his mourning suits, turns cartwheels, and declares his intention to marry a woman old enough to be his grandmother.
This pie doesn’t affect those sorts of change; it’s not likely—not likely, mind you—to prompt proposals. Sitting here with a late-night wedge pilfered from the kitchen, though, I can’t help but smile. In the end, I don’t know what Maude’s recipe was, but I’ve cemented friendships over slices of this rich, ginger-and-rum custard pie. Surely that is the sort of thing she meant to dish up.
1 unbaked pie crust
¼-1/3 cup minced young ginger
2.5 oz aged rum*
1.5 cups sugar
8 Tbl unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ tsp salt
2.5 Tbl all purpose flour
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest
At least one hour before beginning, combine the ginger and rum in a small bowl or jar and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs one at the time and mix after each addition. Add remaining ingredients, including the rum and ginger, and combine thoroughly.
Pour the mixture into the unbaked pie crust and bake at 350F about 50 minutes, until the center has mostly set, but is still just a little wobbly – it will firm on standing. It should have a slightly darkened, crusty top. If necessary, cover the pan with a tented piece of aluminum foil or an overturned stainless steel bowl to prevent overbrowning while the pie bakes.
Warm, the pie cries for heavy dollops of whipped cream barely able to hold itself together. Cold, it’s best to sneak mall slivers while the rest of the house sleeps.
* Appleton Estate V/X or Clement VSOP are both grand rums for the pie. You want something with some age to it. In a pinch, you could use a white rum, but avoid spiced and dark ones: After all, this is a ginger pie, not a rum pie.