Thanksgiving: Simple things

Published 12:13 am Thursday, November 24, 2011

Susan Wheeler adds ingredients into her traditional buttermilk pie in celebration of Thanksgiving.

Susan Wheeler and family know the true meaning of the words “comfort food,” and for that they are thankful.

Wheeler’s buttermilk pie and cornbread dressing — their Thanksgiving staples — filled a new role in an uncertain time for the Wheelers Saturday.

The oldest of Wheeler’s three children, Jennifer Maxwell, 31, was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer in the summer. Wheeler said Jennifer is a fighter with a positive spirit, but she said there are no guarantees that the faces around the table will be the same next year.

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“We prayed,” Wheeler said. “We believe in miracles, and we believe God made us, and all of our parts. Our will is for her to live, but God’s will is sometimes totally different.”

Buttermilk pie is made with only a few ingredients, but lots of love at Susan Wheeler's house.

But as the family waits and prays, Wheeler’s tried-and-true recipes have a place at the table with family and faith.

“We have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving,” Wheeler said. “This whole experience has drawn us closer, and given us more to be thankful for.”

Wheeler said she doesn’t know where her buttermilk pie recipe originated, but its delicate simplicity has pleased every mouth she has fed.

“I guess it’s a Southern dish,” Wheeler said. “It’s been mine for 30 years. We can’t have Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter without it.”

The Wheeler family had Thanksgiving early, with 22 family members packed into the house in Vidalia Saturday, because her children have their own in-laws to visit today. Wheeler said the family gets together when it will work for everyone. And getting any extra time with Jennifer is important to everyone.

Wheeler said she has not skipped a buttermilk pie since she started making them in 1979.

“That’s when I got married,” Wheeler said. “I started having holiday dinners, and it became a tradition.”

Wheeler said sometimes she makes her own pie crust, but Pet-Ritz style regular crusts from grocery freezers work wonderfully.

“Just mix (the filling) up and pour it in the pie shell,” Wheeler said. “It’s a simple, simple pie. The tricky part is getting it to the oven without spilling it.”

The pie will tell the baker when it’s done — its top will puff up, brown and rigid, before sinking back down into the crust. And the middle of the pie will jiggle a little.

Wheeler said you do not have to enjoy or even like buttermilk to love the pie. Buttermilk pie has a texture similar to key lime pie, with a sweet, mild taste.

Wheeler said she has changed up the recipe in the past — once by adding a half-cup of pecans.

She usually sticks to using Bulgarian-style buttermilk. While the pie is delectable on its own, Wheeler said smearing on a dollop of whipped cream, drizzling syrup or garnishing a slice with berries makes the pie extra-special.

Wheeler said the pie probably has a shelf life of four or five days, but no slices have ever survived longer than a family holiday.

But before dessert comes dinner.

Wheeler’s cornbread dressing recipe was given to her by her sister-in-law, who is a missionary in Tanzania.

“She gave me all of her recipes for big crowds,” Wheeler said.

Unlike the buttermilk pie, Wheeler said the dressing recipe is not so simple. Nothing about the process is necessarily difficult, she said, but it just takes a long time.

“You have to bake the cornbread first and boil and de-bone the chicken,” Wheeler said. “It’s time consuming.”

Wheeler insists on a scoop of cranberry sauce with the dressing — the kind with whole cranberries.

“You can’t have Thanksgiving without the red stuff,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler acknowledged that families sitting and dining together on Thanksgiving is one of the basic ingredients of our American life.

“That’s how America got started,” Wheeler said. “Sitting around, breaking bread together. That’s what we did.”


Buttermilk pie

3 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons self-rising corn meal

1 cup sugar

1 stick (or 1/2 cup) melted Land-O-Lakes margarine

1/3 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 unbaked pie shell

Combine all ingredients. Blend with electric mixer for 30 seconds. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake 40 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees, or until set.