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Leaves crackle underfoot and the early-morning air smells like an ice cube. It’s autumn. Time for apple picking and jack-o-lanterns. Time for the annual public library pie contest.

My mother did not bake ordinary pies. Creating a pie was a day’s event, begun with two knives cutting butter and shortening into flour until it resembled sand, a forgotten summer sight resurrected with culinary precision. She floated from cupboard to bowl, bowl to counter with a grace befitting a ballerina. She folded. She whipped. She dolloped. She made the house smell better than Willy Wonka’s factory.

And so, when I was nine years old, I thought my mother finally deserved public acknowledgement of her pie prowess. When I saw a poster announcing our library’s fall pie contest, I entered her name. When I returned home and told her, she was more excited than I was.

Which pie shall it be? The apple-cranberry? No, too predictable. The three-berry pie? No, out of season. Ahh, I know. The chocolate-amaretto chiffon pie.

Children aren’t supposed to have a taste for amaretto. I was the exception. The almond-flavored liquor enhanced the chocolate flavor so well, I thought I might faint. Her creation began with homemade chocolate pudding, then a tall dome of fresh whipped cream, onto which she drizzled an amaretto-chocolate reduction. Slivered almonds and chocolate shavings dotted the top evenly, like she had artfully arranged each piece with tweezers. I do not know how we transported the pie unscathed, but we arrived and unveiled the masterpiece to such gasps of amazement, the librarians had to shush us.

The event boasted eight pies, but zero competition. An apple pie with a rustic crust appeared soggy and deflated. Mom’s hand-fluted crust resembled the delicate ripples of a golden pond. My teeth stuck together at the sight of the gummy shoo-fly pie. The chocolate-amaretto pie melted on the tongue.

A librarian instructed three judges to score the pies on a scale of 1 to 3 according to three criteria: appearance, taste and originality. Yes, yes and yes. She would win all three. I would be so proud. She would remember that it was I, her eldest daughter, who launched her pie celebrity.

Then one judge glanced at another’s appearance score for Mom’s pie. “Wow, you’re a tough cookie!” she said. Translation: Mom probably received a 1 from the Russian Judge instead of a well-deserved 3. There would be a contest after all.

Tasting came next. The judges took one bite of each pie. There was tongue swishing, water gulping, and lip pursing. A gentle scribble, scribble on their note cards.

Finally, originality. With pumpkin, pecan, and plain ol’ lemon meringue, Mom’s fusion of almond and chocolate would take that category for certain.

Our entire family waited nervously for the awards to be announced. The whipped cream on Mom’s pie stood high and tall, proud and confident.

“Third place: the shoo-fly pie!” A tiny, elderly woman shuffled to the front of the room and accepted a ribbon and a cookbook. She posed for the town photographer.

If Mom did not take second, then I knew first prize would be hers.

“Second place: the pumpkin pie!”

Hooray! Victory! A pie for the record books! A pie to launch a career! My mother, the world’s best baker! Or, at least the best baker in this town of 20,000! My face warmed with excitement.

“And the winner is…and we have to say, this was a unanimous decision…the apple pie!”

What?! That sorry-looking blob? It’s just APPLE! Anyone can make an apple pie! It takes a creative genius to pair chocolate with amaretto (especially in 1979, before The Food Network)!

The worst part of the defeat was that the woman who won was not even present. Yep, it was a drive-by pie.

First prize remained on the judging table, unwrapped and unclaimed. I could only imagine what it might be–and it was far grander in my mind than in reality, I’m sure. The big fish that got away, growing ever longer over the years.

Once the winners were announced, the pies were cut and plates distributed. And which pie do you think disappeared first? Mom’s chocolate-amaretto chiffon. Our family snubbed the other pies and dug into our favorite.

In the end, I learned that people prefer the familiar and comfortable. That’s what Mom’s pie was to me, a little piece of her. The extraordinary was ordinary in our home, and that’s a family legacy I’m striving to uphold.

Pie, anyone?

No, that’s not the title of my latest book. It’s a bonafide neighborhood mystery.

Although we live in the Garden State, our community is not known for its plots of open land. We’re right on top of one another. We therefore get creative when it comes to gardening. I have an herb garden in three containers on my deck–sweet basil, chives, parsley, dill, oregano, mint, and sad, sad cilantro which browned over within two weeks of planting. I never claimed to have a green thumb.

My Asian neighbor, on the other hand, has a thick, prodigious vine with enormous leaves and bright yellow-orange blooms. At first, I thought it might be pumpkin, not only for its appearance, but for its location, growing along the side of the house amongst a hedge. Some kid might have dumped a rotting jack-o-lantern there last fall.

The vine has consumed the hedge and jumped onto a neighboring cherry tree, wrapping around the branches and soaring ever higher. And there, hanging down for all to admire, a lonely, giant green squash.

It’s shape reminds me of a bowling pin, thinner at the top, heavy at the bottom. It has a dark green color and no discernible pattern.

Just what is it?

And when will they pick it?

The “squash stroll” is our evening entertainment. We hurry along the sidewalk to the tree, to see if the giant vegetable still remains. And each day, it hangs there, fueling our curiousity. The Asian neighbors are not to be found.

Today my toddler and I found a second squash lying across the thickest branches of the hedge, as if it were taking a nap. It has grown quietly while its sibling hangs proudly for all the neighborhood to see.

So, please tell me, what is it? What kind of vegetable? How do you prepare it? What does it taste like?

Perhaps I should ring the doorbell and ask. But sometimes figuring out a mystery is so much more fun.

(Update! Today I met the young Chinese girl who lives at the house. She did call the vegetable a squash, but she could not recall the English word for it. She says it tastes like pumpkin. I would still like to find out the name! And I neglected to ask her when it would be harvested!)

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