Sweet and Sour – Mrs. Friend’s Lemon Pie

I think about Johnson a lot. That’s not his real name, but it will do. It was the summer of 1967, and I had lucked into a job teaching 9th grade English at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia.

Hargrave Military Academy was then and still is considered an excellent military boarding school for boys which emphasizes college preparatory academics and athletics within a Christian context. There were two kinds of summer session students. Gifted children who were studying for advanced placement in high school and others who were repeating classes for one reason or another. Johnson was in the second group.

He had been expelled for stealing a car and going joy riding with some friends, and his parents had enrolled him in Hargrave to make up for the lost semester. Johnson and I had our disagreements, but things improved once the dean of students gave me some good advice.

He explained that this was a military academy and that I could send students to him for detentions, KP duty, etc. I don’t recall putting many students on call, but the knowledge that I could do so must have given me the confidence I needed to take charge.

Johnson was an intelligent 14-year-old boy whom I came to like, once he realized that I was the teacher and I realized that my job was to teach grammar, composition and reading to 13- and 14-year-old boys, not literature and essay writing to college freshmen. The students were not very motivated until I hit on the idea of making the class into a game.

“First thing every morning,” I announced, “there will be a short quiz. You will have to read the instructions carefully, because I will try to trick you. If you’re not careful, you will fail the quiz. If you fail, you will be sitting in here listening to your friends playing ball or swimming. When enough of you get it right, we’ll do some of the things you have been saying you want to do–like sit outside and listen to music or write some stories.”

Like the others in his class, Johnson learned to read carefully as well as to diagram sentences and write pretty good paragraphs. We read short stories and plays and actually ended up having a lot of fun in class. With the dean’s permission we had class outside once in awhile, and some good short essays grew out of those experiences.

In some of his essays Johnson wrote about life in a Detroit suburb, family outings, some of his friends and things he liked to do. He even wrote about the incident that had ultimately brought him to Hargrave. He may have been shading things somewhat, but the story sounded plausible: Three boys spotting the keys left in a neighbor’s car at the curb, a dare accepted and a short ride ending at a power pole and a visit to the police station. The essay ended, “I thought I knew how to drive, but I learned that I didn’t.”

All good things come to an end, and summer school was no exception. There was a final goodbye class session and farewell dinner. Early the next morning, parents arrived to retrieve their young. Checks for summer instructors were available after 1 PM in the dean’s office.

Once the students have left, a boarding school is a desolate place. Only a few bird calls and the sound of the wind. No one in sight. No boys shouting in the pool along the drive, empty tennis courts, green lawns devoid of any human presence. Even the gardeners have been given the day off. The parade of cars trickled to an end at noon as scheduled. Hargrave Military Academy had been abandoned.

But as I walked up the drive I saw a figure crouched on the broad steps of the main hall next to a suitcase and green duffle bag. It was Johnson. Not the brash kid I first knew or the student who helped his friends spot the tricky wording in the quiz instructions or the adolescent who was growing into a disciplined maturity. He was a boy crying alone in the hot sun.

“Your folks must have been delayed. Let me check with the dean.”

“But they haven’t called. Maybe they had an accident,” he said, “They know the number.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said and pushed through the doors.

The dean was a take-charge man. In a few minutes Johnson was drinking a tall glass of cold lemonade, a sandwich was on its way and the Chatham police chief was calling the state police to find out if Johnson’s family had been in an accident. I stayed to visit awhile, but I had to pack for my ride back to the university that evening.

When I called the next day the dean told me that Johnson’s family had arrived a couple of hours after I had left. They had decided to do some sightseeing on the way to Chatham from Michigan and said they were not aware that they had to pick up their son before noon.

Even if it had been possible I did not try to contact Johnson or his family, and that has left a sour taste too. But I think of him often and hope that he is happy.

I have sweet memories of Chatham also. My landlady that summer long ago was Mrs. Friend, a wonderful southern lady who was a marvelous cook. When she discovered I really liked her lemon pie, she made it at least once a week. We would sit on the porch and share the pie with the neighbors who also loved it.

This pie is best made with a 9” crust, as the filling is very rich and tart–a perfect dessert anytime, but particularly refreshing after dinner on a summer evening. This is the filling for an unbaked 8” or 9” crust:


1 cup white granulated sugar
1 1/2 T yellow cornmeal
Pinch of salt
Grated outer rind from 1/2 lemon
Juice of one lemon
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) melted butter
2 large eggs, separated


Preheat the oven to 400?. Stir the sugar, salt and cornmeal together. Add the melted butter, lemon juice, egg yolks and the grated lemon rind and mix well. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.

Fold the egg whites into the lemon mixture, pour it into the crust and bake ten minutes at 400º. Reduce heat to 350º and bake twenty-five to thirty minutes until a knife inserted in the middle of the pie comes out clean. Cool thoroughly before serving.