Earlier this year, the folks at Arkansas Life magazine asked me to list my favorite restaurant for pie. It wasn't an easy choice because Arkansas is one of the top pie states in the country. I settled on the small restaurant at the Shangri-La Resort on Lake Ouachita near Mount Ida.
When I was a child, we would head to Shangri-La each spring so my father could fish for bass and crappie. That annual visit meant a slice of pie with supper on Friday, with lunch on Saturday, with supper on Saturday and with lunch on Sunday before returning home. I would have had a slice with breakfast each morning, but my mother wouldn't let me. Asked by those at the magazine to pick just one type of pie, I went with blueberry since that's what I had the last time I was there. To be honest, I like all of the pies at Shangri-La.
I sometimes find myself craving pie, and I'm not talking about those tastes-like-cardboard frozen varieties served in far too many restaurants. I'm talking about homemade pies with syrup oozing up through the meringue. Michael Stern, known for his "Roadfood" series of guides to good eating across the country, once wrote: "Which is America's No. 1 pie state? Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon and Maine all are contenders, but we're tempted to give the nod to Arkansas. Cream pies and fruit pies, baked pies and fried pies are at their best throughout the state. So when eating barbecue, catfish, meat-and-three or country ham--all pretty darn wonderful in the Natural State--do save your appetite for pie."
We indeed have people in every part of this state who know how to turn out memorable pies. I grew up on pies created by my grandmothers, both of whom lived into their 90s. My father always referred to pecan pie as Karo nut pie (a term I still prefer since it gives the pie more of an Arkansas feel), and he wanted mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had a great source of fried pies at the Pig Pit in Caddo Valley, where Mrs. Jack Frost provided the desserts.
Later in life when I craved pie, I would think of DeValls Bluff because that was the home of Mary Thomas' Pie Shop. Thomas, who is no longer alive, sold pies across U.S. 70 from the legendary Craig's Barbecue for more than three decades. Stern once described her place this way: "The Pie Shop is an annex of Mary Thomas' home, built out of a former bicycle shed, now filled with tools of the baker's art. Mrs. Thomas starts making pies in the morning, and by lunchtime there might be half a dozen varieties available."
Lena Rice began selling her own pies down the road in DeValls Bluff in the early 1990s. She died in January 2005, but her family kept Ms. Lena's Pies going, meaning that tiny DeValls Bluff is still a go-to place for pies in addition to barbecue.
In 2012, Arkansas writer and food historian Kat Robinson came out with a book titled Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State. A few weeks ago, she released a much larger book (304 pages, to be exact) titled Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in the Natural State.
"Five years is a lot of water under the bridge, and in that time we've lost a lot of pie restaurants, some new, some classic," Robinson says of her decision to write a new book. "Some of the bastions of pie such as Ed & Kay's in Benton, The Village Wheel in Bull Shoals, Ray's Dairy Maid in Barton and Chip's Barbecue in Little Rock have disappeared. Even as this book came together, the magnificent Jenny Lind Country Cafe at Gate Nine closed shop. What has happened, though, is a growing knowledge of pie across the state. The first book listed 180 restaurants; this one covers more than 400. They're not just restaurants that offer a smattering of pie choices at the end of a meal but a selection of bakeries and panaderias where you can get your pies to take home, food trucks that share the pie love, antique malls where the pies are as good as the rare find, walk-up outdoor lunch counters and truck stops that cater to the most discerning of road diners."
Capi Peck of Little Rock's Trio's Restaurant writes in the foreword to the book: "My earliest pie memories come from the Hotel Sam Peck, which my family owned for decades in downtown Little Rock. Mattie Jackson's Bavarian cream pie with cinnamon still ranks high in my pie dreams. Franke's Cafeteria makes a similar pie, and it tugs on my heartstrings periodically, flooding me with nostalgic memories of my once favorite dessert. I'm the fourth generation of Pecks to have served pie to Arkansans and visitors to the Natural State. My family has served countless slices of different kinds of this American staple. At Trio's, which I co-created in 1986, we are renowned for our desserts, and our dessert repertoire is heavy on the pie side for obvious reasons. We love pie."
My thoughts always turn to Trio's this time of year since that's when the restaurant serves strawberry shortcake with Arkansas berries. Trio's shortcake season, as anticipated in Little Rock as the opening day of deer season is anticipated in south Arkansas, began on Friday of last week. The other restaurant in the state that's famous for strawberry shortcake is the Bulldog at Bald Knob. I drove by the Bulldog on Good Friday, the second day it was offering strawberry shortcake this year. Not only was the parking lot full, the drive-through line snaked onto the highway. It was another sign that we like dessert in Arkansas.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 04/21/2018