Notes on Pie

Grady's sweet potato pie. Photo by Denny Culbert.
Grady’s sweet potato pie. Photo by Denny Culbert.

In the summer of 2012, the SFA organized a field trip to eastern North Carolina. Ostensibly the purpose of the trip was to learn about the region’s rich barbecue culture—and, of course, to partake of that smoke-kissed, vinegar-swabbed pork. But even a group of SFA members cannot subsist on barbecue alone. We’d received a hot tip on pie from writer/oral historian Rien Fertel and photographer Denny Culbert, who were expanding the North Carolina leg of our Southern BBQ Trail.

“Don’t miss the sweet potato pie at Grady’s,” they told us. “Mr. Grady makes it, and it’s one of the best things we ate on our trip to North Carolina.”

This advice was not lost on the women of the SFA staff, a cohort of unabashed pie lovers. Melissa Hall called Gerri Grady, who, with her husband, Stephen, owns Grady’s Barbecue in tiny Dudley, North Carolina. She arranged for the Gradys to cater a supper of barbecue and fried chicken for the SFA field trippers at the minor league ballpark in Kinston, some thirty miles up the road.

“Now, tell me about your sweet potato pie,” Melissa asked Mrs. Grady after nailing down the rest of the menu. “If I have 100 people, I’ll need what—twelve or thirteen pies?”

“Oh, no, baby. You’ll need more than that,” Mrs. Grady responded.

“Well, you can get eight slices out of each pie, can’t you?”

“Oh, no. I cut it in five slices—six at the most,” explained Mrs. Grady.

And she did. That pie, dense and sweet, was as good as Rien and Denny promised it would be.

This story has become a legend in the SFA office, and one of the reasons we re-tell it is because it contains an important truth: Southerners take their pie seriously.

Crusts and meringues, in particular, are sources of pride for home cooks and pastry chefs alike. And if there can be said to be a high season for pies, it’s right now, with the holidays upon us.

Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber.
Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber.

We don’t have a test kitchen here at SFA headquarters, so we’re not going to tell you how to make the perfect pie for your holiday gathering. But we can share a few stories from the experts.

  1. Watch Melanie Addington and Daniel Perea’s film about Ed and Kay’s restaurant in Benton, Arkansas, the home of the “mile-high pie.” Although the restaurant closed earlier this year, the towering meringues set the highest bar we’ve seen.
  1. Adoptive North Carolinian Karen Barker knows a thing or two about pies—during her 25-year tenure at the late, great Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC (which she owned with her husband, Ben), she won the 2003 James Beard Award for the country’s best pastry chef. Her pie repertoire stretched from key lime-coconut to maple-bourbon-sweet-potato. In this article from the SFA’s Gravy quarterly, she recalls how a Brooklyn girl became a bona fide Southern baker.
  1. And finally, a nod to the fried pie. Meet Aileen Foreman, the proprietor of Babycakes Bakery in Mountain Home, Arkansas.