Sweet Treat of the Delta
Eastern Arkansas and its fried pies.
from Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State
The folded-over pie is nothing new in this world. Like many food traditions, the idea of taking something and wrapping it in dough dates back to antiquity. Putting something inside something else made of flour goes back to the Romans for sure, probably the Greeks and quite possibly even further back than that.
In the Middle Ages, that flour dough wrapped around meat or vegetables was called a coffin (same name as a box you put a body in, but quite a different thing in practice). It was a hand-formed vessel for food made from dough, and it was usually an inch thick or more. The dough kept the contents intact and prevented them from burning. The dough left over from the process was thrown out to the poor to eat; it was hard, sometimes burned and barely edible. Somewhere along the way, someone got the idea of “waste not, want not” in their head and figured out how to make the crust edible, likely with the introduction of metal cookware into the kitchen. After all, it’s not like medieval chefs had Pyrex and Calphalon.
Shortly before the Renaissance, the English served up what they called a Grete Pye. It was a pastry filled with meat (beef and poultry were the norm), dried fruit, and spices. Fruit pies became popular, but it wasn’t until about the time of the Revolutionary War that sweetened fruit pies came into fashion.
Letha's Fried Pies are made in West Fork and sold across the state. Photo by Grav Weldon.
In New England, another type of pie developed: pasties (pronounced PAH-stees), big hand pies full of something savory like stew. There’s even a variation in New England where home chefs would tuck a bit of jam or some spiced and sweetened fruit into the end of the big pies. They were easy to transport and made the perfect working-man food.
Which brings me to the fried pies of the Delta. Fried pies can be found all over Arkansas, from fine dining establishments like the Capital Bar and Grill in Little Rock, to barbecue joints like Nick’s BBQ and Catfish in Carlisle, to roadside diners like Ray’s Dairy Maid in Barton, to gas stations like Rison Country Store. The Arkansas Delta has the greatest saturation of places to procure fried pies.
Left: chocolate at Cotham's Mercantile in Scott. Right: strawberry at Capital Bar and Grill in Little Rock. Photos by Kat Robinson.
The expanse covers a third of the state, a sweeping plain that stretches along the eastern border onward without interruption, save for Crowley’s Ridge. It comes in as far as Little Rock and Dumas and Bald Knob. If you look at a highway map, you can see its outline—just trace down U.S. 67 from Corning to the center of the state, then follow west on U.S. 65 all the way down to Eudora. It’s a vast, flat land squared off into soybean and rice fields, cotton, corn, sorghum, and winter wheat, punctuated by crescents and patches of trees and a few leftover sections of swamp. Outside the banks of the White, Black, Cache, and Arkansas Rivers, the streams seem straight. There are reasons for this.
Most of what we consider to be the Delta today was swampland in the nineteenth century and before. It was barely inhabitable mosquito-breeding wetlands, hard to navigate and difficult to see any potential. But it was rich, too, with topsoil one hundred feet deep. The pioneers of this land were men who dug ditches to create farms. They started by scooping out the earth and making a new route for the myriad little streams here and there and then utilizing those redirected water sources to irrigate crops on land left dry by those redirections.
If you fly over the Arkansas Delta today, you see a patchwork quilt below, blocks of green and brown and sometimes the reflection of water from soaking rice fields, punctuated by stands of trees near canals and streams laced with highways and county roads. The strongly forested Crowley’s Ridge breaks up the area, a loess formation rising up to two hundred feet above the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain. It’s the lone ridge between Memphis and Little Rock, stretching from around Helena–West Helena up to the Missouri border.
Farming is stronger here than in the rest of the state. And there’s a culture to it. It used to be a family culture—families had their hundreds of acres and farmed them the old-fashioned way: by creating more family. The kids did their chores and worked the land and eventually had kids of their own. Until late in the twentieth century, lunches were the sort of thing you either went back to the main house to eat with your folks or something tied in a handkerchief—a lump of cheese and a chunk of bread, a piece of ham or something from last night’s dinner. Later on it’d be a sandwich or a can of something like sardines.
Thing is, just like in the rest of the world, a combination of communication and mechanization expanded the knowledge base and encouraged folks to head to the city, just as the size of families began to shrink. Maybe there weren’t a dozen mouths to feed three times a day. Maybe one spouse worked the land while the other worked in a plant or at a shop. Times changed.
I’m a city girl, but I was raised by folks who came from the bottomlands of southwest Arkansas. I missed out on the farmer culture until I was done with college and in my first television job at KAIT in Jonesboro. It was the only TV station in town, an ABC affiliate, in the biggest city in the Arkansas Delta—the hub of life in northeast Arkansas. And it was a culture shock. There were some pieces of city life to be found, with a little shopping, some parks, a movie theater—but if you really wanted the city experience, you hopped on U.S. 63 and headed down to Memphis. Jonesboro was, at the time, a little country town in big city clothes.
Left: hot buttery pecan at Skinny J's in Jonesboro. Right: cold coconut at Nick's BBQ and Catfish in Carlisle. Photos by Grav Weldon.
In my three years there, I explored. I was in my early twenties, and what was I going to do when I wasn’t working? I’d get in my car and drive. And between stopping in at little diners around the area and covering the agriculture beat in the morning newscast I produced, I learned about farming in the Delta. I will never be an expert, but I could meet and begin to understand the people I saw in those country diners, the sort of folks who would show up to a rally for Marion Berry (the state representative for the area at the time), the sort who spent a lot of time on a combine.
These sorts of folks would get up at the crack of dawn to begin their jobs, usually showering and dressing before the first light of morning. They would likely eat a quick breakfast at the house and get out to work, whether it was to plow or harvest soybeans, rice, winter wheat, or any other crop, or head out to market to sell what they brought in from the fields.
At about 11:00 a.m. they would leave the fields for lunch. They would seek out communion in the form of others to bump elbows with around a table, usually in a diner or a country store. A typical lunch would involve these men (and they were almost all men) arriving at a restaurant, gathering around a table and chewing the fat with others of their ilk. There might be a waitress, and there might even be a menu, but for these men it would be a matter of sitting down and accepting whatever the lunch plate happened to be, usually with coffee but sometimes with a Coke and a smile.
And when the meal was done and it was time to head back, each man would head to the counter to settle the tab. Next to the register there would be something sweet in Saran wrap, a cookie bar or a piece of cake—or a fried pie. Each man would pick up one of those fried pies and move it over by the ticket he’d put down in front of the lady at the register, and she’d quietly ring it up with his lunch. Money exchanged, fried pie in hand, the guy would be right out the door and on with his work.
Unlike traditional pies displayed in fancy cases, fried pies are often found swathed in plastic wrap or tucked into a wax paper envelope beside a cash register, such as these pies at Dairy King in Portia, Hillbilly Hideout in Ozark, and the Rison Country Store in Rison. Photos by Grav Weldon.
The idea that began with dumplings and pasties and such has embedded itself in Delta life. The hand pie is natural for someone to pick up on the go. It’s just as popular with truckers and travelers as it is with these hearty folk who sow the fields.
But why fried? You could view it as a product of refrigeration. There are other dessert items that can be picked up and taken with you somewhere but few that can be batched and frozen and then later cooked quickly. It takes just a few minutes to cook a fried pie, and if it’s been frozen it doesn’t matter—the frying process that crisps the dough and turns it golden brown melts it and makes molten whatever is contained within.
Arkansas Pie will be available in print November 16, but you can order an advance copy here.