On May 4, 2022, writer, cook, and food historian Kat Robinson learned that her mother’s house was on fire. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but when Kat arrived, she found what was lost.
“Most of the dishes we cooked in were gone (an errant Blue Cornflower CorningWare pie plate was at my house), furniture my great-grandfather made, artwork from my school days, all ashes,” Kat says in the introduction to her newest book, The Great Arkansas Pie Book.
Also gone were family photographs, treasured books, all things Kat held dear.
It was a blow to her family, and Kat knew her mother would need help in the aftermath. Kat stepped in, meeting with insurance adjustors and inspectors, trying to execute a methodical plan to put things back in order.
It was during this time that the prolific writer (she now has twelve books to her name) decided it was time to put down her pen for a while and concentrate on her family.
Not that she didn’t have a project quietly simmering. On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, many eateries temporarily closed or were only offering take-out. That lured most of us into our own kitchens, cooking more than we had in years.
Kat was no different. But being Kat, who’d spent sixteen years writing about the food of Arkansas, the shutdown didn’t stop her. She started baking pies, using family recipes, learning the magic of making crusts, filling them with so much goodness.
Later, Kat would contact professional Arkansas bakers, asking a bold question: Would they be willing to share their prized recipes with her?
Who knows why so many said yes. It could be that Kat had earned their trust with her love of Arkansas food and the careful way she wrote about it. It could be they understood what a joy it would be for everyday cooks to enjoy the desserts they had previously only been able to buy.
So, after Kat had tended to her mother’s house, she returned to her project. She acquired recipes from the Kettle Smokehouse in Van Buren, the Wooden Spoon in Gentry, and the Oark General Store. She secured recipes from much-loved eateries that had gone out of business, like the popular Millionaire Pie from Furr’s Cafeteria in Fort Smith.
When The Great Arkansas Pie Book was published in May of this year, Kat had amassed a whopping 248 recipes, the biggest collection of the state’s pie recipes ever assembled. Besides pies featured at eateries across the state, Kat has recipes from family and friends, decades-old community cookbooks that churches and civic organizations put out, and recipes dating back to the eighteenth century. Her research started at home, with her collection of 500 cookbooks.
Not only are the recipes enticing, but they’re also entertaining. Like Kat’s brother’s recipe for Zack Diemer’s Cherry Cream Cheese Pie that he makes in an old, round thirteen-inch Tupperware container that’s older than he is. The instructions include this direction: Beat the tar out of the cream cheese until it’s sorta fluffy. There’s Dog Tick Pie that sounds excessively unappealing. But not to worry. The “ticks” are really raisins that swell during the cooking process. There’s Vinegar Pie that pre-dates the Civil War and was popular in the Great Depression of the 1930s when food was scarce.
Kat tested 100 of the recipes, an accomplishment for a home cook. She traveled twice to the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow House in Eureka Springs, where she wrote and baked. In total, she spent a month there, making sure her book would be a success.
There are pies made of nuts, fruit, cream, and custard. There are chocolate, meringue, fried pies, and savory pies. There’s a whole chapter devoted to pie crusts. Not interested in making a crust from scratch? There’s even a chapter on pies that make their own crust.
Some of the best things about this cookbook are the photographs of old handwritten recipe cards, many stained from much use in a busy kitchen. From the Buttermilk Pie recipe that makes “one thick pie and one thin pie” to a Chess Pie that calls for oleo (an antiquated word for margarine) to a crustless custard pie recipe that was found tucked inside a cookbook owned by Mrs. M. W. Koehler, dated 1967.
It wouldn’t be an authentic Arkansas cookbook without a photo of Elvis Presley! He shows up on page ninety-six. Elvis was visiting Roy Fisher’s Steak House in North Little Rock when he tried the Cherry Nut Pie with a graham cracker crust. Of course, someone snapped a photo of him being hand fed a bite. He does look happy!
If you’re wondering what the state’s favorite pie is, look no further than the Arkansas Possum Pie at Tusk and Trotter Brasserie in Bentonville. People magazine named it the best pie in the state. Want to make your own? The recipe for this chocolaty winner is on page 170. You could also try Myrtie Mae’s version of Possum Pie on page 189, named for one particularly industrious Arkansas woman. In the 1930s, Myrtie Mae opened her home to hungry travelers who often asked for fried chicken. She’d pluck a bird from her backyard and have a chicken dinner ready in an hour. And of course, pie.
The Great Arkansas Pie Book is a delight. Before you roll out your first crust, though, read Kat’s note on page 283. The writer asks one simple thing of us: Jot down your family recipes and digitize them. I can’t help but wonder if this direction comes from her own experience of losing so much when her mother’s house burned. Recipes written on paper would not survive a blaze, and all those handwritten memories of days gone by and of cooks no longer with us would disappear in a puff of smoke.
Such sound advice. Kat understands there is more to a recipe than ingredients and measurements. When we serve food we’ve so carefully made, we’re dishing out love. What a shame to lose even one bite of that.
The Great Arkansas Pie Book: Recipes for The Natural State’s Famous Dish from Our Favorite Restaurants, Bakeries, and Home Cooks by Kat Robinson
$39.99 (paperback available September 12, 2023, $29.99), available at Chapters on Main in Van Buren, or online at major retailers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Signed copies are available direct from the author at store.tontipress.com. Inside The Great American Pie Book, you’ll find some of the most beloved and singular pies ever brought to the table, including:
Peach Lattice Pie from Mrs. Jan Simrell at Ventris Trail’s End Resort
Mile High Chocolate and Lemon Meringue Pies from the venerable Ed and Alma’s restaurant in Benton
Lemon Chess Pie, the very recipe from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion reportedly favored by President Bill Clinton
Arkansas Possum Pie from Tusk and Trotter in Bentonville, named the top pie in Arkansas by People magazine
Company’s Comin’ Pie from the Cliff House Inn, the official pie of the Arkansas Sesquicentennial
Ozark Wild Huckleberry Pie from Burns Gables and Rabbit Pie from Booger Hollow, mid-century Arkansas tourist attractions
An 18th Century Meat Pie, developed from recipes from English settlers in the Boston Mountain section of the Ozarks
Cathie’s Buttermilk Pie from The Oark General Store
Raspberry Cream Cheese Pie from Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock
Caramel Pecan Cream Cheese Pie from The Wooden Spoon in Gentry
Five different recipes for the famed Egg Custard Pie from Franke’s Cafeteria
…plus historical pies such as Black Bottom Pie, Brown Bag Apple Pie, Cushaw Pie, Goody Pie, Gooseberry Pie, Lemon Rice Pie, Pinto Bean Pie, Mincemeat Pie, and Shoo Fly Pie. You’ll also find standards like apple, cherry, grape, coconut meringue, pecan, lemon icebox, caramel, strawberry, and fried pies between the covers of this cookbook.