They are a sweet and nostalgic reminder of a more carefree time, a Deep South taste and aroma that lures one back to childhood days spent anxiously waiting in Grandma’s kitchen. If there is a warmer and more welcomed midday treat than the old-fashioned fruit-filled fried pie, you are hereby challenged to name it.
With its crisp, sugarcoated crust, housing the likes of soft-cooked apple, peach, apricot or cherry, it is a delight that begs the consumer—young and old—to grab a glass of cold milk and briefly dismiss all worries about cholesterol and expanding waistlines.
Pies are popular the world over, but by golly, there’s nowhere from sea to shining sea where the appreciation is greater than in Texas.
Just ask anyone who’s stopped in at Hico’s Koffee Kup Café southwest of Fort Worth for a slice of cream pie, with a 6-inch-high meringue topping, or travel north to the Natty Flat Smoke House in Lipan for a chocolate or blackberry fried pie. There’s even a group of devoted and adventuresome Texans who regularly get together for weekend treks they call Pie Runs, visiting the likes of the Wimberley Pie Company southwest of Austin, the Farmhouse Café in Huntsville, Atwood’s in Marble Falls, and Hawkins’ Petty Café east of Dallas in search of new dining experiences.
In Marble Falls, Hardy Sivells, whose family has operated Atwood’s for 35 years, sees to it that his restaurant’s famed pies are disbursed fairly among his customers. At the order counter there is a sign warning customers, “A Maximum of Four Per Customer.”
The restaurant opens at 6 a.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by 7 a.m., says Sivells, “It’s a gamble what flavors will be left.” The pies, handmade by Sivells’ mom, Virginia, aren’t actually fried pies.
“People have called them that for as long as I can remember,” the owner says, “but, in truth, they are a German-style turnover, baked, not fried, and have far fewer calories.”
But the subject today is specifically the hand-held fried pie.
“This is going to sound strange,” says Jo Clark, proprietor of Gainesville’s popular Fried Pie Co. & Restaurant, of the treat “but, aside from the taste, I think what people like is the fact you can walk around while you’re eating one. I have people who come in, get their order, then, rather than sit at a table, they’ll go stand by the window and look across the street at the courthouse while they eat their pie.”
Many view Clark, who has sold eight fruit- and cream-filled varieties of the pastry for almost a quarter century, as Texas’ queen mother of fried pies. Monday through Friday, she and her staff fry no fewer than 300 pies daily—and on Saturday, 450—to fill the additional call-in orders from neighboring towns. Her most popular? “Apricot, 3 to 1,” she says.
Where once she had the market virtually to herself, Clark now has a growing list of competitors. Among the recent entries is Sarah Jackson, a 26-year-old single mother of two who is keeping the tradition alive and well in the rural West Texas whistlestop of Gordon, in Palo Pinto County. There, in a 1,500-square-foot building on the outskirts of the community of 473, she and her small staff at Backroads Bakery Inc. turn out between 4,000 and 5,000 fried pies weekly, providing them to an ever-expanding market that includes 140 convenience stores within a 150-mile radius.
As a girl growing up in Stephenville, she recalls, her repeated offers to help her mother with preparation of family meals were routinely met with the suggestion that she toss the salad and stay as far away from the stove as possible. She won’t even venture a guess about the number of times when, as a young housewife, an emergency call went out for delivery pizza after she’d failed at whatever new recipe she’d tried. Pastries were her only successes.
“Some friends ran the hotel here in Gordon,” she recalls, “and I occasionally made a whole pie and took it to them. They seemed to like them, and when they opened a small convenience store in town, they said they wanted a novelty food item to sell and asked what I thought about making a dozen or so fresh fried pies daily.”
Seeing the opportunity to help out with the always-tight family budget, she began to experiment. “I’d never made fried pies before,” she admits, “so I tried a number of recipes and finally came up with an apple-filled one that I was pleased with.”
Soon she was waking at 3 a.m. each day to spend two hours in her small kitchen cooking three pies at a time in a deep fryer to fill her daily order from the nearby Longhorn Country Store.
Sellouts became common, and the orders increased to 200 pies per week. Soon, she expanded to other flavors, including the buttermilk fried pie, made from a recipe from her grandmother.
The business boomed, and her family came to the rescue. In April 2004, cousin Justin Scrivner, a Fort Worth fireman, and wife Mindy suggested a partnership.
“I knew she had something special,” says Justin, “when I’d occasionally take a bunch of her pies to the fire station and watch them disappear immediately. The guys were comparing them to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.”
With Justin serving as Backroads’ president and chief promoter and Mindy working as bookkeeper, the business quickly expanded. His dad and his wife’s grandparents began making twice-a-week deliveries. Having outgrown the backyard building where the pies were cooked, a spacious new building went up on a nearby lot that Scrivner owned. State-of-the-art equipment that streamlined the dough-making process was ordered from Chicago and Alabama; a delivery van was purchased; and a second cook went on the payroll.
Five days a week, from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., Jackson and her staff prepare the pies and place them in a large walk-in freezer for later cooking. (Once delivered to the customer, the packaged pies have a 10-day shelf life.) Nearby, in a corner play area, 6-year-old Hunter and 5-year-old Sierra amuse themselves until Mom has a few minutes to join them.
Backroads Bakery, at least by Gordon measure, had gone big-time.
Customer comments posted on the company’s website (www.backroads bakery.com) are overwhelmingly positive, often opening with the gleeful admission that the writer “hasn’t had a fried pie like this since my grandmother made them.”
“Now,” adds Scrivner, “we’re all wondering where this is headed. We’ve talked with some big-city pastry shops who have asked about stocking the pies. I find myself wondering if one day some large food company isn’t going to call, wanting to buy the business. What Jackson’s started has grown into something none of us dreamed could happen.”
He should have known. The market for a good fried pie is always going to be there. Along with celebrated comfort foods such as barbecue and chicken fried steak, it’s part of the Texas way of life.
Carlton Stowers has written about the Lake Cisco Dam and the Odessa Meteor Crater for Texas Co-op Power.