Every Saturday throughout spring and summer, at least one of the Howard sisters—Martha, Mary, Carrie, or Laverne—shows up on the town square of Monticello, the county seat of Jasper County, Georgia. The Howards preside over a table in the Chamber of Commerce–sponsored farmers’ market, an enterprise that once would have seemed superfluous, back in the days when almost everyone in Jasper was a farmer.
Under the slim shade of a statue honoring the Confederate fallen, the women sell handmade lye–and–lard soap, beans and vegetables from their brothers’ garden, and homemade chow–chow that comes in four degrees of burn: hot, hot–hot, hot–hot–hot, and then “put down your plate and run.” What the Howards are best known for, however, and what I’m hoping to unlock the secret of, is their fried pies: generous crescents of flaky pastry with fillings that often come from nearby trees or fields. In other words, what heaven on earth would be like if heaven had no words for cholesterol or obesity.
Monticello was my father’s hometown, and even though this summer marks the fifth anniversary of his death, I still head down a few times a year from Philadelphia, which is my hometown. I go for the people and the food; the small–town connections and unapologetic use of pork. We are connected to the Howards in innumerable ways. My father used to rent grazing land to the sisters’ twin brothers, Albert and Elbert, eventually going in with them on a small herd of cattle; the twins took a shine to my bass–fishing husband, which has led to many a bait– and beer–laden excursion; and for several years running, the Howard clan, which is itself innumerable, held its late–summer family reunions in Dad’s pecan grove. During my father’s last few visits to his beloved vacation place, Laverne helped take care of him, a task no less than heroic given my father’s brusque personality and devastated health.
Whenever I travel to Monticello, I telephone ahead to reserve a dozen pies (they always sell out), which I freeze to bring back North, where they are consumed as soon as their flakiness is reactivated by a quick oven warm–up. Before my most recent trip, I asked Laverne if she’d show me how they made their pies.
“That would be no problem,” she said, which is why I find myself turning into the driveway of their homeplace in early June. I pass through an informal allée of white crape myrtles just breaking into bloom, and as I slow to a stop, my tires kick up the red clay turned to dust amidst a stretch of unseasonably warm weather. Before turning off the ignition, I note the outdoor temperature on the dashboard. 110 degrees. The half bushel of Ruby Prince peaches I bought earlier in the day have started to cook, despite my aggressive use of air–conditioning, and they fill the car with their sweet perfume, a reminder of their genetic connection to the rose.
Laverne and her sister Carrie have everything ready. The edge of the dining table is lined with aluminum foil, a bag of White Lily Self–Rising Flour and rolling pin rest nearby. Dough chills in the freezer; a large cast–iron pan sits on one of the electric stove burners, an inch of vegetable oil heating up inside it; and cling–wrapped bowls on the sideboard hold our three fillings—peach, squash, and tomato preserve/cream cheese.
“That’s Carrie,” Laverne says of this last concoction. “She’s the creative one.”
“I love the Food Network,” Carrie explains. “And I love cooking sweet.”
We could go straight into pie production—our mise is totally en place—but I take Laverne up on her offer to demonstrate the steps I’ve missed. She starts by pouring flour into one end of a hotel pan, a few shakes from the five–pound bag of White Lily. Then she peels the lid off a new can of Crisco “Butter Flavor” vegetable shortening and scoops a spoonful into one palm. Using the side of the spoon to break it up, she drops the chunks of Crisco into the middle of the pan and works it into the flour with her fingertips. She works quickly so her ingredients don’t get too warm, pulling in more flour as needed, a calculus that appears to be purely tactile since she barely looks down. The resulting crumble ends up at the other end of the pan, where she begins to squeeze handfuls of the mix into dough, now and then adding a few drops of ice water. All the ingredients have to be cold, she says, even the flour.
Meanwhile, Carrie has peeled and cut up a few Ruby Princes to put in a small saucepan with slivers of dried peach and sugar (more shakes from a bag). She will cook them over a low heat until the ingredients have melded, then set them aside to cool. Dried fruit delivers most of the flavor, according to Laverne, and I suspect that’s especially true when peaches are out of season and the Howards rely on canned fruit as their main ingredient. Savory fillings enlist a few more supporting players: Today’s squash pies also contain onion, carrots, Cheddar cheese, and Carrie’s favorite spice blend: McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning.
When Carrie professes her loyalty to McCormick’s, I feel my inner food snob flinch. Among the sanctimonious big–city kitchens I frequent (including my own), any ingredient with a ® or ™ after its name flies in the face of Authenticity. We not only want to make our own probiotic coleslaw, my friends and I, but we want to grow the cabbage in our community–garden plots or buy it from organic CSAs, and we expect it to be an heirloom variety raised without pesticides in soil amended with composted manure from hormone–free livestock who had actual relationships with their mothers. In fact, the Howards are more back–to–basics than many of their neighbors, and their twin brothers use few chemicals in the garden they preside over. But they all remember a time when there were no Walmarts within a half hour’s drive from anywhere in the county, when making things from scratch was not a choice but a given. No wonder conveniences like flavored shortening and premixed seasoning possess a sliced–bread novelty.
Life is still difficult in a county that was the poorest in the state when my grandfather brought his family here in 1922; the nation’s economic crisis has hit hard in the central Georgia region that contains Jasper County, shutting down plant after plant. Most of the people I know have more than one job, if they have a job at all. The Howard sisters are no exception. Laverne works in a day care center and Carrie works in a college cafeteria, and they spend at least one night a week making pies. In addition to Monticello, they set up tables in nearby Milledgeville and at the Stonecrest mall in Lithonia, just east of Atlanta. They’ll sell almost 100 pies in a given day. Peach and apple are hands down the most popular, but customers are also drawn to the foods in season, which most recently were sweet potato and strawberries.
The truth about great home cooks is that their secrets aren’t easily translated. Cupped palms serve as measuring cups, things are heated or cooled till they’re “ready,” and, in the case of rolling out dough for the pies we’re making this day, the aim is “not too thick and not too thin.” Laverne pinches off about half a cup of dough and rolls it out on the floured aluminum foil surface, stopping when it’s about seven inches across and an eighth of an inch thick. She plops three heaping tablespoonfuls of filling in its center (“Peach!” I’ve requested, hoping to test the finished product), then uses the back of another spoon, dipped and redipped in water, to wet the edge of the dough. Folding the circle in half, she presses out extra air from the filling pocket to keep it from bursting when it hits the hot oil. To determine when the oil’s hot enough, Carrie drops in a piece of trimmed–off crust. “If it rises to the top immediately, it’s ready,” she says. The sisters tried a deep fryer, they tell me; it took less time and yielded a good flake, but they prefer the browning they get from the pan.
Laverne pushes the tines of a flour–dipped fork into the sealed edge, pokes a few airholes into the pocket, then trims back unsightly crust edges with a paring knife. Using two hands, she tenderly lifts the pie and carries it over to the frying pan, gently letting it fall into the oil so that it doesn’t splash.
The air in the kitchen has filled with fruit and butter and the toasted smell of cooking flour. I’ve given up on note–taking and now just want to test the results. I am not the only one hovering by the stove. Two girls have drifted in from the adjacent TV room: Mary’s 5–year–old granddaughter, Carrington, and her 14–year–old cousin Al’Lexus, one of Carrie’s grandkids. Carrington’s eyes are wide with desire. Generally, I like children, but if I have to take them out, I will. Fortunately for them, Southern hospitality puts me at the front of the line, and the children survive long enough not only to taste their own pies but also for Carrington to roll out and fill her own, her grandmother patiently standing behind her and guiding her through each step.
The Howard Sisters’ Fried Peach Pie
Makes about 6 single–serving pies
- 2 cups White Lily Self–Rising Flour, chilled for at least an hour beforehand (See Cooks’ Notes, below)
- 1/2 cup Crisco Butter Flavor All–Vegetable Shortening, chilled for at least an hour beforehand
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 3 cups fresh peaches, peeled and cut up (See Cooks’ Notes, below)
- 1/4 cup dried peaches cut into slivers
- 1 cup white granulated sugar
- Vegetable oil
- Flour for rolling out dough
- Cold water for sealing pie edges
- Place flour in a large bowl. Working quickly, cut Crisco into flour using the side of a spoon or a pastry blender, until mixture resembles a crumble of sand and peas.
- Sprinkling in a few drops of water at a time, squeeze handfuls of the mixture into solid balls of dough, adding only enough water to make the mixture stick together. Gather dough into a single ball and wrap in plastic.
- Refrigerate dough overnight.
- Combine filling ingredients in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the dried fruit softens, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Retrieve dough from refrigerator and let it warm just enough to be workable.
- When you’re ready to make the pies, pour 1 to 1 1/2 inches vegetable oil into a large cast– iron skillet over medium heat.
- For each pie, pinch off a biscuit–size chunk of dough (about 1/2 cup), roll into a rough ball, then roll out on a floured surface until the round is about 7 inches across and 1/8 inch thick.
- Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling into center of dough circle.
- Wet the back of a large spoon in cold water and run a ribbon of the water about 3/4 inch wide around the inner edge of the circle. Fold circle in half over the filling, then press the tines of a fork dipped in flour to secure the pie’s seal. Re–flour the fork every few presses to keep it from sticking to the dough. Prick a few small airholes in the pocket of the pie using the fork. With a small knife or pizza cutter, trim off unsightly crust excess.
- Test the oil by dropping a small crust scrap into it. If the scrap immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.
- Carefully lifting the pie from the work surface, release it down into the hot oil, making sure to avoid splashing any hot oil on your skin. You can cook more than one at a time, provided they don’t crowd one another in the pan (there should be at least an inch of space between each pie). Cook for 2 to 3 minutes each side, then lift out with a slotted spatula and drain on a paper towel.
- Eat as soon as possible. (Refrigerated pies should be consumed within 4 days, and frozen pies are best consumed within 2 weeks.)
- White Lily Self–Rising Flour is available online from Smucker’s and Amazon.
- To peel peaches, first cut an X in the end opposite the stem and immerse in a large pot of boiling water, three at a time, for 15 seconds. Transfer with a slotted spoon to an ice bath and then peel.
The recipe in this article has not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.
Where to Buy Pies
Market on the Square
Saturdays 8 a.m.–noon
Tuesdays 4 p.m–7 p.m.
East Metro Farmers’ Market
The Mall at Stonecrest
Saturdays 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Lise Funderburg, the author of Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, is based in Philadelphia, where she fries very few things.