I’ve heard that food and music hold the personality of a region most strongly. After a recent road trip I feel safe in taking it one step further and specify that a local favorite dessert really shows off a place’s personality.
Whether they’re fruit, nut, cream, meringue or cheese, baked, fried or frozen — pies come in a dazzling range of combinations. We like our pie in the south. The baker who masters the perfect flour to butter ratio in a crust is spoken about with the utmost reverence, given a place of honor in the community and undoubtedly, asked to bring a pie to every gathering until the end of time. While pies can be graham cracker or cookie crusted, hot or cold, latticed or exposed on top, they must all be delicious to survive in these parts.
Now you’ve probably heard the phrase easy as pie, but I’m not a fan. It strikes me as flippant. The creation of pies shouldn’t be reduced to anything less than an art. Bakers mix a tremendous amount care, thought and tradition into their pies, and most of them have worked on their technique for years. Respect for my favorite dessert led me to travel from Little Rock to Northwest Arkansas along Highway 65 in a quest to experience Arkansas’ pies.
We first stopped at the Wagon Wheel in Greenbrier. Restaurants like these work as anchors and a hub of community life in small towns— a place to connect at lunch or celebrate with the team after a game. Don’t be fooled by this restaurant’s nondescript exterior. It boasts a spectacular spread and is known for its meringue pies. The bakers in this kitchen know how to whip egg whites and sugar into heavenly bliss. I had a banana split pie that had about three inches of meringue on top. So decadent!
Every one of the restaurants we visited has a top pie, a pie that’s flavor is discussed like a legend, and at the Skylark Café in Leslie, that pie is strawberry pie. Cool and refreshing with impeccable balance between sweet and tangy, this dessert is a summer staple not easily forgotten. The filling is just the right consistency, not too thick and packed with juicy strawberry pieces. I dined on the porch and took in the café’s equally charming exterior. Originally a home, they remodeled the building into a restaurant, painted the outside turquoise with red trim and surrounded it with garden art and potted plants. Save me a seat on the porch. I’ll be back.
In addition to the sugary ecstasy, I also experienced a treat for the eyes. Highway 65 winds elaborately, offering dramatic views of the mountains and valleys, and the October leaf display has earned the region the nickname the New England of the Ozarks.
We detoured to Gilbert, an old railroad town with one sign that reads ‘population 33’ and another that reads ‘coolest in the state.’ They’re referring to temperature, but it works on multiple levels. The little town sits right on the edge of the pristine Buffalo National River. We had to pull over, not for pie, but for a view of the water.
The production crew and I stopped for lunch at Big Springs Barbecue in St. Joe after that, and I ate a bacon-filled “sammwhich.” It was nice to taste something fat-laden and savory to break up all the sweet. Plus they roast the meat themselves. I sampled an apple pie, and tried to wheedle the crust recipe out of the baker to no avail.
In Jasper, we stopped at the Arkansas House, a restaurant that uses organic, locally produced ingredients, to learn the subtleties of the nut pie. Janet Morgan, the owner, showed me how to make her signature black walnut pie. Time, she said, makes all the difference between a mediocre dessert and a perfect dessert.