Recently, I was asked what my favorite childhood memory is. I took a lengthy pause before answering. I thought about the birthday parties my mom threw for me each June, the weekend camping trips with my parents in our 1970s camper, and the yearly trick-or-treat outings around the neighborhood with my best friend and next-door neighbor, Robby. Although those are some of my fondest childhood memories, hands down, my favorite is the sticky, summer days at the state fair.
For me, the nostalgia of the state fair is sweeter than the highest mountain of powdered sugar on a greasy funnel cake. And in recent years the fair holds a new level of excitement for me: competition. Days before those fair gates swing open to the public, I make the trek from Lexington to Louisville with a trunk full of state fair entries. Hours of baking, sewing, cooking and preparation culminate in that moment standing in line with hundreds of others, waiting to hand over the hoped-for winning entry. Over the years, I have won several ribbons, but that lustrous blue-satin ribbon still eludes me.
The pie division is one category I have yet to tackle. I envy those brave enough. Those winning pies, perched behind the long glass cases, are the pinnacle achievement for every baker. Hand-fluted edging, flawless golden crust, pristine flaky layers, properly set fillings—it’s enough to make the most seasoned baker tremble.
There are 15 pie categories at this year’s state fair, and more than 200 Kentuckians will enter. Despite my trepidation, don’t count me out just yet. I may still muster the courage for it. State fair competition, although tough, is a tradition—one I hope to take part in until I’m watching my great-grandchildren eat their first sugar-mounded funnel cake at the state fair.
The Commonwealth’s Custard Pies
Sugary custard pies, no matter what name you call them, have a distinct presence and history in Kentucky’s sweet culinary landscape.
While pie crust is an ideal vessel for just about anything, here in Kentucky, nuts and chocolate reign king among pie fillings. Notwithstanding that custard pies have their own special place in Kentucky history and hearts. Transparent pie, buttermilk pie, vinegar pie, sugar pie and Jefferson Davis Pie are all comparable in recipe and method but have a distinctness and regional popularity all their own.
Throughout much of the Appalachian Mountains and certainly into the eastern parts of our own state, chess pie is a potluck essential. Most food historians believe that the word chess is simply slang for English cheese pie filling. Others say that the word is “chest,” spoken with a Southern drawl, because these sugary pies could be stored in a pie chest rather than being refrigerated. And yet others believe it to be a run-on version of the words “just pie.” Because of its simple ingredients (eggs, sugar and butter) with no added nuts, fruits or candies, it is “jes’ pie” or chess pie.
Jefferson Davis Pie is also popular throughout the South but had a historical presence at Berea College’s well-known Southern inn, Boone Tavern, throughout the mid-1900s. Richard T. Hougen, manager of the inn, was said to have taught all Boone Tavern pastry chefs how to make Jefferson Davis Pie for hotel guests and visiting dignitaries to enjoy.
Wherein chess pie and Jefferson Davis Pie can be found throughout the South, here in Kentucky, we stake our claim on transparent pie. Magee’s Bakery in Maysville concocted the recipe for this silky, custard pie. The bakery, located on Market Street, has been owned by Judy and Ron Dickson since 1979. For more than 30 years, they have been making and selling transparent pie worldwide with the likes of actor George Clooney singing its praises.
Unique Pies Around Kentucky
Tanglewood Pie – Whitesburg’s Courthouse Café has a unique and oh-so-tasty combination of bananas, cream cheese and blueberries. Nestled in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, the café, with a beautiful artisan gift shop, is definitely worth the trip.
Sand Pie – A pecan butter crust gives a nice nutty crunch to this cream-filled pie from Betty’s OK Country Cooking in Columbia. Chopped pecans are mixed into a blend of cream cheese, vanilla pudding and whipped cream filling, giving this pie its “sand” texture and appearance. A final layer of chopped pecans adds a finishing touch to this famous Adair County pie.
Mary Porter Pie – Paul Holbrook is the longtime pie maker for Stella’s Café in downtown Lexington, where this pie can be found. The pie begins with a layer of chocolate spread in the bottom shell. It’s topped with sliced almonds, a cream cheese and whipped cream layer and toffee. The pie is topped with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate.
Your Favorite Pie Places
Recently, I asked Kentucky Monthly readers to share with me on Facebook their favorite spot to enjoy a slice of pie. Here’s what some of you said:
• “The [Homemade Ice Cream and] Pie Kitchen in Louisville rocks! Missy’s peanut butter pie in Lexington is a fond memory. As for savory pies, I enjoyed a delightful winter vegetable pot pie with a tender, buttery house-made pastry crust at Eiderdown in Louisville.”
• “Deb and Jen’s Diner in Morganfield. Yummy!”
• Georgia Green Stamper from Lexington grew up in Owen County eating pie at The Smith House in Owenton. She says they are “legendary for their pies—especially coconut cream and pecan.”
• “Oh my, I do love pie. Check out Pop’s in Farmers, Kentucky, for all homemade pies.”
• “The Oasis Café in Somerset has great pies for a great cause!”
• Sheryl Krieger of Louisville says, “Thornberry’s Pie Shop and Delicatessen in Louisville on 3rd street. Chocolate and Banana Cream ... mmmmmm”
• Louise Reinagel tips us off that “There are fabulous fresh-baked pies at Lil’s Coffee Place in Paris, Kentucky.”
Other reader suggestions:
Patti’s 1880s Settlement, Grand Rivers; The Woodshed Restaurant, Hopkinsville; Whistle Stop, Glendale; Adelia’s, Frankfort; Colonial Cottage, Erlanger