Food & Drink

Fried pies are a tasty mix of old days and old ways

Mention a fried pie to someone outside the South - even in some parts of the South - and you can expect a puzzled look.

A whole, round pie? Fried?

No, not a pie, fried.

A fried pie.

Shaped like a half-moon, crimped along the edge with fork tines, with a filling usually made from dried fruit. Mostly apple or peach, although sweet potato shows up in some places.

Made in a skillet in a grandmother's kitchen, or picked up at the checkout counter in a country store, tucked into a lunch box or a cooler.

There was a time when country school kids and blue-collar workers got through the day with something just like that.

"It's sort of like a side dessert," says Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill, the author of "Southern Pies" (Chronicle, 2010). "For traveling, or to have something when people are coming by."

When we think about classic dishes of the Carolinas, those old favorites that hold a place in our hearts even if they aren't always on our tables anymore, fried pies came to mind.

The fried pie isn't only found in North Carolina. There are fried pie makers in Oklahoma and Arkansas, a few in Tennessee and a lot in Texas. But with the dried-fruit filling, most people who know them agree fried pies started in the mountain South, where simple cooking was both tradition and necessity. And a big swath of those mountains pass through the Carolinas.

"You'd have flour, you'd have lard and you'd have dried apples," says McDermott. "And (dried apples) would be strung up and kept all year. So you could make fried pies in the winter, when you didn't have any fresh fruit."

The B&G story

Fried pies today are definitely throwbacks to an era. Several years ago, Chris Wilson bought Winston-Salem-based B&G Fried Pies, the ones you see in wax paper wrappers all around the Piedmont. A native of Winston-Salem, he wanted a brand that was "kind of iconic," he says.

"This is a brand that's as synonymous as Cheerwine with North Carolina," he says. Look for them at the checkout counters in Lexington-area barbecue restaurants and rural mom-and-pop stores.

"Hot dog houses and barbecue restaurants," he says. "A lot of what I would call retro, throwback places carry our pies."

B&G was named for cousins Alton Bodenheimer and G.M. Griffin, who started the company in 1949. It used to be a big place, running three shifts a day, says Wilson.

"B&G really kind of hit its stride when there was a lot of manufacturing and textiles and a lot of big plants around. In the '60s and '70s, when vending became popular, these products were in vending machines in the break rooms."

When manufacturing died down, the pies became a convenience store staple, something a blue-collar worker could pick up on the way to a job site.

Fried pies definitely have a rural appeal, he says.

"If you go up North and talk about a fried pie, they're like, 'What? What are you rednecks talking about?'

"These traditions are hidden gems for people who come down and find them."

Rarely written down

Nancie McDermott grew up in the Burlington area and never encountered fried pies until she got to make them with a friend's 80-year-old aunt in Sparta, in the farthest west corner of the state.

"She'd start the skillet going with Crisco and put (a pie) in, then shape another one and put it in. They're sweet but not too sweet, and greasy good."

Written recipes can be hard to find, McDermott says.

"It's like deviled eggs. People know how to do it. It sort of didn't get written down. It'd be like writing down a ham sandwich."

The recipes she's found usually fall into two styles - a biscuit-type crust, which she thinks is more common, or a pie dough version.

Still, when McDermott was writing "Southern Pies," she didn't hesitate to consider them a pie.

"Absolutely," she says. "It's a pie in a hand-held form. It's still pastry, but an unusual variation. This seems like its own entity, but completely from the same root."

McDermott knows exactly where to find fried pies in Chapel Hill: on Saturday mornings at the Carrboro Farmer's Market, made by Louise Parrish of Louise's Old-Fashioned Baked Goods.

Parrish is best known for the pound cakes she started selling at the market in 1990. But a number of years ago, she added fried pies for old-timers.

Parrish, 73, is a retired lab technician who grew up on a farm outside Carrboro. There were 15 kids in the family, and her mother made everything they ate, including fried pies to take to school.

"We carried our lunch every day," she says. "She cooked three meals a day. And I mean big meals. Our breakfast was like dinner."

Parrish makes her fried pies with Granny Smiths, "almost like dried apples," she says. But she doesn't really have a recipe.

"It's in my mind," she says. "That's the way people used to cook a long time ago. You can look at something and tell it's right."

She makes a dough from Crisco, milk and Southern Biscuit self-rising flour. She used to cut the circles of dough from a saucer or a tin can, but now she doesn't cut them - she just knows the right amount of dough to roll out.

At B&G in Winston-Salem, Wilson says his pies are made by hand, from the same recipes they've used since 1949, in the same five flavors - apple, peach, cherry, lemon and chocolate.

"The immediate sensation is, 'This tastes like something my mom or my grandmother would make.'"

One 98-year-old man regularly drives to Wilson's factory on Old Lexington Road and honks the horn because it's hard for him to get out of the car. He's been eating the pies since 1951, says Wilson.

"People grew up with this product. The old is the new-new."

Peach Fried Pies

Adapted from “My Mother’s Southern Kitchen,” by James Villas and Martha Pearl Villas (MacMillan, 1994) and “Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie,” by Bill Neal (UNC Press, 1990). The Villas’ version falls firmly into the pie-crust style.

Filling:

6 ounces dried peaches

2 1/2 cups water

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar, according to taste

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon butter

Dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably a low-gluten brand such as White Lily or Southern Biscuit

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, diced

6 to 8 tablespoons ice water

PLACE dried fruit and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer about 40 minutes, until fruit is tender. Drain, then mash fruit coarsely with a pastry blender or potato masher. Add sugar, lemon juice, spices and butter. Set aside to cool.

COMBINE the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and cut in with a pastry cutter or a fork until dough resembles coarse meal and the butter is completely distributed through the flour. Add 6 tablespoons ice water and toss dough lightly with a fork until it’s coming together into a mass. Add a little ice water if needed, then form dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

PUT about half the dough on a floured work surface. Roll out with a floured rolling pin to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 4- to 6-inch saucer, cut out a couple of circles and set aside. Gather up scraps of dough, add more of the unrolled dough and roll out again, continuing to cut circles until the dough is used up.

WORKING with 3 or 4 circles at a time, place 2 to 3 tablespoons peach filling on each circle, fold the round in half and press the edges together firmly. Use a fork dipped in flour to crimp the edges.

HEAT about 2 cups vegetable or canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the finished pies about 3 minutes per side, lowering heat if needed to keep them from scorching. Cool on paper towels and continue filling dough and frying pies.

Yield: 10 to 12 pies.

Fried Apple Pies

From “Southern Pies,” by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle, 2010). Although McDermott got this recipe from Georgia cookbook author Virginia Willis, they fit right into the N.C. mountain style of dried apples and a biscuit-style crust.

Filling:

10 ounces dried apples (or a 6-ounce package)

1/2 cup sugar

Dough:

2 1/2 cups self-rising flour

1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening, chilled

2/3 cup buttermilk

Confectioners’ sugar, for serving

About 2 cups canola oil, for frying

PLACE the apples in a large bowl. Add 6 cups cold water. Cover and let stand 4 hours or overnight.

PUT the soaked apples and any remaining liquid in a large saucepan. Add 2 more cups water and the sugar. Bring to a boil and over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the apples thicken up and begin to break down, about 1 hour. Remove from heat and use a pastry blender, potato masher or fork to mash the apples into a soft, chunky filling. Can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated up to 1 day.

PLACE the flour in a large mixing bowl. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender, a fork or two knives until the flour resembles coarse meal. Add the buttermilk and stir until a dough forms. Place on a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Knead a few times, turning and dusting with a little flour, until smooth. Push the dough to one side of the work surface.

BREAK off a piece of dough about the size of a biscuit. Roll out into a 4-inch circle. Place about 2 tablespoons filling in the center. Fold the dough over. Press edges together to seal, then dip a fork in flour and crimp the edges.

HEAT the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. It should be about 2 inches deep, and should register about 350 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer.

MAKE and fry 1 or 2 pies at a time about 2 minutes per side, turning gently so you don’t splash the oil (it helps to use two spatulas). Drain on paper towels and dust with confectioners sugar. Continue with remaining dough and apples. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

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