If you have a question about food in Arkansas -- particularly about where to find the best food in Arkansas -- ask Kat Robinson. She's been writing about it since 2012 -- and "The Great Arkansas Pie Book," just released, is her 12th publication. Robinson, who also authors "River Valley Eats" for the River Valley Democrat-Gazette, answered these questions for Hidden Gems: A Book Column.
Q. I know pie started it all. Tell us the story from that pie to this pie?
A. Pie has been a recurring theme in my life as an author. My first breakout story on my website, TieDyeTravels.com, was about fried pies at Ms. Lena's Pie Shop in De Valls Bluff. I wrote pie guides for several regional and national publications. When I was approached about writing my first book, I was asked what subject I could cover in 30 days. That became "Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of The Natural State," published in 2012 by History Press.
Arkansas PBS came to me in 2016 with the idea of doing a show on what I do for a living. It morphed into "Make Room for Pie," the documentary Larry Foley produced, where I shared the stories of Arkansas pie makers. The film was based on my first book -- but a few months before it was to debut on the air, I found that "Arkansas Pie" had been taken out of print. So over the course of 10 weeks, I created a different book, "Another Slice of Arkansas Pie: A Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bakeries, Truck Stops and Food Trucks for Delectable Bites in The Natural State." Over that grueling span of time, I traveled all over the state, visiting eateries and shooting and sampling pies, to come up with this travelogue that packed in 475 places to go find good pie all over the state. It came out right after the documentary. Between the two books and the documentary, folks started calling me "the pie lady."
"Another Slice" wasn't just a book for me. In the process of getting it together, I founded Tonti Press and learned the art of book layout. In a four-year span, I wrote and published eight of my own books, as well as those for other authors. I went from being just an author to a publisher and film producer myself over those years. No matter what I did, though, I kept returning to pie. During the pandemic, while I was unable to visit restaurants, I delved into research, digging through the hundreds of Arkansas church and community cookbooks in my collection and connecting with restaurateurs online, sourcing pie recipes. After taking time off in 2022 to handle personal and family matters, I decided to work my way through putting together a definitive cookbook that would cover the world of pies in Arkansas. I wanted to make it all-inclusive, with stories about the pies and the people that made them, with historic recipes, and with those long sought-after recipes people have asked me about for years.
Q. What did you find in searching for pie that surprised you? And what delighted you?
A. I came into this project knowing pie dates back centuries in Europe. But discovering references to pies in the 18th century in the Arkansas Ozarks was eye-opening. Pie wasn't special or out of the ordinary; it was a way of preserving food a little longer. Before we had refrigeration, when a meal was prepared and cooked meat, vegetables and starches were left over, it was common to take those items, lay them into a crust in a Dutch oven or pot, cover them with another crust and bake them in the last heat of the stove at night, to be pulled out and eaten the next day. Pies extended the meals, and the resources, of early English settlers in the hills and hollows.
Meringues were also common, though not the thick, tall meringues that get attention these days. Many pies were made with custard fillings using egg yolks. The whites were beaten stiff, with or even without sugar, and spread over the top of the pie to the edge of the crust to seal in the filling. This also meant the pie could last longer, with air unable to reach the filling below.
Q. Tell me about the actual contents of the book -- what will people find inside?
A. I've curated a collection of recipes from all over the state, in so many categories. The book is divided into different types of pies -- fruit, nut, cream, custard, chocolate, meringue, fried pies, pies that make their own crust, savory, and unique pies that don't really fit a particular category. Each section is roughly alphabetical, with allowances made to keep like recipes together -- such as Bubba's Sweet Potato Pie recipe from Sharon Woodson close to the Arkansas Soybean Board's Soy Sweet Potato Pie, Dora May Peterson's Sweet Potato Pie with Gingerbread Crust, the 1986 sweet potato pie recipe from the Arkansas Sesquicentennial, Irma's Sweet Potato Pie recipe from Lindsey's Hospitality House and a version of the famed Say McIntosh Sweet Potato Pie.
There's a whole section of savory pies. Even though they're rare to find at Arkansas restaurants, they have such a strong historical context today, and a few pie makers like Russellville School District executive chef Ken Dempsey, who has placed high and even won a lot of regional pie competitions, are doing amazing things with these pies. His Pastrami Pastrami Reuben Pie, which took runner-up at The Root Cafe's Pie-Off this past year, is in there, along with my own mushroom pie based on a 14th century French recipe and several chicken pot pies, including a 1950s version served to Orval Faubus at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion, a 1980s cookbook version, and one I worked through over the course of several weeks, trying out different fillings and crusts until I created a near-perfect version of the dish.
And there are celebrity favorites in there, too, like the blueberry torte Gov. David Pryor had served at big to-dos, the cherry nut pie Elvis Presley enjoyed at Fisher's in North Little Rock, Baltimore Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson's mushroom sour cream pie, and the lemon chess pie chef Liza Ashley claimed was President Bill Clinton's absolute favorite.
There are also pies that will raise eyebrows, like a rabbit pie from 1971, pies with names like Dog Tick and Joy Choy, pies that contain entire bags of chocolate chips, historic recipes from restaurants like Burns Gables, Anderson's, Ed and Alma's, Sue's Pie Shop, and from amazing pie places open today. For instance, in Northwest Arkansas, you'll find recipes from Tusk and Trotter, Gooseberry Handmade Pies, The Farmer's Table, Ventris Trails' End Resort, The Balcony Restaurant at the Basin Park Hotel, and DeVito's of Bear Creek Springs. Interspersed throughout, you'll also find handwritten recipes from the cooks who made these specialties at home.
Q. This was your second time to write at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow? How was that experience?
A. After writing all of "Arkansas Cookery: Retro Recipes from The Natural State" in 2021, I knew the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow would be the perfect place to create the pies I'd carefully researched from old cookbooks and historic references. The Culinary Suite, the only place in all of North America dedicated specifically for food writers, includes a large Kitchenaid-supplied kitchen with double oven, a large six burner stovetop, and so much counterspace to use in my work. At times, I would have four or five pies in progress, some baking while others were being put together mis en place and more with fillings bubbling away on the stove. I spent days working on crusts, and certainly built up muscles while rolling crust after crust. Then, once each pie was done, there was the process of photographing it, which could take up to 45 minutes with each pie, making sure to catch every shot I would need of the whole pies before carefully slicing and plating slices from each one. For ice cream and icebox pies, this often required refreezing slices. For hot pies, I had to let them cool completely, else fillings would run and steam would cause lens issues. The pies I baked there make up between a third and a half of all of the pies in the book, and even though some of the pies look less photogenic than others, every one of them is exactly the pie described in the recipe. There's no trickery, nothing except real pieces of pie, shot on collected saucers and pie plates and napkins and tablecloths within and just outside the Culinary Suite.
The other great thing about working at the Writers' Colony is that I had people to share these pies with. We held a special tasting event at the facility where a couple dozen pies were available to sample. There were new pies most days for the other writers-in-residence to sample -- and from whom I received feedback. And pies were also donated out to various food shelters and clubs as I went along.
Q. Why do you still love doing this?
A. Arkansas food writing was a niche I accidentally fell into when I first turned my career from affiliate TV news producing in 2007. Over the years, I've collected this massive bank of information and taken close to 600,000 photos of restaurants, farms, dishes, fruits and vegetables... I've created a repository of culinary knowledge that I believe should be shared.
When I worked in radio and television (radio, 1991-1995 and TV, 1995-2007), my job required me to write about the terrible things people did to each other every day, whether it was crime or politics or accidents. When I left that career, I decided I wanted to write about things that made people happy, or at least things that were about the good in the world. I am so blessed to be able to write about food for a living, and more so because I've been able to do it while Arkansas has undergone a culinary renaissance.
Get Your Copy
"The Great Arkansas Pie Book" is available nationwide in hardcover at major bookstores like Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.com. Author Kat Robinson also offering signed paperback editions through her website, store.tontipress.com, ahead of the paperback release on Sept. 12.