It's a beautiful spring Saturday, and I'm eating pie. Not just one piece of pie, mind you. A lot of pie.
The occasion is the third annual Arkansas Pie Festival at Cherokee Village, and I'm a judge. It's a hardship assignment. I realize that, but I always do what I can to help Arkansas.
The first pie festival was in 2019. The pandemic caused us to miss 2020 and 2021, but the event has come back strongly the past two years.
One of the joys of my annual trip to this scenic retirement community in the Ozarks is the opportunity to visit with Kat Robinson, Arkansas' foremost food writer.
Robinson recently released her 12th book, "The Great Arkansas Pie Book: Recipes for the Natural State's Famous Dish from our Favorite Restaurants, Bakeries and Home Cooks."
While most of Robinson's previous books have focused on the state's restaurants--from dairy bars to fine-dining establishments--this one is composed of recipes.
"Over the more than 15 years I've studied Arkansas foodways and shared the stories of the people who make what we consume, I've collected recipes for pie," she says.
"Sometimes it's a quick recipe scribbled on a waiter's order book, sometimes an old newspaper clipping. I tucked them away, knowing someday it would be time to share this bounty.
"I've also amassed more than 500 Arkansas church and community cookbooks, a collection I've dug through time and again to cross-reference the many dishes we bring to the table. With my first book, 'Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State,' I shared the stories of piemakers and restaurants."
In her fourth 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," Robinson listed 475 places to purchase pies. She says readers kept asking for more recipes. This book has them--248 to be exact, in a 288-page book.
Arkansas has always been recognized as a great pie state. Nationally known food writer John T. Edge of Oxford, Miss., has called this the "most pie mad state" in the South and perhaps the country.
"While many folks think of pie as something that you need the freshest berries or the ripest apples to create, folks in Arkansas have long had to make do with what they had to feed the family, with nary a berry or apple in sight," writes fellow Arkansas food historian Cindy Grisham in her introduction to Robinson's book.
"Arkansans have created pie fillings out of things like vinegar when there was nothing else left in the cupboard.
"While things have certainly changed on the financial front in the state over the years, those tried-and-true recipes created by mothers and grandmothers trying to feed a hungry family have become old favorites."
When the pandemic hit in 2020, people discovered the joy of making pies. Robinson got serious during that period.
"Kat and her ever faithful photographer, food taster and partner, Grav Weldon, were stuck at home as well, unable to travel and work on another of their stellar books or television specials on Arkansas food," Grisham writes. "Left to her own devices, she wandered into the kitchen and started pulling out family recipes.
"She realized fairly quickly that baking is a sort of weird cross between art and science. If a recipe says to use one cup plus one teaspoon of an ingredient, you better do it or the results will not always be pretty or edible. Don't try changing up the lard for an equal amount of butter or vegetable shortening, either."
Robinson later headed to the famed Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs so recipes for the book could be tested, photographed and tasted.
"My mom's house burned to the ground on May 4, 2022," Robinson writes. "I was at the time struggling to figure out where my place was going to be in the world again.
"When the pandemic shut everything down, I turned inward, wrote cookbooks, delved into memories, spent time with my daughter, and slowly released the drive that had been so very consuming since I had devoted my career to restaurant writing and Arkansas food promotion.
"I put a couple of cookbooks under my belt, had shoulder surgery that took so very long from which to heal. ... I later made the conscious decision to take time off to help my mom get through things."
Those of us who love pie are fortunate Robinson took time off the road, dug through hundreds of cookbooks and brought us a massive collection of Arkansas pie recipes. I doubt any other state has a book on pie that compares to this one.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.