Every Saturday throughout spring and summer, at least one of the Howard sisters—Martha, Mary, Carrie, or Laverne—shows up on the town square of Monticello, the county seat of Jasper County, Georgia. The Howards preside over a table in the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored farmers’ market, an enterprise that once would have seemed superfluous, back in the days when almost everyone in Jasper was a farmer.
Under the slim shade of a statue honoring the Confederate fallen, the women sell handmade lye-and-lard soap, beans and vegetables from their brothers’ garden, and homemade chow-chow that comes in four degrees of burn: hot, hot-hot, hot-hot-hot, and then “put down your plate and run.” What the Howards are best known for, however, and what I’m hoping to unlock the secret of, is their fried pies: generous crescents of flaky pastry with fillings that often come from nearby trees or fields. In other words, what heaven on earth would be like if heaven had no words for cholesterol or obesity.
Monticello was my father’s hometown, and even though this summer marks the fifth anniversary of his death, I still head down a few times a year from Philadelphia, which is my hometown. I go for the people and the food; the small-town connections and unapologetic use of pork. We are connected to the Howards in innumerable ways. My father used to rent grazing land to the sisters’ twin brothers, Albert and Elbert, eventually going in with them on a small herd of cattle; the twins took a shine to my bass-fishing husband, which has led to many a bait- and beer-laden excursion; and for several years running, the Howard clan, which is itself innumerable, held its late-summer family reunions in Dad’s pecan grove. During my father’s last few visits to his beloved vacation place, Laverne helped take care of him, a task no less than heroic given my father’s brusque personality and devastated health.
Whenever I travel to Monticello, I telephone ahead to reserve a dozen pies (they always sell out), which I freeze to bring back North, where they are consumed as soon as their flakiness is reactivated by a quick oven warm-up. Before my most recent trip, I asked Laverne if she’d show me how they made their pies.
“That would be no problem,” she said, which is why I find myself turning into the driveway of their homeplace in early June. I pass through an informal allée of white crape myrtles just breaking into bloom, and as I slow to a stop, my tires kick up the red clay turned to dust amidst a stretch of unseasonably warm weather. Before turning off the ignition, I note the outdoor temperature on the dashboard. 110 degrees. The half bushel of Ruby Prince peaches I bought earlier in the day have started to cook, despite my aggressive use of air-conditioning, and they fill the car with their sweet perfume, a reminder of their genetic connection to the rose.
Laverne and her sister Carrie have everything ready. The edge of the dining table is lined with aluminum foil, a bag of White Lily Self-Rising Flour and rolling pin rest nearby. Dough chills in the freezer; a large cast-iron pan sits on one of the electric stove burners, an inch of vegetable oil heating up inside it; and cling-wrapped bowls on the sideboard hold our three fillings—peach, squash, and tomato preserve/cream cheese.
“That’s Carrie,” Laverne says of this last concoction. “She’s the creative one.”
“I love the Food Network,” Carrie explains. “And I love cooking sweet.”
We could go straight into pie production—our mise is totally en place—but I take Laverne up on her offer to demonstrate the steps I’ve missed. She starts by pouring flour into one end of a hotel pan, a few shakes from the five-pound bag of White Lily. Then she peels the lid off a new can of Crisco “Butter Flavor” vegetable shortening and scoops a spoonful into one palm. Using the side of the spoon to break it up, she drops the chunks of Crisco into the middle of the pan and works it into the flour with her fingertips. She works quickly so her ingredients don’t get too warm, pulling in more flour as needed, a calculus that appears to be purely tactile since she barely looks down. The resulting crumble ends up at the other end of the pan, where she begins to squeeze handfuls of the mix into dough, now and then adding a few drops of ice water. All the ingredients have to be cold, she says, even the flour.
Meanwhile, Carrie has peeled and cut up a few Ruby Princes to put in a small saucepan with slivers of dried peach and sugar (more shakes from a bag). She will cook them over a low heat until the ingredients have melded, then set them aside to cool. Dried fruit delivers most of the flavor, according to Laverne, and I suspect that’s especially true when peaches are out of season and the Howards rely on canned fruit as their main ingredient. Savory fillings enlist a few more supporting players: Today’s squash pies also contain onion, carrots, Cheddar cheese, and Carrie’s favorite spice blend: McCormick’s Montreal Steak Seasoning.
When Carrie professes her loyalty to McCormick’s, I feel my inner food snob flinch. Among the sanctimonious big-city kitchens I frequent (including my own), any ingredient with a ® or ™ after its name flies in the face of Authenticity. We not only want to make our own probiotic coleslaw, my friends and I, but we want to grow the cabbage in our community-garden plots or buy it from organic CSAs, and we expect it to be an heirloom variety raised without pesticides in soil amended with composted manure from hormone-free livestock who had actual relationships with their mothers. In fact, the Howards are more back-to-basics than many of their neighbors, and their twin brothers use few chemicals in the garden they preside over. But they all remember a time when there were no Walmarts within a half hour’s drive from anywhere in the county, when making things from scratch was not a choice but a given. No wonder conveniences like flavored shortening and premixed seasoning possess a sliced-bread novelty.