Photos: Lise Funderburg and Al’Lexus Howard
Life is still difficult in a county that was the poorest in the state when my grandfather brought his family here in 1922; the nation’s economic crisis has hit hard in the central Georgia region that contains Jasper County, shutting down plant after plant. Most of the people I know have more than one job, if they have a job at all. The Howard sisters are no exception. Laverne works in a day care center and Carrie works in a college cafeteria, and they spend at least one night a week making pies. In addition to Monticello, they set up tables in nearby Milledgeville and at the Stonecrest mall in Lithonia, just east of Atlanta. They’ll sell almost 100 pies in a given day. Peach and apple are hands down the most popular, but customers are also drawn to the foods in season, which most recently were sweet potato and strawberries.
The truth about great home cooks is that their secrets aren’t easily translated. Cupped palms serve as measuring cups, things are heated or cooled till they’re “ready,” and, in the case of rolling out dough for the pies we’re making this day, the aim is “not too thick and not too thin.” Laverne pinches off about half a cup of dough and rolls it out on the floured aluminum foil surface, stopping when it’s about seven inches across and an eighth of an inch thick. She plops three heaping tablespoonfuls of filling in its center (“Peach!” I’ve requested, hoping to test the finished product), then uses the back of another spoon, dipped and redipped in water, to wet the edge of the dough. Folding the circle in half, she presses out extra air from the filling pocket to keep it from bursting when it hits the hot oil. To determine when the oil’s hot enough, Carrie drops in a piece of trimmed-off crust. “If it rises to the top immediately, it’s ready,” she says. The sisters tried a deep fryer, they tell me; it took less time and yielded a good flake, but they prefer the browning they get from the pan.
Laverne pushes the tines of a flour-dipped fork into the sealed edge, pokes a few airholes into the pocket, then trims back unsightly crust edges with a paring knife. Using two hands, she tenderly lifts the pie and carries it over to the frying pan, gently letting it fall into the oil so that it doesn’t splash.
The air in the kitchen has filled with fruit and butter and the toasted smell of cooking flour. I’ve given up on note-taking and now just want to test the results. I am not the only one hovering by the stove. Two girls have drifted in from the adjacent TV room: Mary’s 5-year-old granddaughter, Carrington, and her 14-year-old cousin Al’Lexus, one of Carrie’s grandkids. Carrington’s eyes are wide with desire. Generally, I like children, but if I have to take them out, I will. Fortunately for them, Southern hospitality puts me at the front of the line, and the children survive long enough not only to taste their own pies but also for Carrington to roll out and fill her own, her grandmother patiently standing behind her and guiding her through each step.
The Howard Sisters’ Fried Peach Pie
Makes about 6 single-serving pies
- 2 cups White Lily Self-Rising Flour, chilled for at least an hour beforehand (See Cooks’ Notes, below)
- 1/2 cup Crisco Butter Flavor All-Vegetable Shortening, chilled for at least an hour beforehand
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 3 cups fresh peaches, peeled and cut up (See Cooks’ Notes, below)
- 1/4 cup dried peaches cut into slivers
- 1 cup white granulated sugar
For Assembly and Frying:
- Vegetable oil
- Flour for rolling out dough
- Cold water for sealing pie edges
- Place flour in a large bowl. Working quickly, cut Crisco into flour using the side of a spoon or a pastry blender, until mixture resembles a crumble of sand and peas.
- Sprinkling in a few drops of water at a time, squeeze handfuls of the mixture into solid balls of dough, adding only enough water to make the mixture stick together. Gather dough into a single ball and wrap in plastic.
- Refrigerate dough overnight.
- Combine filling ingredients in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the dried fruit softens, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
For Assembly and Frying:
- Retrieve dough from refrigerator and let it warm just enough to be workable.
- When you’re ready to make the pies, pour 1 to 1 1/2 inches vegetable oil into a large cast- iron skillet over medium heat.
- For each pie, pinch off a biscuit-size chunk of dough (about 1/2 cup), roll into a rough ball, then roll out on a floured surface until the round is about 7 inches across and 1/8 inch thick.
- Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling into center of dough circle.
- Wet the back of a large spoon in cold water and run a ribbon of the water about 3/4 inch wide around the inner edge of the circle. Fold circle in half over the filling, then press the tines of a fork dipped in flour to secure the pie’s seal. Re-flour the fork every few presses to keep it from sticking to the dough. Prick a few small airholes in the pocket of the pie using the fork. With a small knife or pizza cutter, trim off unsightly crust excess.
- Test the oil by dropping a small crust scrap into it. If the scrap immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.
- Carefully lifting the pie from the work surface, release it down into the hot oil, making sure to avoid splashing any hot oil on your skin. You can cook more than one at a time, provided they don’t crowd one another in the pan (there should be at least an inch of space between each pie). Cook for 2 to 3 minutes each side, then lift out with a slotted spatula and drain on a paper towel.
- Eat as soon as possible. (Refrigerated pies should be consumed within 4 days, and frozen pies are best consumed within 2 weeks.)