Playin’ Possum

An author’s quest for the perfect Arkansas dessert—chronicled in her book “Arkansas Pie”—turned up all sorts of similar yet happy returns. Here, we excerpt the chapter in which she makes a plea for state piehood.
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I traveled to every corner in the state for this. I went to Blytheville and Texarkana, Gravette and Lake Village, and I searched for pie everywhere. And everywhere I went, I found this one oddly named, propietary pie.

Now, I will say, you can find coconut meringue pie all over the state. You can find pecan and chocolate cream and sweet potato—all of which have been claimed here and there. But the one that crosses every line and shows up on menus just about everywhere is an Arkansas delicacy known as “possum” pie.

The pie is so-named because it “plays possum”—in this case, representing itself as something else. The traditional pie starts with a sandy bottom, a mix of flour and pecan pieces pressed directly into the pie pan and blind-baked before assembly. The rest of the pie isn’t baked, though I have seen a few versions that did bake the custard before the rest went on. Into the crust goes a soured cream-cheese layer, and then a layer of rich chocolate custard. On top, a layer of whipped cream topped with pecan bits hides the chocolate layer. If you don’t know the chocolate is in there, it looks like some sort of strange pecan-cream-pie hybrid.

It also goes by other names. In Southwest Arkansas, I have found it several times listed as a chocolate torte, though there’s nothing torte-ish about the pie at all. My friend Kim Williams, when I described it to her, told me in the Delta it’s usually called a four-layer delight. Over there, as in other places, it’s made in a square or rectangular casserole dish rather than a pie pan. But for the most part, the ingredients remain the same.

The initial possum pie I encountered years ago was at Stoby’s of Russellville. I went to college at Arkansas Tech University, and whenever there were special occasions, Stoby’s was the place to go. The possum pie there is a standout. Unlike most others, it comes on a flour crust but with pecans incorporated into the cream-cheese layer. No matter. It’s cool and creamy and usually sells out by the end of the day.

So, Stoby’s. The original restaurant was started back in 1980 in Conway by David Stobaugh. Not long after, the Russellville location was started up, and both thrived. Over the years, each has developed a very different vibe, which is to be expected. Both are in college towns, and each has been adopted by the university nearby. Desserts, like everything else, were made in the kitchen.

That is until October 2006, when David’s wife, Patti, decided to start up a bakery. PattiCakes began next to the Stoby’s in Russellville in yet another old building by the tracks. The place specialized at first in custom cakes and marvelous fudge. But it also started turning out baked goods for Stoby’s, including rolls, buns and pies.

In 2010, Patti started a second PattiCakes in Conway, right behind Stoby’s there. And Patti expanded her selection to include even more pies, like a pecan-and-chocolate Kentucky Derby pie, an amazingly light and rich peanut butter pie and, of course, the possum pie.

 

Mind you, there are other places you have to mention when you’re talking about possum pie. You can’t stop with Stoby’s and PattiCakes. You have to move on to the different regions of the state, spread out and cover the area and share all those great possum pie locations.

You actually start right across the tracks there in Russellville at a little place called Opal Mae’s. It’s a little hole in the wall I’ve just fallen in love with. The place got started when Dennis Martin left Cagle’s Mill, a longtime Russellville fine-dining experience. Dennis had one specialty: He made the best prime rib in the state. He still does, in my opinion.

Martin named his little restaurant on B Street after his mom and got started. It’s open for lunch during the week, selling family-style dinners served either at the little buffet or brought to your table for you to share with the folks you came with. He likes to make little desserts: little lemon cakes (which I adore), tiny chocolate bombs, cookies and, of course, the tiny flowerpot pies. These are pie shots—at least, that’s what everyone calls them these days. Among those shots, you’ll find a possum pie. His starts with a pecan-sandy cookie instead of a bottom crust. Then it’s the same soured cream-cheese layer, the same chocolate layer, still topped with whipped cream and pecan pieces.

Best of all, it’s about half what you’d get in a traditional pie slice, so you can have two.

 

Head west on I-40 toward Lamar, a little spot on the road north of the interstate. Take U.S. 64 into town and right inside a curve, right by the post office, you’ll find a little lunchroom called Sweet Treats. Every day Monday through Friday, Sweet Treats serves up a single lunch special with a choice of sides. The place also does cold sandwiches and chili and a chef’s salad, and there are always a number of pies on the board. My favorite? Strangely enough, not the possum pie but the caramel pecan pie. It’s a pecan pie made with sugar instead of Karo syrup. It comes across as the bastard child of a pecan pie and a burnt-sugar pie without the meringue, and it’s dadgum good, very praline-ish and crisp.

Sweet Treats’ possum pie goes a layer further to hide its chocolate: It has a cream-cheese layer both above and below the chocolate custard, which radically ups the decadence level. It’s also on a flour crust like Stoby’s but without the pecans in the cream-cheese layer.

You could eat your way up I-40 on possum pie: Hillbilly Hideout in Ozark, Red Rooster Bistro in Alma and even down into Fort Smith, Greenwood and south along U.S. 71. Take on the Northwest Corridor, though, and you have even more pies to savor. A number of good possum pies lie within a breath of U.S. 71 B between Fayetteville and Bella Vista, all worthy in their own way. In northwest Arkansas, possum pie tends to be a square affair.

The largest possum pie slice I have encountered is offered at Sassy’s Red House in Fayetteville. The popular stop for Arkansas Razorback fans is known for its barbecue sauce, dry-smoked ribs and burgers, and the pie is huge. It almost misses the pie definition, filling out a quarter of a quarter-sheet pan’s worth of acreage. But there is a crust, a thick pecan-sandy crust topped with a very rich and thick layer of sweetened cream cheese, a layer of light chocolate pudding, another cream-cheese layer, a layer of whipped cream and a good sprinkle of crumbled pecans. Sweet, irresistible and light—and extraordinarily huge. A sharing pie, five to six inches square.

Up the road in Springdale and over a bit on U.S. 412, you’ll find the Front Porch Diner. There are always pies on the menu there that vary day by day—meringues and creams and chiffons, oh my. There, it’s not just a possum pie, it’s the Awesome Possum pie, and there is good reason for the name. A casserole-type pie, this possum pie starts with a very thick sandy crust, onto which is smeared a light cream-cheese layer. Piled on this is a thick layer of dark, almost bittersweet chocolate custard, so rich it colors the layer below a delicate pink. Topped with whipped cream only when served, it packs a lot of flavor in a small package.

 

Of course, you have other possum pie locations, especially the incredible Myrtie Mae’s up in Eureka Springs. At the Rambler Café in Rose Bud, they make theirs like almost everyone else, but it’s called the opossum pie (of course, the “o” is silent).

And you can find it in central Arkansas, notably at places like Hunka Pie in North Little Rock, and at Paula Lynn’s Really Homemade Sandwich & Sweet Shop in Bryant, though at the latter it’s called the Chocolate Dream and omits the whipped cream on top. In fact, the Chocolate Dream is actually a fantastic chocolate mousse on top of a cloud of delightfully light cream cheese in a double-layered, blind-baked flour crust. Without the whipped cream on top, there’s no questioning what it is, so you can’t really call it a possum pie, but it tastes so very, very similar.

You’ll find possum pie in other places, too, in Arkansas’ deep south, in finer restaurants and in grungy hole-in-the-wall sort of places. Barr’s Junction isn’t grungy, but it is the only game in town in the tiny southwest Arkansas burg of Rosston. It’s at the Y in the road, and if you get to Rosston, you will see the low-slung white building in that Y’s crook. It’s everything to the community—grocery, sporting goods store, convenience store and restaurant.

So, that’s a lot of possum pie. Question is, is it the official Arkansas pie? Well, not yet. Truthfully, there is no such thing as the official state pie of Arkansas; it’s never been determined. Should it be?

As far as anyone at the State Capitol, the Arkansas History Commission or the Historic Arkansas Museum could tell me, there really isn’t a state pie. And it was suggested to me that I start a campaign to make the possum pie the official state pie of Arkansas.

But I have so many irons in the fire. And I think naming one pie to that honor is going to tick someone off. After all, declaring a single pie above all others and calling it the official pie is likely to cause political trouble.

And I’m not one to start a fight.

 

For more of Robinson’s musings on meringues, custards and cobblers, follow her blog at Arkansaspie.com, or pick up a copy of Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State at a local bookstore.

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