FOR YEARS, this map-dot Delta town of 610 souls was home to two of the biggest names in Arkansas pie: “Ms. Lena” of her eponymous pie shop, and “Ms. Mary” of The Family Pie Shop. Both women knew, almost instinctively, how to make mile-high meringue, and could fry a chocolate pie worthy of diverting a certain former president’s motorcade an hour out of the way. And while only Ms. Lena’s Pie Shop remains, and though both of the “pie ladies,” as they were known, have passed away, their legacies live on, both in the memories of anyone who was lucky enough to get a forkful of a “pie lady” creation, and in their families who’ve memorized the recipes and kept the ovens warm. Because if ever there were a thing to transcend time and place, to put us back in the same room with a loved one we’ve lost, surely, it’s pie—a fact confirmed by these oral-history excerpts collected by the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Ms. Mary of The Family Pie Shop
“Now one of the [grandsons] that I was telling you about, he always likes—he likes to mess around in the kitchen because they don’t say nothing either, but he likes to mess around with me and watch me what I’m doing. And you know now they can learn more by watching you than they can you trying to teach them, because my—my little girl, you know she’s not a little girl—big girl now, one day she came in here and I was sick and I didn’t feel well, and I was—that’s when we had those fried pies. And she said, ‘You want me to’—she called me Mae-Mae. She said, ‘Mae-Mae you want me to fix the fried pies?’ I said, ‘Baby you don’t know how to do that.’ ‘Yes; I do.’ I said, ‘Well, OK’; I had the crust and everything ready. Do you know that child fixed them and they looked prettier than mine’s, everything just as smooth and even. So I said, ‘How did you learn that?’ She said ‘Watching you.’”
Ms. Lena of Ms. Lena’s Pie Shop, in the words of her daughter, Viv Barnhill
“Well, started back probably in ’94 I believe. And mom, she just—she made this awesome recipe for fried pies and she said, ‘Let’s do fried pies.’ And she had this little pie shop built on. You see how small it is but it works. And so me and her started out, when she was like, probably 75, 76, anyway we started out and I was helping her and she was just doing it like I think one day a week like maybe Saturday and so we did that. And it worked out real good. And then Chuck Nolas [television reporter] got a hold of it somehow and he came along and after that it just kind of boomed, you know. And she just couldn’t keep up. And so we’ve been doing it. Then we—me and my daughter after mom—mom passed away in ’05 and she had cancer—and she said on her deathbed, ‘Would y’all please keep my pie shop going for me?’ She said, ‘I worked too hard to throw this away.’ She said ‘I’ve got everything perfect. All you have to do is do it.’”
These interviews were conducted by Sherri Sheu on behalf of the Southern Foodways Alliance. For more information, visit southernfoodways.org.