The Spear or The Chip?

I was out with some friends at a popular fast casual chain restaurant that had just opened in Dallas when I first saw them on the appetizer menu–fried pickles.

“FRIED PICKLES! Who the hell ever heard of fried pickles?”

“You gotta try them,” one member of the group said. “They’re great!”

fried-dill-picklesSo being a curious sort, especially when it comes to food, I had to try them for myself. When the dish arrived at our table, I must say they looked good–somewhat like fat French fries. Now maybe it was just a mental block, since in my mind the whole idea of breading and frying pickles was kinda crazy, but I was not too impressed. That was in the early 1970s, and it would be some ten years later before fried pickles and I would once again cross paths, this time with a much better reception.

The first known recipe for fried pickles appeared in the Oakland Tribune on November 19, 1962. That recipe, French Fried Pickles, called for using sweet pickle slices dipped in pancake mix and deep fried.

fatman-austins-fried-picklesLike many of our foods, the origin of fried pickles remains a mystery, and the person responsible for popularizing the dish is surrounded in controversy. In April 1960, Bernell Austin (aka “Fatman”) opened the Duchess Drive-In Restaurant on a leased parcel of land in Atkins, Arkansas, across U.S. Highway 64 from the Atkins Pickle Company. In search of a gimmick to help attract more business, and after staring at the pickle factory every day, Fatman came across the idea of fried pickles.

After spending the next several months developing a recipe that was his own, Fatman began selling breaded and deep-fried dill pickle spears–fifteen spears for fifteen cents. Before long, The Duchess Drive-In’s fried pickles became well known for miles around the tiny restaurant. And while others tried to copy Austin’s idea with various degrees of success, none were able to duplicate his breading recipe, one that remains a family secret even today.

In 1968, the state of Arkansas opened Interstate 40 through Atkins bypassing The Duchess. This resulted in a drop in business, so Fatman opened a second drive-in restaurant near the new thru-fare to take advantage of its heavy traffic. The new restaurant, named The Loner, quickly became a popular stopping place for both locals and interstate travelers alike.

Fatman sold The Loner in 1978, retiring from the food business. Following his death in 1999, the Austin family continues to keep his memory alive by serving Fatman’s Original Fried Dill Pickles at the annual two-day Picklefest held in May in downtown Atkins, with the profits going to charities Fatman had supported through the Masonic Lodge.

hollywoods-fried-picklesMississippi also claims credit for commercializing the fried pickle. Tate Seldon’s Hollywood Café, originally located in Hollywood, Mississippi, began serving fried pickles in 1970. After a request from one of its customers, Seldon dredged crosscut dill pickle chips first through an egg and milk wash, then a mixture of flour, cayenne, chili powder and salt, and deep fried them to a delicious golden brown.

In 1983 after Seldon’s restaurant burned down, he relocated his cafe to a quaint 1922 commissary building in Robinsonville (also known as Tunica Resorts), a community just six miles north of the original location on U.S. Highway 61. Here, Hollywood Cafe continues to serve its popular fried dill pickle chips to hundreds of folks every month.

deep-fried-pickle-spearsToday fried pickles can be found throughout the U.S. but are especially popular in the American South where they’re frequently served with a side of ranch or bleu cheese dressing, ketchup, or other dipping sauce. While any type of pickle can be used, dill pickles (not Kosher) seem to be the most popular in terms of taste, though many people say spears have the greater visual appeal. Whether to bread them or batter them is another subject of debate. In fact, about the only thing people seem to agree on is that the pickles, whether spears or chips, should be cut to a thickness of 1/4-inch and cooked while cold.

So whether it’s spears or chips, fried dill pickles are an absolute must try.

Try Em: Cock of the Walk Restaurant, Natchez, Mississippi; Hollywood Cafe, Robinsonville, MS; Laurie’s Place, Edwardsville, IL

Make Em: French Fried Pickle Slices; Hollywood Cafe Fried Dill Pickles

Chess Pie: Just Custard Pie by Another Name

A few days ago, I was asked, “What’s the difference between chess and custard pies?” My answer: Chess pies, of which there are many flavors, belong to the custard pie family and are therefore just a custard pie by a different name.

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Most food historians agree that custard pie came to this country by way of English colonists who settled in New England and Virginia. A simple preparation, the basic custard pie is made from eggs, sugar, butter, milk or cream, and vanilla, baked in a pie shell until the mixture is set. Recipes can vary depending on the flavor desired.

Puddings cooked on top of the stove until thick and creamy are also custards. When these puddings are poured into a baked and cooled pie crust to set, we refer to the results as a cream pie–a topic for another day.

The one common element of all custard pies is that filling and crust are baked together. A few examples of custard pies include pumpkin, buttermilk, shoo-fly pie, and of course a whole family of chess pies.

chess-pie

As far as the origin of the name, there is no definitive explanation, only guesses and folklore. One such story is that of the southern plantation cook who when asked what she was baking replied, “Jes’ pie.”

Another explanation suggests that these icons of the American south are so sweet that refrigeration was not necessary and were therefore stored in the kitchen pie chest. Chest pie when pronounced with a deep southern drawl soon became “chess” pie. I find this explanation the most plausible.

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While we may not be certain of its name, we do know there are references to chess pie as far back as 1877, when Estelle Woods Wilcox’s cookbook Buckeye Cookery included a recipe by Miss J. Carson on page 187. Some fifty years later a recipe for the modern chess pie appeared in 1928 in Southern Cooking by Henrietta. R. Dull. That same year, a chess pie recipe was published in the Fort Worth Women’s Club Cookbook.

The major difference in a chess pie from other custard pies is most chess pie recipes call for a small amount of cornmeal (or sometimes flour) to be added to the batter. This step not only helps the pie set, but adds texture as well. Also, chess pie recipes usually include some type of acidity in the form of vinegar, buttermilk, or lemon juice to help balance its sweetness.

classic-chess-pie

I have included several chess pie recipes–the traditional version that uses only the four basic ingredients plus cornmeal, a slightly tart lemon chess, and a decadent chocolate chess pie. There is also a buttermilk chess pie and, of course, the classic pecan pie (yes, pecan pie is a member of the chess pie family). But a search through most community and church cookbooks will probably result in many more recipes for this simple yet delicious pie.

When making a chess pie (and any custard pie for that matter), just remember one golden rule: The successful chess pie is baked low and slow. Rushing a chess or custard pie by increasing the oven temperature will curdle the eggs, causing the pie to be watery. It may also cause a thin, ugly and nasty tasting crust to form over the top of the pie.

So there you have it, the difference in a chess and custard pie basically comes down to one ingredient–cornmeal.

Make Em: Traditional Chess Pie, Lemon Chess Pie, Chocolate Chess Pie, Buttermilk Pie, Sweet Tea Pie, Classic Pecan Pie.