Mollie Cox Bryan is the author of Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley and Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, which the New York Times named a “Summer Cookbook to Watch” last year. She grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania and currently lives with her husband and “two wild heathen daughters” in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she runs, reads, and writes.
Gina: Why do you love pie?
Mollie: First, I should say that I don’t love ALL pie unconditionally, just most of it. I don’t like mincemeat and am not fond of shoofly. But the rest of dessert pie, I love because it’s delicious. I don’t have complicated reasons for loving pie. But what’s not to like about it—from a purely hedonistic perspective?
Gina: What is your fondest pie memory?
Mollie: That is hard to choose. I made pies for years with my mom and Aunt Mart. Being at home with them making pumpkin pie is my fondest memory of it. But eating it with Mrs. Rowe is right up there with my fondest memories.
Gina: How did you become involved with Mrs. Rowe and what made her such a great baker?
Mollie: I wanted to write her life story (remarkable) so I approached the restaurant about the project, which was a biography that morphed into a narrative cookbook. I mean here was this woman who was raised in the hills with next to nothing and she built this multi-million-dollar restaurant, with very little education. I knew there was a story there.
Mrs. Rowe had an evolved palette and that made her an excellent baker and cook. It also made her tough to work for sometimes because she demanded excellence. She also had A LOT of practice and she herself would tell anybody that was the trick. But there are people who have a kind of “feel” for things like pie, for example. She had this finely tuned feel for piecrust, knew how it should feel against her skin, how it should smell, look, and so on. Of course, she’d been making piecrust since she was a child.
Gina: What is your favorite kind of pie?
Mollie: Pumpkin, which goes back to my memory of baking pies with my mom, who made these incredible thick pumpkin pies.
Gina: What makes Southern pies special?
Mollie: It’s several things—the first is that classic Southern pies are always more sweet than other pies. I’ve discussed this with a lot of people and I’m sure one of the reasons for all the sugar is that it’s a great preservative. And with the Southern warm weather, preservation was an important consideration. I’m not sure if the Southern sweet tooth is anymore prevalent than in other parts of the country, or if that’s just another one of those Southern myths that have developed.
The other thing is that Southern pie reflects its region, just like pies of other regions. And we have this vast region with so many different kinds of crops to choose from when we make pie–think about Florida with its Key limes and eastern Virginia with their peanuts, for example.
Gina: What pies are best to eat for breakfast?
Mollie: I’m told that the Pennsylvania Dutch still eat shoofly pie for breakfast. But I prefer pumpkin. Also, any fruit pie, especially peach.
Gina: What is the oddest pie you’ve made, seen, or heard about?
Mollie: I think the watermelon pie in my book is probably the oddest pie I’ve heard about. When the restaurant owner told me he had this recipe for watermelon pie, I was skeptical. But after I saw the ingredients, it made sense and I wondered why it’s not more popular.
Gina: Have you ever participated in or judged a pie contest? Do you have any competition tips for contestants or judges?
Mollie: Yes, I have judged. I think that contestants should keep it simple. The tendency is for people to fancy up a pie so much that judges are wondering what it is they are tasting. It’s difficult enough to make a perfect, competition-worthy pie. The pie that won the competition I judged was a lemon chiffon—deceptively easy, but elegant and refreshing after all the other extremely rich entries. Creativity is a good thing, but it should make sense.
Gina: What criteria should pie judges consider? Is there a proper technique to tasting pie?
Mollie: As far as technique, I’d say to keep it at one bite. It’s also a good idea to keep it in your mouth a little longer than normal. Let it roll around in there and get a good feel for the texture, as well as flavor.
1. How the pie looks.
2. The crust needs to hold together, as well as taste good.
3. The flavor of the pie.
4. And consider how well the pie represents its category.
Gina: Why does pie matter today?
Mollie: I think that pie often acts as a touchstone from our busy lives to a simpler time. Nothing takes you home like pie does. It seems to me that there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in it. The economy has left many of us reeling and pie answers a call of comfort without breaking the bank. Oh sure, you can get gourmet ingredients and make a wonderful pie, but in times like these, it’s great to know you don’t have to do that. Often you can make it with what you’ve got on hand. Simple, inexpensive, local ingredient-filled pies are a reasonable way to indulge. We all need a bit of that.