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Pack in the pie

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    Clockwise from left: white chocolate Budino with pistachio dust; peanut butter; and Carol’s Delightful Smile, a chocolate silk.
    Sampling pies in bakeries and barbecue joints may be the most delicious way to get to know Memphis, Tenn. Kat Gordon, who opened her first shop in East Memphis six years ago because she worried that her hometown’s residents were losing their connection to homemade baked goods, at her place, Muddy’s Bake Shop.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. » In October, after a quick and gluttonous lunch at Hog & Hominy restaurant in Memphis, I swore I had just eaten the best pie of my life: the Beauregarde, named for Roald Dahl’s gum-chewing brat, a certain Violet whose nasty habit led to her expanding into a giant piece of fruit. It updates the traditionally chunky blueberry pie filling by transforming it into a smooth curd. Supported by a hazelnut-graham cracker crust, the deep purple wedge was topped with a zesty bitter orange marmalade and a scoop of Parmesan ice cream on the side.

For months I dreamed of the Beauregarde. When I learned that I had to return to Memphis this spring, I thanked my good fortune and greedily wondered what other pies the city has to offer. The answer, to my delight: plenty.

"The state of pie in Memphis is alive and well — you just have to know where to look," said Andrew Ticer, the chef and co-owner of Hog & Hominy. "Our program is all about paying homage to our grandmothers, and the best pies in the city are from people who bake like that."

My hope was to find the ones that honored those grandmas best, either old-fashioned or modernized.

Of the 20 pies I sampled, some were notably bad, others simply forgettable. But there were, of course, standouts — as well as some discoveries. I realized, and not for the first time, that each recipe is a living document with a story or genealogy behind it.

Some travelers will tell you the best way to get to know a town is by spending time in its bars or coffee shops. Not me. I go by the crumb. I’m always on the lookout for pie. Memphis convinced me my guided-by-sugar mode of tourism is a sound one.

At the Memphis-born chef Kaia Brewer’s downtown restaurant, Lunchbox Eats, dishes like Homeroom Chicken and Grids, a sandwich of fried chicken placed between two cheddar waffles, play up a scholastic nostalgia.

Brewer presents "all the staples in a different way or in a different format." Those staples include pecan and sweet potato. For those customers resistant to change, there is a third.

"Chess pie is a concession to that," she said.

I hope no one neglects the star pie at Cozy Corner in Uptown Memphis.

"It’s the best sweet potato pie I ever tasted," said Desiree Robinson, matriarch of that family-owned barbecue institution.

That sweet potato slice was the last I had before going to my final pie destination: a return to Hog & Hominy. Ticer and his business partner, the chef Michael Hudman, are hell bent on stuffing you with an inspired mash-up of their Southern and Italian-American culinary roots.

When you get to the point at which you think a few more bites might kill you, stop and order dessert. If blueberries aren’t in season, you could settle for the mascarpone-enriched peanut butter and banana pie. It was the kind of pie I wish my grandmother would have made me, and gave me something to dream about until the next time I’m in Memphis.

By Charlotte Druckman, New York Times

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