Fried Pies - Memories, Flavor, and Appalachia
by Candace Nelson
Appalachian cuisine is wide and varied: from wild game and garden vegetables to hearty stews and sorghum-sweetened baked goods.
It melds with southern cuisine and has characteristics from the Midwest; there are no stark boundaries between place and food. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of all of the above.
Fried pies – sometimes called “half-moon pies” because of their crescent shape – are ubiquitous across Appalachia and in pockets throughout the country.
To make these small hand pies, cook down fruit, most often apples, with cinnamon, ginger, or cardamom, and envelop them in a small circle made of pie crust. Press the edges together and crimp with a fork to prevent the sweet mixture from seeping out. Bake until golden brown in a cast iron pan or heavy skillet, despite their name. And, finally, enjoy – once they’ve cooled a bit, of course.
From portable snack lunches for school kids to desserts in a lunch pail for an industrial worker, handheld pastries have played a role in many lives of Appalachians, childhood through retirement.
The iconic dessert has even transcended the confines of the mountains into the world of arches – the Golden Arches.
According to Eater, McDonald’s adopted an apple pie recipe from a franchise located in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was added to the line-up as the fast-food chain’s first dessert in 1968 – the same year as the Big Mac. The fried apple pie made its way onto every McDonald’s franchise menu in America by 1970. McDonald’s served fried apple pies until 1992 before opting for a modern baked version due to consumer concerns over healthy eating.
Though the fried apple pie is one of my favorite versions of a single-serve pastry, it is just one type of hand pie. Savory fillings of meat or veggies can fill portable pies, like the “pasties” found in Cornwall created for miners.
Legend states that the pasty was created as convenient lunch that could remain-dirt free as miners enjoyed the filling and could throw away the exterior dough they held.
These hand pies are not unlike turnovers from other cultures, like the bridie in Scotland, the empanada in Spain, the samosa in India, the pork pie in China, the patty in Jamaica, and the pepperoni roll in my home state of West Virginia.
Whatever the form the delicious handheld pastry takes, its impact on Appalachian culture is omnipresent. The hand pie conjures memories of childhood dinners at grandma’s house with fried apple pies as desserts and snacks on school field trips. And with each bite, not only does one taste the flavors of love and labor but also the history of this place-based food and decades of Appalachian culture.
RECIPE: Classic Fried Apple Pies
This Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery-inspired recipe with personal touches and preferences serves as a base for any customization or personalization you want to incorporate into a fried apple pie recipe. While the name implies the pies are fried, usually they cook in a cast-iron skillet, an essential in any Appalachian kitchen.
Apple mixture –
1.5 cups dried apples
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup white sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon cardamom
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening or lard
½ cup water
- Place dried apples in a saucepan with water to cover. Cook until tender, about 30 minutes.
- Drain off the liquid from the mixture, then mash lightly with a fork.
- Add in cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, butter, and sugar.
- Cool until room temperature.
- Use a store-bought crust or make your own:
- Combine flour and salt.
- Cut in shortening or lard with pastry cutter or fingers until the mixture forms small crumbs.
- Slowly add water and mix well after each tablespoon
- The dough should come together in a ball.
- Chill for half an hour.
- Divide dough into 4-6 balls.
- Roll each into a thin circle.
- Place a spoonful of the cooked apple mixture on half of each dough round.
- Fold the other half over the side.
- Moisten the edge of the pastry and press the edges to seal with a fork.
- Make a tiny slit in the top of each hand pie to let the air out as it cooks.
- Pour about ½ inch deep of oil into a skillet.
- Heat the oil to medium-high and place the pies in the pan in batches.
- Cook about 4 minutes on each side until golden brown.
- Drain off any excess oil immediately.
- Let cool down before enjoying!
- Top with powdered sugar or a dollop of vanilla ice cream.