I love travel, I almost live for it; as soon as I return from a trip, I’m already planning, researching, and saving up for the next one. Needless to say, when work decided to send me down to Louisiana to research some recipes, I was ecstatic. New Orleans has been on my ever-expanding wish list of destinations for a while, and having the chance to combine eating some native Louisiana cuisine in the name of research, and exploring a new city in my usual frantic, food-focused fashion was a dream come true. I didn’t care that I was going to the bayou in June—not even temperature extremes and humidity percentages pushing triple digits could squelch my enthusiasm.
After a night in the city, I rented a car and headed up to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but before I departed I had mastered the proper pronunciation of the town (nack-uh-dish), and learned a bit about its claim(s) to fame. In addition to being the oldest settlement in Louisiana, and the filming site of the movie Steel Magnolias, the town boasts over 50 bed and breakfasts (with a population of about 17,000). This is all well and good, but I work for a cooking magazine, and there happens to be a very regional food item that shares the name of the town; the dish that had brought me to the northwest corner of Louisiana was the Natchitoches meat pie. To the uninitiated, these pies are the spitting image of the meat-filled, half moon–shaped Spanish empanadas, and for good reason. In addition to being the official state meat pie of Louisiana (per 2003 Bill 231—I kid you not), and having an entire festival dedicated to its honor every September, this pie has quite a history. And the more I learned, the more I was struck by the multitudinous factors and cultural influences involved. This simple fried hand pie seemed to straddle socioeconomic and racial boundaries, but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s no single, agreed upon origin for Natchitoches meat pies, but it’s hard to deny the Spanish influence. With nearby Spanish outpost Los Adaes, and Spanish missions from Texas to California, proximity to the culinary traditions of the European country made transfer inevitable. Other possible prototypes are the tourtière of the French Canadians, who were early settlers in Natchitoches, and the regional Native American pachofis. The Creole seasonings and deep-frying of the pies are often attributed to the African-American influence, and one record claims that the pies were made by slaves in the antebellum period, and were a popular plantation lunch.
Hand-held, deep fried, and filled with seasoned meat, it’s the kind of food that every culture seems to have a version of (or should); their portability and relative affordability also made them a perfect street food, and that’s just what they became in the early 20th century, when vendors could be heard in the streets of Natchitoches shouting “hotta meat pies.” As common as it was to see them sold in the streets by African-American men, they were just as likely to show up on the dining tables of the wealthy families in the town, especially during the holidays. Their identity as a festival food was largely perpetuated by the St. Augustine Church Fair, and now extends to the Christmas Festival of Lights, as well as the meat pie’s very own festival. It was on the website for the latter that I came across the name Gay Melder. I had found a surprising wealth of information on these seemingly arcane pies, but it was time for me to talk to some Natchitoches natives about their tradition. According to the website, Gay Melder makes her own meat pies, hundreds at a time, to celebrate the town’s Christmas festival each year. With nothing to go on but a name, I prevailed upon the Internet and unearthed a tenuous connection between someone named Melder and one of the (many) bed and breakfasts in the town. I emailed the bed and breakfast, only to learn that the proprietor was Sonny Melder, none other than Gay’s son, and he immediately put me in touch with his mother, who he assured me made the best meat pies in Natchitoches (and played a mean game of bridge). After a few telephone exchanges amounting to less than five minutes of conversation, I garnered an invitation into Gay’s kitchen for a hands-on experience.
It was here that I headed after dropping my bags at the bed and breakfast, and when I tell you I had no idea what to expect, it’s no exaggeration. Upon entering the bright, well-kempt home of Gay and L.J. Melder, I was taken with the warmth, charm, and kindness shown me for the rest of the evening. Gay was well prepared, with a few batches of pie dough and a bowl of filling ready to go, and I was ready to be put to work, but, good host that she was, a well-chilled cosmopolitan was soon placed in my hand—the business of pie-making would come later.
In addition to Gay and L.J., I was introduced to their daughter in law, Connie (wife of Sonny), and their good friend and neighbor Janice. All were well-coifed and clad in crisp khaki and white. I’m not sure how they managed to remain so cool and composed in the melting heat and humidity, but it is a skill that this northerner doesn’t possess. We sat on the back deck, sipping drinks and looking out over Cane River Lake.
Gay and L.J. told me how they’d come to Natchitoches for school where they met each other, and have lived in the town ever since, raising their two sons (both of whom I would meet in the span of the evening) and daughter, running bed and breakfasts, and finally “retiring,” although Gay still makes biscuits, jams, and more for breakfast at the inn her son now runs. L.J. showed me the ferns, tomatoes, basil, and other flora growing profusely in the greenhouse-like climate of the backyard, and pointed out the giant pecan tree leaning over the deck.
When it came time to retire inside to the hushed cool of the kitchen, I was ready to sing for my supper. L.J. began to prepare another batch of the filling, beginning with equal parts of ground beef and pork (not too lean, cautioned Gay), which he cooked, later adding onions, green peppers, scallion whites, salt, pepper, and cayenne.
Season liberally, Gay said—if it tastes like you ruined it with too much salt, you’ve almost got enough. Scallion greens were added at the very end, and then some, but not all, of the liquid was drained off.
A touch of flour thickened up the remaining juices, and into the fridge it went to chill.
Luckily, Gay had another filling fully prepared and ready to go. She took over when it came to the dough, cutting shortening into flour, salt, and baking powder, and adding milk and eggs.
Then, the assembly line: Gay rolled out handfuls of dough and handed them off to Connie, who, using the ingenious machine that Gay had inherited from a cook friend, filled and crimped the pies, all with the pull of a lever.
Janice lined them up on a floured baking sheet, which grew fuller and fuller as the ladies worked.
Eventually, I took over for Gay, rolling dough (the thinner the better) to become the crust of the pies. I tried my hand at the machine as well, quickly learning the importance of a judicious hand—too much filling, and the pies wouldn’t seal properly.
A skillet of oil, a few minutes frying on each side, and the pale half-circles were transformed into sizzling, deep-golden parcels.
The aroma filled the kitchen, and I was eager to taste; anticipating a quick meal of pies, the next pleasant surprise of the evening came when I was seated at a beautifully-laid table, surrounded by my four pie-making companions.
Wine was poured, and food was spooned onto plates from carefully composed dishes and bowls. Dirty rice, asparagus salad, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes (peeled and sliced, according to tradition), garlic bread, stewed, lightly-spiced pears with sour cream for topping, and, of course, a platter of crisp, brown meat pies.
I dug in, and that first bite of pie (rapidly followed by a second, third, and fourth), was illuminating. Perhaps it was having had a hand in making them, or the exceptional company I was in that evening, but somehow that simple combination of dough and filling became so much more that the sum of its parts.
Tender, crisp crust gave way to savory meat that was moist but cohesive, rich but delicate, and perfectly seasoned, as Gay had promised. She showed me how to alternate bites of the pie with the sweet, cold pears and sour cream for balance, and served me a pie that she had made from the scraps, illustrating that, while still tasty, crust made from the “second roll” dough wasn’t nearly as flaky as the first round. The table was cleared, and if I had expected a true southern meal to end without dessert, I was mistaken—and happily so. Janice’s homemade vanilla ice cream, and two hefty cakes, splendid beneath swoops of snow-white whipped cream, were doled out. Everyone seemed to have a predetermined favorite, but as the newcomer, I was compelled to try both—lemon and coconut.
My half-hearted admonishments that Gay shouldn’t have gone to such trouble were assuaged by the assurance that any leftovers would fuel the ladies at bridge club the next day. As the meal came to a close, I felt like I’d spent the evening in an alternate universe. Besides the honor of getting to know these wonderful and warm people, I was awe-struck at their willingness to invite a veritable stranger to their home and dinner table. I can’t remember the last time I felt so welcomed, and I can say in all honesty that the consummate pleasure of that evening, those four hours, made the entire trip from Boston more than worthwhile. I’m a New Englander, born and raised, and until then, southern hospitality had been a charming, if inchoate concept for me; I’m forever grateful to the Melder clan for showing me just how real it is.
I was escorted back to my bed and breakfast by Connie and Sonny (who had showed up after dinner), and, in the halcyon afterglow of my experience, slept like a baby. The next morning it was off to Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant.
Back in the 50s, when wealthy Natchitoches residents made meat pies in their kitchens, James Lasyone was grinding the meat at the local butcher shop. Struck by the fact that the pies—what would become Louisiana’s official state meat pies in 2003, no less—weren’t commercially available as they once had been, James perfected his own recipe, and began selling them out of the back of the butcher shop. Eventually, he expanded (into a former Masonic Lodge, in fact), and in 1967, Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant opened. Since then, the word has spread, and Lasyone’s has gained national recognition.
At 7:00 am, when the restaurant opens every day, I sat down with James’ daughter Angela, who now runs the business. As tables filled up with the breakfast crowd, I sipped my mug of coffee, and a waitress (who I later learned had been with Lasyone’s for 40 years) brought me a pie. Although Angela was fairly tight-lipped with the specifics of their recipe, she did tell me that the filling uses 80 percent beef and 20 percent pork, and includes onion and green pepper. This filling was darker and more savory than Gay’s had been—almost like the flavors of a beef stew in a pastry pocket.
The crust was shorter and more crackery than the last, but still flaky and crisp. Angela talked about business, how they’d expanded to do catering as well (for which they offer hors d’oeuvres-size meat pies), and how a partnership with John Folse and plans to build a machine to further mechanize the pie-making process were in the works. She hoped to offer Lasyone’s meat pies as stadium food not only in Louisiana and Texas (where sports events, even high school and college ones, are preeminent) but across the country. After I’d wiped away the crumbs from my own pie, I got to peek in the kitchen.
A couple of young employees used a sheeter to roll out dough, and a giant cookie cutter–like tool to stamp out rounds (6¼ inch-rounds, to be exact). Unlike Gay’s dough, which resembled pie dough, Lasyone’s had a decidedly yellow tinge to it. Of course, I could only surmise the source of this.
Also unlike the Melder operation, where they are lucky enough to have their very own Natchitoches pie–making machine, Lasyone’s pies are stuffed and crimped by hand—when you’re doing as many as 1000 pies a day, that’s no small feat.
On the drive back to New Orleans later that day, I stopped at a gas station to fill my tank, and what should be waiting under the heat lamps inside like so many glistening, rotating hotdogs, but a half-moon shaped meat pie. In the name of research, I bought one and carried my purchase out to the car, the grease-stained paper sack becoming more sodden with each step.
Needless to say, this pie was not good. I was almost ashamed to see these venerable meat pies, the pride of Natchitoches, which I had become illogically attached to in the past 24 hours, mistreated in this way. But then I reminded myself that they were once a street food, and, sadly, this is the modern day incarnation. I had gone to Natchitoches thinking I was seeking out something obscure, but these meat pies are everywhere. As is the bane of so many once-great culinary creations, they’ve been commercialized and industrialized into mediocrity (and I’m being kind). Clearly the food itself wasn’t the elusive thing; I may have started off chasing pies, but the people, the traditions, and the experiences were the true gems of my culinary expedition. Food tastes better when it’s invested with meaning, even more so when it’s lovingly crafted by the very person sitting across the table, and when feeding someone means so much more than giving them food, there’s no table at which I’d rather sit.