Pie Fight

Originally Published in the NYTimes / August 6, 1989

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.— A pie fight here has the elements of a slapstick comedy except for one thing: Nobody is throwing pies.

But two families are fighting for the recipes for the 14 kinds of pie that have made the 45-year-old Club Cafe a prize-winning diner in this historic resort of 37,000 people in the Ouachita Mountains.

On May 26 Mary Hampton Allen, a third-generation baker, quit as chief pastry baker at the cafe, taking her skills and recipes with her. She had worked there since 1971, and her father, the diner’s founder, passed the baking arts on to her.

Her departure prompted the cafe’s primary owner, Robert E. McNanna, 35, to file a lawsuit in Garland County Chancery Court against Mrs. Allen and her husband, Frank, who owns 29 percent of the Club Cafe. The suit, contending that the cafe depends on the business generated by Mrs. Allen’s pies, asks Mrs. Allen to disclose her recipes and baking methods. ‘They’re Not Her Pies’

”The reason I filed suit is because she walked out and said she was going up the street and open up a pie shop,” Mr. McNanna said. ”They’re not her pies. They’re the Club’s.”

Mrs. Allen sees it differently, of course. ”It’s not that I’m stingy or that I think they’re all that wonderful,” she said. ”It’s just that it’s something that belongs to me that I just don’t feel like I owe him at all.”

To complicate matters, Mrs. Allen cooks without measurements or written recipes.

”I worked in that bakery seven days a week for years and I’d tried making a cake with less sugar, making a pie with more sugar,” said the 34-year-old Mrs. Allen. ”I just tried different things all the time. It’s just something I put my whole life into.”

The contested pies are peanut butter, chocolate, coconut, banana, lemon, pineapple, egg custard, pecan, apple, dutch apple, cherry, blueberry, banana split and strawberry.

In this region, where a good cook is prized as much as a minister with a short sermon, a warm cream pie with two-inch-thick meringue and flaky crust is more than just a commodity.

”How can you quantify or how can you put a price on a talent?” said the Allens’ attorney, Steven D. Oliver. ”This is a talent; it’s a gift. I don’t know how you can barter that away.” Mother and Aunt Worked There

Behind the lawsuit are a tangle of financial and emotional stakes in the Club Cafe.

Mrs. Allen’s mother, Dorothy Terry, made cornbread and biscuits at the diner every day for 45 years. She is now 73. Mrs. Allen’s aunt, Bertha Mullican, 75, sat at the back table to chat with customers, including vacationers who regularly take coconut cream pies home. It was an equally important job.

Mrs. Allen made the cheesecakes, eclairs and cinnamon rolls and, of course, the pies for the crowds that fill the diner’s 100 seats for the ”blue plate specials” – pork chops smothered in gravy, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lima beans and iced tea, and all for $3.40. For those that have room for dessert, the pie would add $1. Most people seem to find room. Out Went the Old Policy

Mr. McNanna’s mother has been a waitress at the cafe for 18 years. But the cafe was in financial trouble, and in March Mrs. Allen asked Mr. McNanna to invest and become the cafe’s primary owner. He agreed, and paid Mrs. Mulligan, Mrs. Terry and Mrs. Allen a token $255 – respectively $100, $100 and $55 – and got 51 percent of the stock in the cafe, agreeing to take over its debts and try to put it on sound business footing.

To that end, Mr. McNanna introduced a new management style: no more free meals and supplies for relatives and friends. He dismissed a cashier who had worked there 44 years, saying she had been rude to customers. The changes made Mrs. Allen quit and take Mrs. Terry and Mrs. Mulligan with her.

”I have never gotten in a mess so bad to try to help somebody in my life,” Mr. McNanna said.

He says business is nevertheless good, with 600 customers eating a total of 50 pies a day. He has recreated 13 kinds of pies that he said equaled Mrs. Allen’s. But he could not recreate the flavor of Mrs. Allen’s strawberry pie.

Originally Published in The New York Times, Author: ANNE FARRIS

About The Author

Jack Atkinson

Editor, Publisher, Chef, Artist