FRESH STRAWBERRY PIE
The first time I met a straight-up, fresh strawberry pie that looked and tasted like just picked strawberries, was in New Orleans in the early 1980s. K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen was within big easy walking distance of the Saenger Theatre, where I spent my days backstage in a makeshift office. Setting aside a stack of fan mail addressed to Yul Brynner, I turned off the IBM Selectric typewriter, and scooted out the stage door into bright, Louisiana sunshine. At two o’clock in the afternoon, a line of locals and tourists snaked along Chartres Street. The cash-only restaurant accommodated 64 guests; we waited.
In 1981, the term ‘celebrity chef’ was just beginning to gain momentum within our popular culture. New Orleans boasted more than a few chefs aptly fitting the description. Chef Paul Prudhomme was garnering notoriety for introducing us to spicy, Cajun dishes, many of them blackened in screaming hot skillets.
From the dining room of K-Paul’s, you could catch a glimpse of the kitchen. Through a veil of cayenne pepper and steam, Chef Prudhomme, dressed in kitchen whites and signature jaunty cap, worked against a backdrop of cavernous stockpots. The ingredients were blatantly fresh, the flavors as dramatic and impressive as the chef. This was particularly evident in the dessert course.
I hesitated between the bread budding and the strawberry pie, opting for the latter. This was not a pie found dizzily spinning in a dessert carousel, with a crust tasting more of refrigerator than of butter. The strawberry pie served at K-Paul’s sprawled across an over-sized dessert plate. The triangular slice was huge, the filling just the slightest bit warm, struggling to contain itself within the confines of its substantial crust. The crust was rolled, not crimped, and quite tall, suggesting that the pie had been baked in a springform pan. It was hard to tell what was holding the pie together. Whole berries, rosy and freckle-faced, leaned against each other for support. With the first forkful, the fruit toppled, spilling across the plate, causing the overly generous dollop of white Chantilly cream to blush scarlet. Each time the tines of the fork came in contact with a berry, the fruit enthusiastically exploded, dotting both the white linen tablecloth and the napkin in my lap. Slightly embarrassed, I covered up the crime scene of strawberry stains with my dessert plate and a strategically placed napkin. Over my 4-week stay, I waited on line for several epic meals. Thankfully, strawberries remained in season.
My K-Paul’s strawberry pie experience would forever impact the way I think about strawberries. The truth is, fresh strawberries enjoy an all too brief season, which is when they taste best; simply eaten, out of hand and unadorned. Unless you have the good fortune to find yourself in New Orleans during peak strawberry season, braving the line on Chartres Street.
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