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Arts & Culture

Hand Pies: Appalachian Chefs Give Global Food a Local Twist

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Mike Costello
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Lost Creek Farm, Host Pickle Shelf Radio Hour
Smoked pork hand pies with sorghum and a side of spicy pickles for a combination of salty, smoky pork and sweet sorghum along with spicy.

Fried apple pies, empanadas, Cornish pasties, and samosas are all products of different food traditions, but they share something in common: they’re all hand pies.

A hand pie is a simply constructed “pocket food” made of a filling wrapped in dough. Hand pies can be savory or sweet, fried or baked, and some are sprinkled with sugar. Inside Appalachia Folkways reporter Kelley Libby found that with inspiration and local ingredients, hand-pie makers in Appalachia are getting creative.

A Commercial Success

One of the most popular hand pies in Appalachia is the fried apple pie. Commonly found in convenience stores and at fairs and festivals, the fried apple pie is often served in a paper bag or a cardboard sleeve. Some commercial operations are selling hand pies online.

Dale Mackey of Dale’s Fried Pies in Knoxville, Tennessee, began her commercial operation from a food cart at farmer’s markets and festivals. Mackey said in the beginning, when she was first frying and selling her apple pie variety, she used fresh apples. But then advice started rolling in from customers whose older relatives had used dried apples. So she tried it.

“It ended up making this much more rich, apple butter consistency, more concentrated in the flavor, in the sweetness and the spice,” said Mackey. “And I really was like, 'Okay, they were right! This one’s the better classic apple pie.' And so now our main apple flavor—best seller by far—is made with dried apples just because that's what folks were wanting.”

Now Mackey sells her fried pies nationwide online, and the varieties go beyond apple.

“We do kind of traditional flavors like apple and peach and cherry, and funkier flavors like banana nutella or like a chili mango with cardamom cream cheese, or curried sweet potato. We have a mac-and-cheese pie, a chicken and waffles pie. Whatever you can put in a pie I can try it!”

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Mike Costello/Host Pickle Shelf Radio Hour
The unbaked pies being made are some green tomato/mock apple hand pies with a buckwheat crust.

Making Hand Pies Using What’s On Hand

For some cooks, what goes in a hand pie is sometimes just what’s in season.

“Thinking of this season being hunting season, I love to make this braised venison hand pie,” said chef and farmer Mike Costello of Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. “I really love this smoked rabbit hand pie with some chanterelle mushrooms. It’s amazing, it’s like in the summertime when chanterelles are at their peak.”

Costello said he likes to use ingredients that are on hand—he also made basil and peach hand pies during the summer season. He said he appreciates that some older Appalachian food traditions came out of a need to be thrifty.

“When you think about some of these food traditions that came out of those hard times, they’re incredibly rich and beautiful and they’re the product not of desperation but of innovation and ingenuity,” he said.

Hand pies aren’t uniquely Appalachian; pocket foods are found all over the world. And the cuisine of Appalachia has long been influenced by immigrants. Take for instance a kind of hand pie called pasties, which are meat pies that were brought to America by Cornish miners. Costello said hand pies demonstrate the ways Appalachia is always changing.

“And the fact that you can go to more places in West Virginia, more bakeries today, and buy empanadas than you can what many people think of as traditional apple hand pies—I think that says a lot about how the food traditions are always changing,” said Costello.

A Blend of Cultures

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Mike Costello/ Host Pickle Shelf Radio Hour
Peach and basil hand pies from chef Mike Costello.

Pamela Delaude of Bridgeport, West Virginia, has been a chef for eight years and worked in kitchens for 25. Delaude said when she cooks, she draws inspiration from her home country of Peru and from Italy where she has family. Then she mixes those influences with local ingredients.

“I love empanadas,” said Delaude. “Empanadas, you can make it with everything. Just use your creativity. You can eat it cold, warm, you can eat it hot, you can eat it baked, you can eat it fried. Doesn’t matter, it’s always good.”

Delaude once made catfish empanadas using fish from a West Virginia farm. She was inspired by one of her favorite Peruvian dishes, ceviche, a dish made with raw fish cured in citrus and spices.

“That was my inspiration,” she said. “The two cultures, put them together in one dish.”

That mixing of cultures in one dish may be the most Appalachian thing about Appalachian hand pies. They are a blend of simplicity and ingenuity, old and new, tradition and change.

Music in this story is by Blue Dot Sessions and Tim Marema. This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.

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