12.33pm, Saturday 27th October, Kings Highway, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA
Afternoon folks, and it’s a beautiful day here in Shreveport, on the Red River, in the top right hand corner of Louisiana. This is my first visit to the “Magnolia” state – and my 36th state in the the quest to do all 50 states in the Union!
We finished work in Dallas yesterday, and I slid across the state line last night, because I now have a week’s holiday, before heading back to Houston to do a two-day wine festival for Landry’s at their Kemah Boardwalk. So I’ve landed into what the locals call “Ark-La-Tex” – where Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana cross borders and culture. Yes, there’s beef brisket BBQ Texas style, but introducing a spicy Louisiana twist. There’s now po’ boys on the menu – local torpedo roll sandwiches, usually overflowing with shrimp – prawns to everyone in Australia. But the hospitality is still solidly Southern, and I haven’t even been in town for 24 hours and have already received lashings of it!
I decided to take the locals suggestion and track down Strawn’s Eat Shop – on Kings Highway just past the Shreveport downtown – for lunch. They have a legendary reputation as the “Home of the Icebox Pie – since 1944″, so being a pie eating girl from way back, I was off like a shot to see if it was all true!
Before I go any further, let me just put you in the picture. Ice box pies are an excellent American invention, found all across the South – generally they’re a biscuity base with various (mostly) fresh fruit fillings, and topped with seriously stiff whipped cream, then chilled in the fridge for enough time for the fruit and cream to kind of combine under that solid “big top” and settle into a sweet fruit cream sugary syrup combo thing that’s just outstanding on the spoon! So there you have it defined, now let me take you to Strawn’s.
The original site on Kings Highway was opened in 1944 by the Mr Strawn and was a successful diner on a main road littered with them at the time, but most of them have disappeared, or become laundromats – whilst Strawns has thrived and pretty much doubled in size. In 1958, Gus Alexander bought the place, and this is apparently the time that it became a real standout diner in Shreveport, with “pie lady” Ella Hamilton, “fried chicken maker” Lula McCoy, and “the great waitress” Gladys Duncan. Local culinary celebrities way before the Food Channel even started – it was all happening in Shreveport!
Then in 1989, Buddy and Nancy Gauthier bought Strawn’s Eat Shop – that’s the caricature of Buddy on the top right hand corner of the menus – on every table, and at all nine stools at the counter, just an arm’s length back off the grill! And yes … that’s where I sat, to get a great bird’s eye view of the action across those hot plates. Now Strawn’s is still in the Gauthier family, and the daughters have opened diners at two more locations – both diners set up along exactly the same down home heart and stomach winning lines – at Strawn’s Too and Strawn’s Also. I was lucky enough to fall into the hands of the Gauthier son – George – this morning, as he heard me chatting to two delightful local blokes sitting next to me at the counter – the defense attorney and the oil man! He caught my accent, heard that I’d been recommended to Strawns for the pies, so promptly gave me a piece of the Strawberry Ice Box – their main and most popular flavor – for free.
“The first piece is always on us, because nobody ever stops at one!”
Now you can see what I mean about how Southern hospitality works around here! But it didn’t stop there, when I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as soon as that first chilly creamy strawberry mouthful landed, and when I asked “you can’t possibly mean that the mountain of white icy stuff on top of the pie is all cream!” George asked me if I wanted to see how they’re made.
Ah … yes … I definitely would!
So straight out to the kitchen, and I was introduced to the Strawn’s Pie Making Wizard – Barbara Duncan, who has been with the Gauthiers for 20 years. There’s a hand rolled pie base, then down goes a layer of filling – sorry, secret pie maker’s recipe – and then the fresh diced strawberries, then some powdered sugar, then on goes the cream – a mighty mountain of thick lock whipping cream – and with several flicks of a well-practiced wrist using one of those old school spatulas – Barbara Duncan finishes another legendary Ice Box Pie … topped with one whole strawberry! I got to see the artist at work, and plough through a whole piece myself, plus I have a pie promise certificate for a whole pie next visit … to give to our blokes in Houston who made the recommendation in the first place. Or maybe I’ll keep it, and when we’re back in Dallas this time next year to do wine events, we might just dive across the border for dinner at Strawn’s Eat Shop … and get us one of the seasonal fresh peach ice box pies! Yep, that’s the way to go!
So thanks very much to George and Barbara for keeping the Ice Box Pie dream alive, and to the lawyer, the oil man and Shreveport … what a great way to start my love affair with Louisiana!
Here’s what to look for on Kings Highway, and the before and after Strawberry Ice Box experience. See ya …