Today’s Front Burner column includes a Q & A with the author of “Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies.” Those of you who have been to Mrs. Rowe’s restaurants in Staunton and Mount Crawford ought to know that pies were one of Mildred Rowe’s specialties. Now, you can have an entire collection of those recipes at hand.
Here is the Q & A with Mollie Cox Bryan. Any thoughts?
By Lindsey Nair
The Roanoke Times
For more than 60 years, Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant in Staunton has been luring hungry travelers and townspeople with its authentic, homemade Southern entrees and desserts.
Mildred Rowe (rhymes with “wow”) died in 2003, after 89 years of working her way from the hollows of Alleghany County to behind the counter of one of Virginia’s most successful and well-loved eateries.
Her legacy lives on not only in the Staunton restaurant and the newer Mrs. Rowe’s Country Buffet in Mount Crawford, but also in several cookbooks intended to inspire home cooks to whip up great comfort food themselves.
The most recent of those is “Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies” by Mollie Cox Bryan, an author and freelance writer who lives in Waynesboro with her husband, Eric, and daughters Emma, 10, and Tess, 8.
Bryan wrote the pie cookbook on the heels of “Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook,” a sort of biography-cookbook that published in 2006.
I talked to Mollie recently about getting to know the famous Mrs. Rowe, learning her pie-making skills and what she thinks the strong-willed businesswoman would think of her restaurant dynasty today.
Q: How did you first find out about Mrs. Rowe?
I started hearing stories about Mrs. Rowe mostly from my husband who works for the Frontier Culture Museum. Her son, Mike, was on the board, and I started hearing these incredible stories.
I was intrigued by the stories and said you know, someone should really write this stuff down. I approached Michael, and Mrs. Rowe was not interested in me doing anything, but Mike was.
I wrote a biography, and to try to make a long story short, when she passed away, I was quoted in the local newspaper as being her biographer. I was contacted from all over the country. I got an agent and began to shop it around and it ended up morphing into a cookbook.
Q: Had you eaten at Mrs. Rowe’s restaurant?
I had eaten there, and to tell you the truth some of the food is remarkable, but I am a vegetarian and I found things difficult to find on the menu that I could actually eat. They do have a vegetable plate and back then, at least, they called it a vegetable but it all had some sort of animal fat in it.
[But] the pies and the banana pudding and the bread pudding, oh my word! This is the kind of food I grew up on, and I think for travelers, it can be very comforting.
Q: How much time did you get to spend with Mrs. Rowe before she died?
I would say I knew her a little over a year, and as I mentioned, she was not impressed with me.
She was very suspicious in a way, I think, because she didn’t understand why anybody would want to write about her life. To her, this was no big deal.
Finally, I just decided to follow her around. Mike told me go ahead, it will be fine. I would go to her house and hang out with her and her sister, Bertha.
We traveled together to Rich Patch, and to Covington, and to Goshen. I talked to some of the people there who knew her.
Eventually, she said to me, “You are a really hard worker.” She also liked my shoes. She said to me that day, “I like your shoes.”
That was really important to her because she said, “You can tell if a person has given up on life by looking at their shoes.”
Q: What was your impression of Mrs. Rowe?
She [did] not seem to want to take any credit for anything, but then she had a very sweet way with her customers, and she was very sophisticated in her business sense.
She was a very hard-working person.
Q: You published formerly secret recipes in your first cookbook. How did you get the family to open up about that?
The first cookbook that they did, which was the self-published cookbook, was done by the older daughter, Brenda. She was managing the restaurant at the time and she kept everything a secret. Mike was much more forthcoming. He didn’t see any reason for the secret nature to that. I think it is to his credit.
Q: When did you decide to do a book dedicated to her pies, and why?
The first cookbook was very successful. We didn’t really touch the desserts. She [Rowe] had notebooks full of recipes, particularly of pies and cakes and cookies and things like that, and I couldn’t get them into the first cookbook. We cut a lot from the first cookbook.
After the success of the first cookbook, my agent said, “You might want to consider doing a dessert cookbook.” [The publisher] said why don’t we do a smaller cookbook just on pies, because that is what the restaurant is really famous for.
You really don’t get good restaurant pie anymore. Most of the pies that you get in restaurants are frozen.
Q: What is the most valuable pie-making lesson you learned from Mrs. Rowe?
I never knew how important it was to keep things cold. That sounds so basic, probably, to somebody who makes a lot of pie crust. But I never knew how important it was to touch the crust as little as possible. And when you do touch it, it is important to have your hands cold.
Q: Do you think the art of making a good, homemade pie crust is being lost?
I hope that is not the case. When I think about my friends and the people that I know, they all certainly make pie crust.
But let me just say that some of the frozen crusts are really good, and if that is what is keeping people from making pies … let’s not get stressed about our pie making. It should be fun.
Q: Do you think Mrs. Rowe’s business has changed too much since her death?
No. It has changed, I am not going to say it has stayed the same. It has grown incredibly, and that was always a source of tension between she and her family.
Because she wanted it to stay the same and they wanted it to grow. She was very conservative.
Now, they run two restaurants and a catering company. As far as the menu, the basic stuff that Mrs. Rowe’s was known for, it is still the same.
I hear people saying that kind of stuff sometimes and it really frustrates me. I have been in those kitchens when she was alive and after she was alive, and they are still doing things the same way. Businesses do grow, and if not, they will not succeed.
She worked in that restaurant up until the day she died, but she had not been in that kitchen in years because of her health. Mike had taken things over for several years before she died.
Q: What is your favorite recipe in the book?
I would have to say the coconut cream. It is just really, really good. SO good. And I think that it was in the first book where the grandson, Aaron [DiGrassie], said, “You could eat that pie every day.”