Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. And to listen to the audio essay of "Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule," click the "play" icon below.
The hum of hungry customers fills Ken’s Kafe in Arcola, a tiny place in Dade County with more diners than neighbors. Those folks come for home-cooked meals – and pies, baked by 92-year-old Nancy Brown.
Yes, you heard that right: she’s 92 years old, and still bakes pies at the restaurant nearly every single day.
"I’m always doing something, and I'm not going to sit down and hold my hands," she says.
It all began years ago when she was at a local barbershop with her sister. There, she heard that Ken, the café’s owner, was looking for a pie baker. She asked when the restaurant was going to open. As soon as he could find someone to bake pies, she was told.
On her way back through Arcola, Nancy stopped and chatted with Ken over a cup of coffee about the idea. The unofficial interview was successful: Nancy was hired to bake the pies. It was her first regular job outside the farm where she has lived for nearly 75 years. She moved there after she got married in the late 1940s.
Today, she heads in nearly every day, whipping up favorites that keep people coming back for more. Another benefit for her is being able to visit with friends she doesn't usually have other chances to regularly see.
The pies those folks can choose from are on a board near the door, where she writes what’s available in colored marker. They include the likes of cherry, blueberry, raspberry, chocolate cream, peanut butter, coconut cream and more.
Those cream pies aren’t ones she made often if at all when growing up. In the 1930s and much of the ‘40s, they didn’t have modern conveniences like indoor plumbing or electricity, the latter which was required to keep such pies cool.
But they had fruit trees, and she grew up watching her mother bake. Back then, lard was key to pie crusts, something that Nancy carried with her for years. More recently, though, that’s been one concession. Instead of making her own pie crusts, she gets those premade and then starts with that dough.
“When I roll it out, it does real good,” she says.
In the kitchen, she stretches it out with a rolling pin she got as a gift.
“It’s always pretty neat to have something you can use,” she says.
Today she’s making blackberry cobbler, gooseberry pie and strawberry-rhubarb. After putting the crust in the pans, Nancy mixes berries with things like sugar and flour and seasons them with little dabs of butter. She doesn’t heat the berries, though, which allows them to stick together better.
Then comes a spoon which she uses to make a design on the top crust. Once it’s in place, she pinches the crusts together – after adding some water around the edges.
Then she slides them into the oven where they’ll bake for around an hour. Later, she’ll make entries into a notebook about how many pies she made, just as she does after every day. And she doesn’t have plans of stopping any time soon.