By Alex Van Buren
January 05, 2016
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Depending on where you grew up in America, tiny, fruit-filled pies may comprise a crucial part of your nostalgic inheritance. Maybe you stopped at the mini-mart on your walk home from school to plonk your allowance into one of those Hostess cherry pies. Or perhaps you remember driving through a McDonald’s window and convincing your parents to let you snag a fresh-fried apple pie—so hot they always seemed to burn the roof of your mouth.

Regardless of your hand pie heritage, if you harbor a love for them, your adult palate (probably now more sensitive to the additives in mass-market treats) will delight in the new bumper crop of hand pies—sweet and savory, fried and baked—popping up nationwide. Although the American South probably boasts the most extensive fried pie history, many cultures claim tiny pies as their own, from the U.K.’s baked Cornish pasties to the fried savory “doubles” that are ubiquitous in Trinidad and Tobago.

Once you start noticing them—as we did at the Southern Foodways Alliance conference, which annually lures four-star chefs such as Sean Brock and Mashama Bailey from all over the United States—you begin to see them everywhere. They’re fast becoming a chef favorite, and they’re spreading like wildfire: At the conference, Atlanta chef Zeb Stevenson tried savory oyster hand pies from Savannah chef Bailey (The Grey), and a green tomato pepper jam hand pie from Nashville pastry chef Lisa Donovan (Buttermilk Road). He returned home inspired, and promptly added two variations—hen-of-the-woods mushroom with potato, and oysters with rice—to his own menu at Watershed on Peachtree. Down the road a ways in New Orleans, Willa Jean chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White are frying up pies and chicken thighs alike for a daily “pies and thighs” happy hour: From 3pm till 6pm on weekdays, $5 nets you two little pies filled with cherries, pears, savory veggies, or spiced apples, depending on the day.

And it’s not just a Southern thing: At Brooklyn’s The Long Island Bar, a popular old-timey restaurant and watering hole, mini pies have been on the menu for a year, and change seasonally. Sweets specialist Lauren Ortiz has filled them with apples, cherries, and blueberries, but the current incarnation—a trio of fried pies with a silky pumpkin custard and a dusting of spiced sugar—are so popular she’s likely to keep them on the menu all season long. In San Francisco (that harbinger of culinary trends), a mini-chain called Peasant Pies hawks baked savory pies and sweet tartlets to the masses, and now boasts three locations.

Is it a passing trend? Nashville’s Donovan, who opened Husk with chef Sean Brock in 2012 and has been baking hand pies since then, hopes not.

“I’m glad for it,” she says, saying mini pies seem to have become “part of the collective unconscious.” For her green tomato pepper jelly pies, she cooks down green tomatoes until they become a slightly sweet, unctuous jam, and adds black pepper for a kick. The flavors were inspired by her mother, a Mississippi native whose block of cream cheese slathered with pepper jelly (a classic Southern appetizer) is lodged in Donovan’s memory.

A recipe passed from mom to daughter, with a twist along the way? It’s a tale as American as apple pie—and suggests hand pies will be here for a while.