Big Pie Country
Dessert steals the show at an Oklahoma rancher's annual picnic
As a young girl living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I was an avid Little House on the Prairie fan. So perhaps it was inevitable I would marry a farm boy. Well, okay, a rancher—but close enough for me. My husband, Gentner Drummond, is the great-great-grandson of Frederick Drummond, who came to Oklahoma from Scotland in the 1880s. Family legend has it that he might have been escaping a conviction for murdering a competitor on the golf course—a story never verified but one we like to tell nonetheless. In 1911, Frederick’s oldest son, R.C., started what would become a cattle dynasty on the ranch where Gentner and I—with the help of our ranch hands and children—now run a few thousand head on more than 20,000 acres of land.
Not long after I first got to know Gentner’s family, I started hearing about a massive picnic hosted at the ranch by the men’s club of the local Presbyterian church. From the 1950s through the 1970s, they invited fathers and sons from across the state to enjoy a day on a working cattle ranch and eat barbecued Drummond beef while surrounded by grassland as far as the eye could see. The people who told me about the picnic were not members of the Drummond family themselves but the little boys—now grown men—who had attended with their fathers, and for whom the event had made a lifetime impression. The longing I heard in their voices made me decide to rekindle the tradition. My idea was to invite all of our friends to the ranch for a potluck. I also figured—rather naively, it turns out—that we could host a friendly old-fashioned pie contest to boot. The first-place prize would be a hand-painted trophy. It would be fun.
What I quickly learned is that there is no such thing as a “friendly” pie-baking contest around here. Those who bake, bake to win. The first year of the revived picnic, pie after pie arrived, filling tables to the point where they could accommodate nothing else. People from all walks of life—a waitress from the local diner, the CEO of an oil and gas company (who won the grand prize that year)—bent the ears of the judges for hours with impassioned stories of their pie-baking odysseys. Others tried to leverage favor for their entries with blatant flattery, heck, even bribery. And keeping the hungry hordes away from the pies was a challenge worthy of the Department of Homeland Security. By the time the judging started, several slices had already vanished.
As our guests have multiplied over the years, the potluck scenario has gone by the wayside. Now more than ever, everyone is focused on one thing and one thing only: baking the winning pie. Peeking into the tent just before the judging began this year, I was dazzled by over 70 entries of all different kinds: apple pies fancied up with caramel or rosemary, silken pear and custard, mixed-fruit “razzleberry” pie, and more.
To keep the crowd at bay while the judges, two chefs from Tulsa and a food magazine editor from New York, methodically tasted each competing pie, we served burgers, mac and cheese, and “cowboy caviar,” a salad of hominy and black-eyed peas. But as soon as they’d sated themselves, our guests migrated back to watch the pie contest, awaiting the moment when they could all dig in. When the judges reached the entry that would win the grand-prize trophy—a bronzed pecan pie with a buttery crust and a luscious filling topped with perfectly arranged nuts, from former restaurant owner Rubyane Surritte—we could all tell. The judges’ eyebrows lifted, and they all looked up from their plates at each other with expressions of surprise and satisfaction. Then it was time to serve the pies. In a blink of an eye, plates were full and contentment washed through the tent.
A few days after our guests went home, we excitedly began to plan next year’s picnic. Sometimes our neighbors ask why hundreds of city folk drive an hour or more to spend an afternoon in the country. My husband thinks it’s the cattle and the long views. Me? I know it’s the pie.