Such a Gooseberry
Father-Daughter Pie Shop Serves Up Smiles
The majority of Ozarkansans have heard of gooseberry pies, and yet – unless they grew up eating them or hearing stories about those who did – they may not be able to pinpoint how or when they first heard of the region's classic flavor.
One small, unassuming shop on Walton Boulevard in Bentonville is helping the region remember the pastry's history, and what a treat it is. Gooseberry Pies, a specialty shop, opened in October 2014. When customers enter, they see walls simply decorated with old kitchen utensils and photos of beautiful pies. The shop has a single counter where customers can order and a display case with an assortment of the day's freshly baked pies, all of which come from only two ovens operated by Jerry and Sarah Leding, a father-and-daughter team.
For both father and daughter, this is their first venture into the food scene. Coming from backgrounds with Walmart and in pharmacy work, respectively, their resumes don't suggest a passion for baking pies, but their personal lives tell a different story.
Jerry grew up cooking and baking for his parents and seven siblings and spent decades perfecting his pie recipes long before Gooseberry Pies came to be. Sarah – raised in a family that both grew and cooked food – spent her childhood similarly immersed in cookbooks and cookie dough. After a stint in New York as a pharmacy tech, she came back to Ozarkansas to join her father as they started a shop making her father's favorite dessert.
The menu is simple. Twenty types of pie, which change with the seasons, are available to order. Half of those are made fresh on any given day for walk-in customers. The pies come in two sizes – a 10-inch pie and a 5-inch pie – and that's it, except for a jar of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies sitting on the counter. Why cookies in a pie shop? When Sarah first discovered her love for baking, it wasn't an intricately latticed apple pie she was tackling, but a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
"It seemed appropriate," she says.
"And besides," quips her father, "it's hard to eat pie on the way home!"
The menu has some standards that remain year-round, including pecan (sourced from Miller Pecan Company, just across the state line in Afton, Oklahoma), peanut butter, and, of course, the eponymous gooseberry. Others appear only when the fruit is ripe. The southern peach pie, made with fruit from family friends and other local sources, is only available when perfectly ripe peaches are in season. The same goes for the pies with raspberries or strawberries from Jerry's own garden. And then there is the Ozark mountain grape, made with grapes from Jerry's uncle's farm.
When asked about their favorite pie, both father and daughter agree that the grape takes the cake, so to speak. It takes about an hour to seed the grapes for a single pie, but both swear the result is well worth the effort. Accordingly, the recipe is a family secret, and even the variety of grape remains undisclosed.
The pies themselves are beautiful, some simple and f laky, some with latticework or crumble toppings. Still others have the Razorback logo or some text cut out of them (photos on the wall show pies that say "Happy Birthday" or a short and charming "Hi"). The fillings are more diverse, from their namesake gooseberry pie, with its subtle spice and balanced tartness, to the sumptuous grape pie, which is silky and strong and warm and delightful all at once. The autumn apple pie is everything one remembers from grandma's apple pies cooling on the window sill, and is beautiful decorated, to boot.
In fact, everything that happens in Gooseberry Pies speaks of family and tradition. From secret recipes developed through the decades (the crust recipe comes from Jerry's mother-in-law) to local sources of produce, the pie makers know their origins. Even the utensils on the wall are part of the family's heritage – the old hot pads are from Jerry's great uncles, the beat-up pie tin and measuring spoons from Sarah's parents' wedding.
The name itself speaks to that heritage. Gooseberry pies were common in the area generations ago, because people could pick them out of their backyards. Jerry says that he often gets older guests in who are especially excited about the gooseberry pies, exclaiming that they haven't had one since childhood. Sarah chimes in that the pie is also featured in the movie Snow White, when the Disney princess wins lodging with the dwarves by offering them a gooseberry pie. The word gooseberry even has its own place in the Leding family: "It's sort of a term of endearment. . . you're such a gooseberry!"
Even as they look back to their heritage, Sarah and Jerry are also always looking forward. They began taking orders for Thanksgiving pies in the summer and are providing pies for a wedding (in Minnesota) in 2016. While they don't plan on expanding beyond the one location, Sarah does dream of writing a cookbook at some point, and perhaps even teaching some classes on the classic pies she makes so well. In the meantime, they are staying engaged with the local food scene.
The Ledings continue to make connections with local farmers and suppliers, are providing pies for other local businesses (they make all the pies for the four area locations of JJ's), and are generally showing up all over Ozarkansas. They were featured in a news story on Pi Day, March 14. Over the summer, they spoke at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for one of the museum's W.O.W. events, monthly tasting experiences to sample selections of drinks and hors d'oeuvres.
"These days, if people are going to splurge on something, they want it to be meaningful and well-made," Sarah says.
Her observation sums up Gooseberry Pies. With a focus on only one type of dessert, and a dessert with such a rich family history behind it, the results can't help but be appetizing. Customers can fulfill their pie craving by calling ahead to request a specific flavor or choosing from that day's offerings. They will leave with a piece of Leding family tradition, and maybe even a fresh chocolate chip cookie. After all, it's hard to eat pie on the drive home.