"I'm Chucky," the man says, a broad, affable grin spreading like juicy gossip beneath his wispy graying mustache. He shook my hand and led me to an unoccupied table. This was, of course, no difficult task. Even though it was early afternoon on a weekday, the time when most restaurants are jumping, Chucky's, the tiny cafe on Overton Park Avenue that once housed the storied Cuban restaurant Lupe and Bea's, was totally empty.
I accepted a menu and began to peruse the list of mouth-watering soul food staples described therein: pork chops, baked ribs, Salisbury steak. It was, or so I believed at the time, an exercise in futility and frustration. Though the sign on the door clearly read "Open," I was quickly informed that no lunch was being served. Not today. Maybe not tomorrow. In fact, nobody really seemed to know when lunch would be served on any kind of regular basis. But that hardly seemed to matter. I hadn't come for lunch, per se. I had come to feed my not-so-secret addiction. I'd come for a fried pie.
After making doubly certain that I was comfortable, Charles "Chucky" Gammon disappeared into the kitchen. When he returned he had the goods. He carried before him one perfect cup of chewy black coffee and a fresh fried pie plucked from the hot grease. I didn't know what flavor it was. I didn't care. Anything to stop the terrible shakes, swimming head, and paranoia that any serious sugar junkie who has ever gone into withdrawals knows all too well.
The pie was of the peach variety, considered by most blue-collar connoisseurs (at least the ones I associate with) to be the tip-top of the fruit-pie heap. It was one-and-a-half times the size of my fist (huge as fried pies go), brown as an old fence-post, and nine-and-a-half months pregnant with a spicy fruit filling that was as hot and sticky as napalm. The first fork-prick sent up a cloud of steam like a venting nuclear power plant. One of the most interesting things about this particular pie was the distinct lack of grease. The pocket of crust surrounding the filling was thin, crispy, and flavorful, and if you didn't know better, you would swear it had been baked. But it wasn't baked, it was deep-fried to something quite beyond perfection. The crust is Chucky's secret. And he's not about to give it away. Not to me. Not to anybody.
"My grandmother started making the pies back in the '30s," Chucky says proudly. "She had the first chuck wagon in Memphis. In fact, she had three chuck wagons." Indeed, Delia O'Kelly, Gammon's grandmother, was quite an entrepreneur. She ran a small but popular diner in the Beale and Dunlap area in the '30s and '40s. Of course, OSHA rules were unheard of back then and when businesses limited their employees' lunch breaks to only a few minutes, O'Kelly got a license to take her tasty wares directly to the workers. Years later Mamie Gammon, O'Kelly's daughter, took her mother's plan one step further. She opened Mamie's, a cafeteria-style diner and catering service at 219 Madison in a building which has now been taken over by AutoZone Park. It quickly became a Memphis institution, and it was there in 1969 that Mamie's son, Chucky Gammon, learned the fine art of frying pies. "I'll make peach, apple, sweet potato, pineapple, cherry, lemon, you know -- you name it, I'll claim it," Chucky crows. He'll also make chocolate and vanilla on request.
The peach pie disappeared and was replaced by a sweet potato pie that was every bit the previous pastry's equal. In spite of the sweet's tooth-aching flavor and richness, Chucky swears up and down that there is no butter in his pies. "We've learned to do things a little differently than my grandmother did," he says, claiming that absolutely no animal fat is used in his pies. You would never know it to taste it.
There is one exception. I asked if he ever made simple brown-sugar and cinnamon fried pies. "You mean like butter roll?" Chucky's business associate Ann Jacobs asks, and my mouth began to water. Butter roll (sometimes called butter cobbler) is a Depression-era delicacy that was my grandmother's specialty. I have never seen this dish outside of East Texas, and after my grandmother passed I was certain that I would never taste one of those thin pastries filled with brown sugar and cinnamon soaking in a sweet butter gravy ever again. Suddenly one appeared in front of me. It was just like I remembered it.
But what about the restaurant? After all, man does not live by pie alone and it's hard to build any kind of regular clientele when you aren't open for lunch on any kind of regular basis.
"I just got a contract with Kroger," Chucky explains. "I don't have time to fill all the orders and do the lunches too." Should his pies prove to be a popular item at the dozen or so Krogers where the product is being tested and should Chucky land a contract to supply an additional 189 stores, he'll be forced to move his pie-making business into a larger facility. "But I'll want to hang on to this place," he adds. "We've got a three-year lease. Maybe then we can really get the restaurant going."
Don't let this daunt you. Food will be served at Chucky's when time permits, but before making the trip it's probably a good idea to call. And even if there is no catfish to be had, it's well worth a visit just to sink your teeth into what may very well be the best fried pie in the known universe, while it's still hot. After they have cooled down and been wrapped in plastic, the magical, seemingly greaseless pies can get a little greasy. In addition to Kroger stores, Chucky's pies are also sold at the Cozy Corner (the perfect follow-up to a spicy six-bone plate) on North Parkway.