“There shall be an official state meat pie,” the Louisiana legislature declared by unanimous vote in the summer of 2003, at the initiative of Representative Taylor Townsend, a native of the central Louisiana city of Natchitoches. “The official state meat pie shall be the Natchitoches meat pie.”
This somewhat dry announcement served the same purpose as the more colorful cries of the city’s 19th-century street vendors. “Hotta meat pies!” the hawkers would cry, according to Natchitoches lore. “Get your hotta meat pies!” But the legislature hoped it would be more widely heard. The official designation, together with that fall’s first annual Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival, was designed to put the small city of about 18,000—and its centuries-old specialty—on the map for culinary tourists. If you grew up in Louisiana, the Natchitoches (NACK-uh-tush) meat pie probably needs no introduction. In the rest of the country, however, most people have never heard of such a thing, easily mistaken for an empanada by all but the most discerning.
Like that staple of the Latin American diet, the Natchitoches meat pie is a crimped half moon hiding a pocket of spiced meat. The official recipe of the meat pie festival, as perfected by resident Gay Melder, offers the particulars. The meat is a mix of ground pork and ground beef—Melder uses a one-to-one ratio—gently seasoned with onions, green bell pepper, green onions, and garlic. You can add a pinch of red pepper flakes along with the salt and pepper, but the classic version is savory, not spicy. The crust is a simple blend of wheat flour, shortening, eggs and milk, deep fried until crisp and served piping hot.
In his article investigating the regional specialty, the historian Dale Sauter acknowledges the possibility that the Natchitoches meat pie is of Spanish origin. Shortly after Natchitoches was settled by the French as a trading post on the Red River in 1714, the Spanish established the nearby outpost of Los Adeas. But Sauter offers another possible influence: the French-Canadian tourtière, a large pie with a buttery, flaky crust and a minced meat filling flavored with warm spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. The founder of the city, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, was a French Canadian explorer. Souter also notes that Natchitoches became a sort of “culinary buffer zone” between the Cajun cuisine of Southern Louisiana and the American Southern cuisine of the northern part of the state.
Regardless of its culinary origins—after all, nearly every cuisine has a recipe for meat wrapped in dough, from the patties of Jamaica to the calzones of Italy—by the early 20th century, the popular dish was inseparable from the city, advertised throughout Louisiana not simply as a “meat pie,” but specifically as a “Natchitoches meat pie.” It was that reputation that the city, otherwise best known as the backdrop for Steel Magnolias, hoped to capitalize on in the early 21st century, the type of effort that the sociologist Jennifer Jordan termed “culinary place making” in her study of Austrian efforts to promote the country’s traditional dumplings as a tourist attraction.
You won’t find meat pie hawkers hollering on the streets of Natchitoches today. Instead, head to Lasyone’s, which has stood on 2nd Street since the 1960s. You’ll know you are in the right place when you see the giant replica of a meat pie in the front window.
Once a Week
James Laysone was a butcher who sold ground meat to women who made meat pies at home when he opened the restaurant, which is now run by his daughters, who still use his original recipe (with a 4-to-1 ratio of ground beef to ground pork). The restaurant was making 400 to 1,000 meat pies a day in 2002, before the Natchitoches meat pie became the official meat pie of the state—and before a New York Times reporter visited.
The story appeared on the front page of the Times’ travel section just before New Years 2003, along with a phone number for the restaurant. In the weeks after, Laysone’s produced between 4,000 and 5,000 Natchitoches meat pies every day, shipping the city’s culinary tradition to communities across the country.