by Tabitha Blankenbiller
It’s important that you keep breathing, Loretta Lynnae, she reminded herself, commanding her lips to stretch like they were weight training. She could feel the burn in her cheeks, the pang of a hundred thousand slights carried in the flushing apples. She’d never met a living soul who could resist her smile. A saving grace passed down through as many generations as the musky family Bible could trace. Sweet as a peach, people say. Sweet as pie, she corrects them.
Usually right before they wrapped their lips around a forkful of your Derby Pie®. And then they don’t see her anymore, because they’ve departed their flawed, earthly bodies and fluttered up to the Pearly Gates. They always came back, though. There’s no Derby Pie® in Heaven.
Most of the cameras were across the room, trained on their Star. He certainly had no trouble smiling. Not a smidge. Mugging out to the hordes stuffed into the Scottsburg High School Auditorium. You could have as many slack-jawed idiots as you wanted crammed into a waxy box that smelled like gym socks. All you had to do was park a television crew outside. First come the local news, the plastic girls back from university, four years straight of screwing the football team to earn their “Bachelors of Communication” and the right to hold a microphone. Once their antennas were up the whole town started lumbering in, holding up their cell phones, trying to get an out-of-focus snap of the out-of-towner that 50 of their second cousins can “Like.”
SMILE! She could hear her mother now, bellowing from a cloud next to Jesus, helpless to her life’s work now in the hands of an idiot daughter. I swear to Jesus Christ—who can hear me, Loretta Lynn!—you’ll never pull this off with a face like a kicked mule.
The only person paying any attention to her was Steve the cameraman. “I’m Steve,” he introduced himself at the beginning of the day, along with his crew of four.
“You need five men to film me?” she asked, feeling the urge to duck back into the trailer out back, where a miniscule girl in a black jumpsuit had painted her face with makeup like fondant. Maybe they’d missed a spot. They’d find angles of her that she’d never even seen.
“Uh, well, yeah. We wanna make sure we get everything.”
It was then that she noticed, across from her baking station, that there was a mirror table set up not fifteen feet away. Pie pans, walnuts and a jug of bourbon waited on a red checkered tablecloth, just as they waited for her. “Why do we need two kitchens?” They weren’t even going to be filming that long, they’d told her. Just the grand finale of their Food Network special, Secret Eats, a glimpse at the most closely guarded family recipes in America. They’d already been down to the café and in her kitchen, capturing her pummeling nuts and sneaking “quality assurance” nips. “You can watch me prep all day,” she said, grinning into the black hole of the lens. “But no measuring, and no mixing! By order of the U.S. Patent Office.”
“Just in case we have to do a second take,” Steve explained, tapping out a message on his phone. “If we need another shot, we don’t want to have to set everything out all over again.”
Everything was perfect times two. They even included a tabletop black screen that she could measure and mix behind, the one stipulation she’d had in signing the contract. Her parents didn’t spend their lives arguing with Uncle Sam for every idiot and his mom to get the Derby Pie® recipe for the grand price of owning a cable box.
Everyone wants a piece of Derby Pie®. Filthy, hungry droves like rats at the fairground, swarming over her family’s creation. That’s what happened when the world got a whiff of genius. It wanted to suck every last atom from the marrow. One day you’re an honest couple baking sweets at your restaurant, just trying to bring a little good to this fallen land. People like it. People order an extra slice to take home, share with their kids, give to their neighbors. The good word spreads like venereal disease until a few weeks later when you’re driving down to the hardware store and Marie Tibbets has a brand-new clapboard sign right outside her dumpster of a café. DURBEE PIE SOLD HERE! she does declare in yellow stencil. Such a shame, Marie and that wonky gas line into that filthy kitchen.
And then Maries kept popping up like gophers, and not just in Shelbyville. In Frankfort, in La Grange, all the way up in Scottburg. The family couldn’t take care of everyone on our own, “not without getting the government involved,” Pa grumbled. So that’s what he did, the same year Loretta was born. Marched right into the Attorney General’s office in Frankfort with ten Derby Pies® and a suitcase full of paperwork. From that day forward, Derby Pie® was a licensed trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, right in there with EZ-Bake Ovens and Jack LaLanne’s Juicer. Sure, people still tried to slip Derby Pie® onto their menus, even that messy business with the Bon Appetit cookbook. Manhattanites are vile creatures, thinking they have a right to every last scrap set upon this earth. They learn, though. The rights of United States citizens, the right to create and protect that innovation, that’s not something you can trifle with. Even if you’re working on the thirtieth floor of some ugly skyscraper with a panoramic view of the world’s biggest sewage dump.
The Superstar, he didn’t care about the sanctity of Derby Pie®. Not a speck. No sooner had Loretta raised her cleaver to thump the first handful of pecans than a WHHHHOOOOOPPPPEEEE!! began tidaling forth, from the front doors on forward, the crowd parting and its Moses gliding through. “I hear your Derby Pies® are the best in the land,” he slurred through half of a shit-eating grin.
“They are the ONLY Derby Pies® in the land,” she said, arching her back to stretch the extra inch into 5’3.” “By decree of the United States Patent Office.”
A chorus of oooohhhh!s flooded Steve’s microphone sticks, low and giddy. “Well Loretta Lynnae, I’ve come here all the way from New York City to ask… are you ready for a Throwdown?!”
Her ears blocked like she was sinking underwater, swimming in a sea of fury. “You betcha, city slicker!” She said, throwing her fist up in the air. They’d all been in on it, every last one of them. Steve and his army of cameras. That tiny mouse and her whore paint. That girl from the Manhattan office, what was her name? “This is Florence from the Food Network bookings department.” Ah yes, Florence. Who must’ve received a ridiculous new hipster name when she put down her Brooklyn apartment deposit. Done in by the oldest trick in the book, an amateur’s vanity play. “We just can’t get enough of your Derby Pie® up here at our corporate office!” she fawned, kissing every tender bruise in Loretta’s steely heart. “We order it every year for our Thoroughbred and Fascinators party and I always run out before the race has even started! My boss kept telling me I could just go down to Dean and Deluca and have them cater pecan pies, but there would be riots. There’s nothing like the real thing, you know?”
As if some sniveling little girl rewriting herself as Florence in Manhattan would give a fig about real southern pie. Now this culinary charlatan had paraded in—on her invitation!—to steal her birthright. And for what? What did Derby Pie® mean to an Iron Chef, a man with five different shows on the same channel, with overpriced casino restaurants in between penny slots and prostitution rings lining more millions into his coffers? He could lose and go on to keep squirting vinegar and chili oil out of bottles onto $30 plates of chicken breasts and no one would care. If she lost, fifty years would vanish.
She watched as Bobby’s two assistants fiercely rolled dough and whisked sugar on the stovetop. Bobby lorded over in a starched chef’s jacket, miming bourbon shots to the camera. “We’re so excited to be here in Kentucky making Derby… oh I’m sorry, CHOCOLATE BOURBON PECAN PIE.” The room rollicked with laughter. “You’re not going to sue me Loretta, are you?”
“As long as you mind your manners, you’ll be fine!” How many legacies were enough for him? He couldn’t be content to mow down the budding dreams of new chefs in Kitchen Stadium, or steal the heart of that mozzarella-pushing stick woman? He had to take his selfish show on the road and siphon what little glory remained for the enterprising patriot? She could feel all the carnage, the railroading from coast to coast. Spent three decades perfecting the crab cake? THROWDOWN! Put your kids through college with Oklahoma’s best croque madame? THROWDOWN!
No one, in fifty years, had come close to stealing Derby Pie®. It was greater than Loretta, greater than Bobby. It was an idea. It was freedom. It would outlive them both.
“Steve, would you be an absolute doll and grab me some whipping cream from the fridge?” she asked. “It looks like they’ve left it off my station.”
“I’m not an assistant,” he said, hiding behind the infinite glass lens.
“I know it’s a little unorthodox for me to ask, but you have to admit, this is a very strange kind of day, don’t you think?” She could hear a sigh behind the machinery before it moved away, back and behind the set.
Behind her screen, she reached as far into her purse as the fabric bulged, her fingers brushing against thin, brittle glass. One last vial. The last fifty years had held its share of emergencies, that’s for sure. One snap and the white powder dissolved in her 1/3 cup of bourbon like sugar. Sweet as pie.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program currently living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been featured in a number of journals including Barrelhouse, Hobart, Passages North and Brevity. She is also a noted hoarder of condiments and accomplished pint glass thief. For food porn and cat pics, follow her @tabithablanken.