Monroe, LA — The days leading up to Thanksgiving can be overwhelming for the pie-bakers at Lea’s of Lecompte (which is a confusing name for outsiders, who don’t know it references Lea’s Lunchroom, the original Lea’s, which IS in Lecompte, a small town almost 110 miles almost due south on State Highway 165.)
Lea’s of Lecompte fringes the former Dixie Overland Highway, where it serves as an urban gateway for pies made from the great-grandmotherly recipes of third-generation pie-proprietor Toby Traylor. On Monday, its long formica front counter was brown-tiled with fragrant pecan pies, the most requested among the 170-plus-and-counting pies locals have so far outsourced for their Thanksgiving feasts. Next most popular is lemon icebox, a no-bake sweet-tart confection of lemon juice and sweetened condensed milk that pops out of its white box encircled with jaunty whipped cream stars. Caramel banana pie, sweet potato pie and pumpkin cheesecake rounded out the top five.
I stopped in Monroe almost two years ago and met Toby, whose mother Ann Johnson still runs Lea’s Lunchroom, a Louisiana institution that turned 90 this year. I had their luxurious chocolate meringue pie along with Toby and his daughter Elizabeth. They do their meringues with a large soft dome of meringue, strategically light browned and perfectly sealed to the edge of the crust, which helps prevent the sugar from “weeping” out.
Toby’s great grandfather Lea opened that restaurant in a former service station with just one item on the menu: the ham sandwich, which he claims to have invented.
The pies part of the story came later, after Lea hired (and then married) a young high school graduate named Georgie to pour coffee and serve sandwiches. It is her mother’s pie recipes the family still bakes with today. Georgie started making them at home, bringing in two pies per week, where as word spread, they began selling out. Today Lea’s Lunchroom sells 65,000 pies per year, including those it ships around the holidays, an average of 1,250 per week!
Lea, the founder, was such a well-known character that Johnny Carson invited him on, and his rascally charm actually left Carson tongue-tied repeatedly.
My late father’s favorite pie was lemon meringue, which Traylor said is one of his favorites too, though he sells far more lemon icebox, decorated below: