Eavesdropping has resulted in some of our best subjects for “Our Good Cooks.”
In this case, I was having dinner with a friend at the The Original Rib House in Vandalia and overheard owner Mike Lawson chatting with a customer enjoying a slice of homemade sour cream apple pie.
He was proudly telling her that his 85-year-old mother makes all the restaurant’s pies.
“She’s 85 and has loved making pies all her life,” he said. “For this pie, she cuts every apple by hand into bite-size bits.”
It turns out this is a family that has a rich history in the Miami Valley when it comes to food. Lawson started working at the Grub Steak on North Main when he was in high school and later worked for his dad, who owned the Old Hickory Bar-B-Que on Third Street. In 1981, he joined forces with Bill Brusman, also from Vandalia, and opened the Rib House.
“Bill grew up in the restaurant business, too,” explains Lawson. “His family had the Vandalia Cafeteria and his mother made the pies there.”
Lawson says his mother always loved to cook.
“I don’t think I ate in a restaurant until I was 17,” he says.
With Thanksgiving approaching, Fran Lawson seemed the perfect person to consult about pie-making for the holiday.
What are your earliest memories of food?
I was born in Tennessee and grew up on a farm. We grew all our vegetables and had no running water. We carried our water from the spring that came out of the mountains.
My mother cooked on an iron-cast wood stove. She made biscuits and gravy and she got up at four in the morning to kill the chicken. She’d have it on the table by seven in the morning ready to eat.
We ate a lot of food from the wild — squirrels, rabbit, groundhog and deer. My dad would go hunting and as far back as I can remember I would go hunting and trapping with him.
Where did you learn to cook?
I learned to cook in my mid-20s when I was starting a family. I would read recipes and switch ingredients to make them more to my taste. I would also make up my own recipes for things like homemade bread and rolls.
What do you enjoy about cooking and baking?
It gives me a sense of relief to just be able to cook my recipes and relax. My family grew up with all kinds of music and I wanted to be a singer like Patsy Cline. So I sing all the time, and I sing and yodel when I cook and bake.
I also like hearing how everyone really enjoys eating my pies.
Most people think of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving time. What other options are there?
I would suggest something that is still the traditional pumpkin-flavored dessert: I make either my pumpkin roll, pumpkin cake or my sour cream apple pie. I’m also known for my lemon chess and coconut cream pies.
What advice do you have for a new baker?
Make sure you understand it’s OK to switch up a recipe to make it more to your taste. If it doesn’t turn out the way you’d like, just try it again and maybe switch some different things than the last time.
What are some of your favorite ingredients?
That depends on what I’m making, but I like butter, parsley, garlic, onion, salt and pepper.
What mistakes do new cooks tend to make and how can they avoid them?
I think new cooks and bakers gets nervous and over-think about the recipe and how it will turn out. To avoid any mistakes keep calm, read your recipes, and everything will turn out fine.
What kind of Thanksgiving food requests do you get from your family?
My grandchildren always want me to make homemade rolls, eclair cake, pumpkin pie and sour cream apple pie.
What’s your favorite pie?
What else do you like to bake and cook?
I like making my homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, chili, vegetable soup, bake-ahead chicken casserole and a pumpkin roll.
How did you begin making pies for The Original Rib House?
I started making pies at the restaurant in 1992 after my son Mike asked me to. I bake about eight pies a week. The sour cream apple and lemon cheese pie recipes originally came from Bill Brusman’s mother.
Can people order pies from you?
Yes, people call me and want me to bake them my pies. But it’s getting a little much nowadays, so I don’t do it as often.
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