State Fair Food Classics: Apex Lions Club's "Piiiiie"

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Horace Johnson in front of his pie-inspired sign at the Apex Lions Clubs fair booth.
  • Horace Johnson in front of his pie-inspired sign at the Apex Lions Club's fair booth.
Horace Johnson has a steady presence at the North Carolina State Fair. Though a resident of Apex, he lives with his wife, Frankie Johnson, in a mobile home on the fairgrounds during the 11-day event, rather than commuting the 20 minutes home. And most of his time, he’s front and center, perched on a stool in front of the Apex Lions Club’s booth. For 27 years, he has taken a seat there to bark the club’s pie to passersby, though in Johnson’s words it’s “piiiiie.”

When Johnson’s away from his microphone—back at his trailer or tucked in the Lions Club’s kitchen, where he cooks ham, grits, and gravy each morning—his words still resonate. “Limon piiiiie,” Johnson’s expression for lemon pie, croons across a PA system, and shows up as a painting with all five I’s on the club’s front window. Over the years, Johnson’s “gift for gab,” as he puts its, has made the Lions’ pie so popular, the club plans to place wooden pie cutouts in front of its booth next year for fans to pose for pictures. But pie, says Johnson, is only one of three things that make the club’s booth stand out.

As it ends up, it’s Johnson’s words that make the pastry so special. The Lions Club sells pre-made, store bought pies to its customers for $3.50 a slice. But its other best selling items—vegetable soup and buttermilk biscuits—are made on site each day.

The club has made soup since its first day at the fair in 1943, when members cooked on grills and gas stoves instead of a range. Now, with a more equipped kitchen, the Lions are able to offer a wider selection of fresh foods, including biscuits. Last Sunday alone, the Lions sold over 1,000 biscuits made that day by Frances Lawrence and Monnie Jenkins, who are not club members, but Apex residents who have cooked at the Lions’ stand for the past 10 years.

Johnson says the club has perfected its offerings during its 67 years at the fair. The vegetable soup is a protected recipe. And the pies (pecan, coconut, lemon, apple, sweet potato, and chocolate), though store bought, have been tasted and selected individually among a long list of brands to ensure the best flavor. Still, says Johnson, the club doesn't have everything as it would like. "There's not enough room for everyone," he explains, which is true. A line pours from the door daily until 2 p.m. But at least the following can be said for those who have to wait: There's no mystery about the menu.

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