From Real Thai to Southern Pies


You can almost smell the apples baking in Nancie McDermott’s kitchen. Photo by Mary Lide Parker.

Nancie McDermott’s (watch the video) culinary journey has taken her full circle: from her grandmother’s big dairy farm kitchen in Orange County to the rural countryside in Thailand and back again. She writes about food for a living, but you won’t find her kitchen to be fussy or pretentious. It is a place where you can fall in love with cooking.

A big bowl of Granny Smith apples sits on a wooden table in a basket she bought from Ten Thousand Villages. Today’s assignment: making “Miz Bob’s Double Apple Pie,” one of more than 60 recipes in her 10th cookbook, Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, From Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan. (Chronicle Books, 2010). (Check out the inside back cover of the fall 2011 issue of Carolina Arts & Sciences magazine for the recipe.)

McDermott graduated from UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1973 with a degree in English, but she always knew she wanted to see the world.

McDermott grew up in Burlington and High Point, and remembers making her very first pie, egg custard (still today one of her favorites), at the hand of her grandmother.

“I also remember riding along in the old white Ford and getting out and going in the ditch and picking blackberries,” McDermott says as she peels and chops apples for pie, metal mixing bowls spread out before her. “She made blackberry rolls, sort of like blackberry dumplings, with a circle of soft dough with blackberries and sugar and butter in the center, pinched up into a little purse.”

McDermott also recalls her father (UNC School of Law class of 1950) taking the family for long afternoon visits to the Intimate Bookshop in Chapel Hill. There she was captivated by The Time Life Book of World Religions.

After college she joined the Peace Corps in 1975, where she spent three years in Thailand, first in the small town of Thatoom, on the Moon River in Surin Province, about 360 miles from Bangkok. There she taught English to junior high students, and she fell in love with Thai food.

After returning to the United States, to Greensboro, she earned her teaching certificate and began teaching seventh and eighth grade English and social studies. On the side, she dove headfirst into cooking, writing and teaching about food. She met her future husband after moving to New York City in 1981. His graduate work took them to Southern California in the mid-80s, then they moved their family to Chapel Hill in 1999.

“The essence of my first cookbook, Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, is the food my students cooked [while I was in the Peace Corps.] I ate homey Thai food every day,” she says.

After multiple cookbooks on Asian food, McDermott once again embraced her Southern roots, first with a book on cakes, then on pies. She reaches into the cupboard and pulls out cinnamon and nutmeg (“I love organic Saigon cinnamon, but I also love the every-grocery-store-has-it cinnamon,” she says.) She sprinkles sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon on the apples in a square pan, then transfers them to a metal pot with handles (used to make rice or soup in Thailand), so they can begin deliciously stewing in their juices on the gas burner.

Then, with flour dusting her fingers (and soon a spot or two on her shirt and cheek), she tackles what can strike fear into the heart of the inexperienced baker: the homemade pie crust.

But don’t stop reading! Even though McDermott includes a chapter on making pie crusts in her latest book, she is also a fan of store-bought pie crusts, adding that one of the biggest gifts she gives people is “a reality check.”

“My take is lighten up, people!” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful time to be making pie because we can go to the grocery store and get a frozen shell or a sheet of pastry. To me the most important thing about a pie is what’s inside it, not the crust.”

Butter pie crust is her favorite, but even though a food processor sits on her countertop, McDermott says you can just as easily make a pie crust using one of her favorite kitchen tools: a fork.

“Pie crust is very forgiving,” she says, rolling outward with a tapered French rolling pin from the center, in quarter turns. “If it tears, just press it back together.”

“Doesn’t that smell wonderful,” she pauses, as the cozy kitchen fills with a heavenly fragrance like cinnamon-scented perfume or Christmas in August.

For McDermott, part of the joy of cooking is getting in touch with her culinary historian side — telling stories, exploring where things come from, answering the questions that don’t get asked. She’s launching a local group called Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC), a group of food-lovers, cooks and history buffs.

“I’m interested in, for this apple pie recipe, why is there an extra ‘magical’ layer of pastry in the middle; can I track that down? That’s the detective aspect I love the best,” she says. “I see value in honoring and knowing what came before.”

“I grew up in a world where I saw what a pleasure it was for my grandmother to cook.”

Read more about McDermott at,, or follow her on Twitter: @nanciemac.

[Story by Kim Weaver Spurr ’88]