By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LOUISVILLE - If Alan Rupp wasn't born at the right time, there might not be Derby Pie.
Alan Rupp, president of Kern's Kitchen Inc., and Ruth Fejfar perform a "pie change over," taking out finished Derby Pies and replacing them with pies ready to be baked in one of two large ovens at the Louisville kitchen.
Photo by BRANDI STAFFORD/The Cincinnati Enquirer
Well, even he doesn't make that claim. But it is true that when he was born in 1954 his grandparents came down from Pennsylvania to help his mother in Louisville with the new baby. Later that year, grandparents Leaudra and Walter Kern began working with their son, Rupp's uncle George, at his restaurant, the Melrose Inn. Soon, they put their heads together to create a chocolate nut pie to die for.
And 50 years later, there certainly would be no Derby Pie without Alan Rupp. He will tell you that.
"We just don't stop," says Rupp, pausing breathlessly between mixing and baking pies at his plant, Kern's Kitchen, east of Louisville. During the month leading up to the Kentucky Derby, he works 15-hour days, six and seven days a week just to keep up with demand. (He did stop on Easter Sunday to celebrate his 50th birthday.)
Rupp, who pronounces his name roop, unlike the legendary University of Kentucky basketball coach (he's not related), makes about 100,000 pies a year. A third of the pastries fly out of the oven just before and after Derby Day, always the first Saturday in May.
A Kentucky tradition
Churchill Downs has served the pie for more than 20 years; race track vendors will sell more than 25,000 slices on Derby Day alone. Many who host Derby parties - in Louisville, Lexington, Cincinnati and patios and decks all over - will serve Derby Pie for dessert. Like country ham, biscuits, burgoo and mint juleps, the sticky pie is tradition.
"A lot of people buy it, a lot of people try to make their own," says Sarah Fritschner, food writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal and author of Derby 101: A Guide to Food and Menus for Kentucky Derby Week (Butler Books; $22.95). "And people argue with me about this, but I don't think you can improve on the pie."
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WHERE TO BUY
Where to buy Derby Pie:
HoneyBaked Ham (five Greater Cincinnati locations; 800-892-4267.)
Kremer's Market, 755 Buttermilk Pike, Crescent Springs; (859) 341-1067.
Kroger (select stores; 800-576-4377).
Remke Markets (seven Greater Cincinnati locations; 859-431-1266).
A Taste of Kentucky (800-444-0552 or www.atasteofky.com.).
Where to buy beaten biscuits:
Irene's Beaten Biscuits, made in Paris, Ky., are available at Kremer's Market in Crescent Springs. ($3.50 per dozen) Also available by mail order: (859) 987-5164.
Derby Pie is a must if you're hosting a Derby party this weekend. Also on the traditional Derby menu:
Beaten biscuits, thin, cracker-like biscuits filled with country ham or benedictine spread.
Benedictine spread, named for a Louisville caterer, this sandwich spread is made from cream cheese, cucumber and onion.
Mint julep, classic Derby cocktail made with bourbon and fresh mint.
It's a simple confection - an over-the-top rich, chess-like custard, scattered with semisweet chocolate chips and walnuts, baked in a plain, slightly salty 9-inch crust. More than a few bakers have come close to duplicating it. But they should not call it "Derby Pie" - on a menu, in a cookbook, magazine or newspaper. If they do, Rupp's attorneys will fire off a letter demanding they stop. "Derby Pie" is protected by federal trademark - only Rupp gets to use the name.
Back in the '60s, the story goes, a judge and an attorney - loyal fans of the pie, no doubt - advised the Kerns to get trademark protection. The family secured the trademark in 1968, and have since sent dozens of warning letters to competitors for using the name, and filed several lawsuits for trademark infringement. In 1988, a federal court upheld the trademark after Kern's Kitchen sued Bon Appetit magazine for running a "Derby Pie" recipe in a cookbook.
"Most people don't understand that if you own a trademark, it's your responsibility to protect it," Rupp says. "I'm not looking to sue anyone, despite what a lot of people think."
He does admit the trademark and those lawyerly letters have added to the Derby Pie mystique.
Baking more than 30 years
Rupp has been elbow-deep in Derby Pies since 1973, when he came home to Louisville from Western Kentucky University one spring weekend to help his grandparents through the Derby rush. The Kerns had closed the restaurant by then and were making pies in their home kitchen.
"They had only 14 accounts on the books and didn't even list the company in the phone book," Rupp says. "Now, we make more pies in a week than they did in an entire year."
It's bigger than Grandma Kern's kitchen, but Rupp's production facility - hidden in a maze-like industrial park - still doesn't look big enough. Up front, in the tiny reception area, a mug shot of Secretariat hangs on the wall, along with two letters from Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith, thanking Rupp profusely for the "cases" of pies he sent the team. A partially eaten pie sits on a coffee table - a quality control sample, or perhaps someone's snack.
Behind another door, in the noisy kitchen, Rupp, wearing an apron and his curly white hair stuffed under an official Derby Pie cap, is ready to mix another batch of pie filling.
"But I can't let you watch," he says, without cracking a smile.
Everyone who works at Kern's Kitchen signs an agreement not to divulge any Derby Pie secrets, but Rupp says only three other people - his production manager, brother and ex-sister-in-law - know the recipe.
Back in another production room, Luanne Nigg carefully sorts through a mountain of walnuts, looking for "inners" - tiny pieces of shell that would surely ruin someone's Derby Pie. Nigg supervises five other workers, including Rupp's daughter, Rebecca, 16, and son, Jon, 17, who are packing frozen pies into boxes for shipping. It looks to be a woefully small crew to turn out so many pies.
"We can do it, if we do everything exactly right," says Nigg, now tearing bubble wrap to cushion pies in boxes.
Within a few minutes, Rupp shouts the OK to come back to the kitchen. The only clue to what he put into the pie filling is a flock of eggs, bobbing in a stainless-steel bowl.
Rupp vacuums the apricot-golden custard out of a giant mixer with a hose into another machine, called a hopper. Rupp then begins frantically maneuvering baking trays of pie shells - each containing a handful of chocolate chips - under a spigot on the hopper. His assistant, Ruth Fejfar, who also works as receptionist, fills each pastry with the sweet goop by pushing a foot pedal.
"Two minutes!" Rupp yells.
That's their deadline for filling the 80 pie shells in order to shove them in the oven just as another batch of pies come out, bubbling and smelling heavenly.
On this day and most others leading up to the Derby, Rupp and his staff will load the oven 16 times, baking nearly 1,300 pies a day. Saturday, he'll finally shut the oven down to go to the country with family and friends - to place a friendly bet and watch the horse race on TV.
And even after enduring all those pies, Rupp will have a slice - warm, topped with bourbon-whipped cream.
"It's the best way to eat it," he says.
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