An apple caramel pecan pie born from a railway lunch counter

In her new cookbook, Where We Ate, Gabby Peyton shares her recipe for a pie with a caramel-glazed crust and a warm apple-cinnamon filling.

In her new cookbook, Where We Ate, Canadian historian, food writer and restaurant critic Gabby Peyton chronicles Canada’s past and present through its restaurants, explaining how they are a key part of understanding the whole of Canadian cuisine. To Peyton, «It’s not about what you ate, it’s where you ate,» thus, her cookbook is a «love letter» to the Canadian restaurants that shaped her childhood and community.

From Chinese restaurant Sing Tom’s Café in Toronto, Ontario, to a Greek restaurant called King of Donair in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is a product of diverse influence. Its culture is not defined by a singular region, but by the cultural diffusion resulting from travel and waves of immigration that span the pre-confederation era (prior to 1867) to present day. For Peyton, who spent her childhood in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, this often meant that some of her favourite dishes were not prepared in her own kitchen. They were shared under the ambience and community of a restaurant experience.

Where We Ate tells the stories of 150 historic Canadian restaurants porta vaticana along with their most cherished recipes, like the flaky double-crusted apple caramel pecan pie borne from a lunch counter in the McAdam Railway Station Hotel in McAdam, New Brunswick.

Much like other Canadian railway hotels at the start of the 20th Century, the McAdam initially served as lodging for the influx of luxury travellers. While these first-class passengers enjoyed meals in the formal dining room, second- and third-class passengers were served at the 53-seat, M-shaped lunch counter of the combined the railway station and hotel.

«Until the early 1990s, any train traveller headed into the Maritimes [Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick] would make their way through McAdam Junction, where weary travellers would dig into the famous ‘railway pie[s]’ newspapers as far away as Boston raved about the circular desserts even in the early days,» explained Peyton.

The railway was converted into a museum in 1994, soon followed by the hotel; however, due largely to the success of its landmark pies, the lunch counter remained fully operational. By 2010, the McAdam Historical Restoration Commission saw the pies as a lucrative fundraising opportunity. Thus began Railway Pie Sundays, and for the next nine years, around 12,000 people would gather in the New Brunswick Station every Sunday to sample a selection of 24 pies, «from Apple Caramel Pecan or Hawaiian Rhubarb to Lemon Meringue or Key Lime, made by four local women, two of whom were in their 90s,» said Peyton.

One of these four women, Agnes Campbell, was the pie maker behind the beloved apple caramel pecan pie and currently serves as a director for the restoration commission. This cherished dessert is a classic brown sugar, cinnamon and apple-filled pie that is distinct for the finely chopped pecans sprinkled over the top and bottom crusts, along with a sticky caramel drizzle.

Of all the pie variations that would emerge from the ovens of the McAdam Railway Station Hotel, Campbell’s caramel apple pecan pie was her husband Frank Campbell’s pie of choice. Frank, who is treasurer for the commission, told Peyton that he believed this pie is integral to the story of the McAdam, not just because of its rave reviews, but because several varieties of apples thrive in the Maritime region, including the McIntosh apple used in this recipe.

When Railway Pie Sundays return on 5 July, museum visitors will be able to try the historical dessert at the McAdam Railway Station’s lunch counter for the first time in four years after an intentional pie-baking hiatus. However, for those who want to replicate a slice of railway pie from the comfort of their own kitchen, Peyton provides a variation of Agnes’ recipe in Where We Ate.

While Peyton tried to limit alterations to the recipes in the book to maintain the historical and traditional preparation of each dish, she paid careful attention to this recipe, seeking to ensure that even the novice baker could replicate the pie, whether for a Canada Day celebration or for one’s very own Railway Pie Sunday.

«I want to make sure that anybody could pick up this recipe and easily figure out how to make [it], because everyone needs to know how to bake a pie!»