Nov 16, 2022
In “Annie Laura Squalls and Her Mile High Pie,” Gravy producer Kayla Stewart tells the story of Annie Laura Squalls, who, in 1960, became head baker at the Caribbean Room, the popular in-house restaurant at New Orleans’ renowned Pontchartrain Hotel. It was there where Squalls created her “Seven Mile High Pie,” known colloquially as the “Mile High Pie.” But while many people know the legendary pie, most don’t know the baker behind it.
Squalls was no ordinary baker. Though she never attended culinary school, she could make sweet magic happen, often thinking on her feet to tweak a recipe to perfection. Chef Nathaniel Burton and activist and socialite Rudy Lombard included Squalls’ Mile High Pie recipe in their 1978 book Creole Feast: Fifteen Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets, writing, “No one could duplicate her expertise.”
The Mile High Pie is a twist on a Baked Alaska, with layers of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry or peppermint ice cream in a pie crust, topped with tall peaks of meringue and chocolate sauce. The dessert is prominently on display in New Orleans. Vogue once named it one of the city’s most decadent desserts. Still today, it’s the first item listed on the dessert menu in the restaurant at the Pontchartrain Hotel. The hotel promotes their long-running Mile High Club, an exclusive dining experience named for the dish. Yet Stewart found no reference anywhere to Annie Laura Squalls.
That lack of recognition speaks to a bigger issue. Despite the multicultural influences that have made New Orleans cuisines so globally-lauded, Black pastry chefs, cooks, and culinary innovators have rarely been given adequate appreciation or recognition for their invaluable influences on the city’s cuisine.
In this episode, Stewart speaks to Zella Palmer, chair and director of the Dillard University Ray Charles program in African American Material Culture who aims to trace and amplify the work of Black chefs and cooks in and around New Orleans. She also interviews historian Theresa McCulla, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and Kaitlin Guerin, pastry cook and owner of New Orleans’ Lagniappe Baking. In her reporting, Stewart shows how remembering stories like Squalls’ allows us to understand a true, fuller history of New Orleans.