When I reached this state in line at Mr. Ed's, what lay within reach was not penny candy or a run-of-the-mill chocolate bar; it was a moist, coaster-size pie with the least presumptuous hint of cinnamon-type spice and a filling of fine amber threads suggestive of fresh sweet potatoes. The label said it was made in Harvey.
A few weeks later I made a second trip to Mr. Ed's, this time just for pie. The woman at the register shook her head.
"It was like you, me and maybe three other people who ate those,'" she said. "We don't carry 'em no more."
A wilting disappointment, but she pointed in the direction of a store she once frequented that sold the same brand. "I swear, if you get another one, you won't be looking for another pie for the rest of your life," she testified.
Gloria and Harold Peaden of Southern Sweet Potato Pie Company couldn't have commissioned a better sales pitch. Their pie's original recipe came from Dorothy Caradeen, Gloria's 85-year-old mother, although Caradeen long ago relinquished her baking duties. When Harold first began tinkering with his mother-in-law's recipe, says Gloria, "We'd have church members calling and asking us to bake extra. When it got to be 50 or 60 pies in the kitchen, we decided to make a business out of it."
A chemist and a chemical engineer by trade, the couple started selling the pies made with Louisiana sweet potatoes three years ago. Harold designs and builds most of the company's production equipment, and they collaborate on recipe development and field research (i.e. pie eating). In April they introduced a pecan variety.
In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of secrecy, Gloria doesn't divulge much. "I can only tell you that we put sweet potatoes in the sweet potato pie and pecans in the pecan pie." (The wrapper also lists butter, coconut and lemon juice.)
Tracking down register food, which is necessary when someone discontinues a good pie, is as ridiculous as ordering it by the case (Mr. Ed's has resumed selling the Peaden's pie). It negates register food's most basic virtue: that it just happens to be there when you need it -- or think you need it -- most. Yet it's near impossible not to get choosy when you spend a lot of time around registers, like my fellow pie fanatic at Mr. Ed's or the man who works a Spur station in Mid-City who's so covetous of Annie Reed's banana nut cake (locally produced) that you need to arrive with the deliveryman to get one. There's also the Nic Cage look-alike at Verti Mart who sermonizes Hubig's fried pies, New Orleans' archetypal register food.
My sister started buying Cup of Gold snack bars by the box after plucking one from a basket at Foodies Kitchen. With ingredients like reduced-fat peanut butter, oats and honey, the all-natural, puck-shaped bar gets most of its exposure in the heath-and-fitness market. Keep reading, sedentary gourmands: Cup of Gold is dotted with chocolate chips, which attain a slow, dark state of ooze at room temperature.
Danielle Ontiveros, now 28, created Cup of Gold at 16 when she found that other, overly sweet breakfast bars left her still hungry. She began packaging and selling her invention the following week and has never changed the recipe. If you can't find Cup of Gold's Space Age metallic wrapping, look for Cake Man Steve Himelfarb, who sells his friend's product along his cake-peddling route.
Regional snack specialties are often positioned closest to the register, like the Praline King's candied pecans, Angelo Brocato's fried bits of sugar-glazed dough (pigniolata) and those teeny, dried shrimp that mostly come from around Morgan City. I once got worked up over a paper bag of Turtle Food at a filling station in Houma. Neither Cajun trail mix nor a Ben & Jerry's alternative, it turned out to be actual turtle food.
Another Acadiana specialty, distributed in New Orleans by Hubig's, moved me to road trip to its source: Original Old Fashion Ginger Cake from LeJeune's Bakery in Jeanerette. Opened in 1884, LeJeune's is one of Teche country's main suppliers of soft, wide French bread loaves. They also bake puffed gingerbread "stageplanks," bread-cookie-cake hybrids that are about the length of a man's hand, vaguely sweet, oddly delicious and begging for a steaming cafe au lait.
A jug of molasses as big as a garden shed sits just inside the door at the actual bakery, where a fine, buttercream-colored topcoat of flour dusts the tidy production area. The woman who's been working LeJeune's warehouse store for 20 years is no good at small talk, but she'll devote three minutes to printing your receipt by hand.
Sixty-seven-year-old Carlita Epperson has been making fudge for 40 years. While that makes her a teenager in LeJeune years, her chewy chocolate pecan fudge smacks of a mature technique; her Gourmet Nilla Goodies, made with white chocolate, nuts, cereal and potato sticks, is a fantastic mingling of sweet and salt -- better than Reese's Pieces jumbled with movie popcorn.
In 1997, Epperson and her husband, Ohrie, moved the family fudge recipe and everything else from their hometown in Missouri to Baton Rouge, where their son-in-law had pioneered a church. Within short season the whole family was pitching in to make a go of Maw Maw Carlie's Fine Fudge.
"Paw Paw Carlie has come a long way," Epperson says of her husband. "His recipes in the past have been toast and microwave popcorn. Now his job is that he measures the original ingredients. I line the pans that they're molded in, and we both cook, and he cleans. That's the way it goes."
Epperson cuts each batch of fudge by hand the old-fashioned way. "I think it makes me feel good to do the cutting on a marble slab," she says.
Needless to say, few register foods carry the sentimental weight -- certainly not the cool packaging -- of a Hubig's fried pie. Not yet, anyway. Still, like Hubig's and Zapp's, many lesser-known snack foods produced locally are supported by stories of hard work and entrepreneurial spirit that are nearly as powerful as their pull on your impulse control.
Who's Who in Register Food
Southern Sweet Potato Pie Company, $.99 for a 3-inch pie; $6 for a 9-inch pie. Found at Walgreen Drug Stores, Langenstein's, News & Brews, Robert Fresh Market, Casey Jones Supermarket. (504) 328-2221.
Cup of Gold, $1.99. Found at Elmwood Fitness Center, Bayou Bicycle, Body Art, Foodies Kitchen, Smoothie King. (504) 364-4488.
LeJeune's Ginger Cake, $1.29 ($1 at the bakery). Found at a multitude of convenience and grocery stores, especially where Hubig's pies are sold. (337) 276-5690.
Maw Maw Carlie's Fine Fudge, $1.49. Found at Robert Fresh Market, Fisherman's Cove Seafood, Deanie's Seafood Market, Luigi's Fine Food, Foodies Kitchen. (225) 445-4303.
Editor's note: All prices provided are average prices. Real prices vary.