While just a few regular customers were left parked on their stools at Peggy’s Airport Cafe at about 7pm on Tuesday, Nancy Burley’s workday wasn’t nearly done in a kitchen upstairs in back of the building. Nancy, the owner of the restaurant, lifted a giant mixing bowl and carried on a decades-old tradition.
Nancy’s day began at noon and wouldn’t be done until after 2 a.m., she said. She planned for a similar schedule the next day. That’s how it has to be to cook a couple hundred pies in just a few days to fulfill Thanksgiving pie orders. It’s her busiest week of the year by far. She bakes 23 kinds of the restaurant’s signature sweet.
Good thing she enjoys it. “It’s a special holiday,” she said. “And it is a business. You have to make a living somehow.”
Nancy, who was born in Taiwan, came to Alaska with her husband Mike in 1984. It was ten years ago that she became the primary caretaker of the scratched up metal recipe box that sits on top the fridge. Inside, there must be a hundred yellowed, handwritten pie recipes. She’s had to transcribe some that were hard to read, she says, and in one case find a substitute ingredient for one that is no longer available.
Nancy says two women get credit for the Peggy’s pie tradition. It’s June Bowen’s handwriting on most of those recipe cards, she says. June baked pies there for 35 years before she retired a decade ago. The second is, of course, Margaret “Peggy” Lott, who opened the landmark diner across from Merrill Field in the 1940s. Lott died in 2006 at age 103.
Despite the task at hand, Nancy is much more friendly than frazzled. Dozens of pies were set out to cool on the tables in the next room, but many more empty crusts were stacked on the counters in the kitchen.
Nancy pulled a sweet potato pie out of the oven and rested it on the tips of her fingers, without the protection of an oven mitt, as she carried it to the other room. She didn’t even wince. She smiled and said she’s used to it.