Heaven Sent, Via Kentucky

I am fortunate to have not lost many friends over the years. There was a rash of deadly car crashes in high school, reckless kids gone almost before they began, but since then things have pretty much been quiet. With the exception, that is, of one of my dearest friends — a Southern gentleman named Dann Byck.

Dann at Byck’s Department Store in Louisville, 1977

Dann would bristle at that description of him, which is exactly why I use it. He had a good sense of humor. We met at a coffee joint on a snooty street in Santa Monica where we would both sometimes sit in the mornings and watch the beautiful Range Rover mothers push their babies past in Italian-made Peg Perego strollers. He was some 30-plus years my senior, but we found common delight in coffee, literature, sushi, the New York Times, dim sum and beautiful Range Rover mothers pushing their babies past in Italian-made Peg Perego strollers.

Dann hailed from Louisville, Kentucky, where he enjoyed a bit of renown. His family had owned a chain of department stores there, and he had co-founded The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. He was once married to a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and had produced Broadway plays and worked with Robert Altman. One day he asked to read a manuscript for an unpublished novel I’d written, and in addition to my friend became my champion. He introduced me to agents who promised me the sun and moon. I received neither, but I had a good friend.

Dann eventually moved back to Kentucky to be closer to his children and grandchildren. He rented a carriage house and we would exchange an email each morning. It was our way of continuing our morning coffees. At the end of each email, he would sign off: “And so it goes.” A line he’d borrowed from his friend, Kurt Vonnegut. Before he died, he had me writing a theatrical treatment for a one-man show of Vonnegut’s final book, “A Man Without a Country,” which he wanted to produce for Louisville’s Idea Festival, a cultural tradition in that city whose inception he’d been involved with.

One Louisville tradition he had little interest in was the Kentucky Derby. He’d been there and done that in an earlier life, he told me. But his first year back, on my birthday, I received a pie in the mail. On the box, it said, “Kern’s Kitchen Original Derby Pie” — a sinful convergence of dark chocolate and walnuts. Dann added instructions: “Make some whipped cream to serve with it.” I thanked him. And after I ate it, I thanked him more. “I’m not a pie guy,” I said. “But that was the best pie I’ve ever had!” And I told him to feel free to make a tradition of sending them. Which he did, and over the ensuing years I received several more.

And then one day, one year, I received an email from Dann with some bad news — they’d found cancer in his bladder. But they were treating it and were optimistic. He died not long after at a very young 72.

A slice of my tribute to Derby Pie, with vanilla bean whipped cream

In life, we tend to think our people and friendships will just always be there. Until one day, they’re not. The pies no longer come in the mail. So I figured out how to make my own approximation, which makes me feel connected to Dann still. I like to imagine him looking down on me — not always, mind you, but while I’m making a pie — a wide tobacco-stained toothy grin on his face.

And so it goes.

*   *   *

Kentucky-style chocolate walnut pie with vanilla bean whipped cream
serves 8 – 10

1 uncooked pie crust
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
1 stick butter, melted
1 oz. Kentucky bourbon
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup dark chocolate chips
1 tsp. flaky sea salt

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla pod

Preheat oven to 350. Mix together the flour and sugar in a large bowl. Fold in eggs, melted butter, vanilla and bourbon until smooth. Mix in walnuts, chocolate chips and salt.

Place the pie crust in a 9-inch pie tin, folding over at the edges. Pour pie filling into crust, and bake for 40 minutes until golden and smooth on top. Remove from oven and cool.

While the pie is cooling, make the whipped cream. Place cream in a bowl with sugar. Cut the half vanilla pod in half lengthwise, and using the back of a butter knife, scrape the tiny black seeds from inside into the cream. Using a hand blender, whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks, usually about 1 minute.

Serve the pie sliced with a dollop of whipped cream on top.

16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 00:17:16

    Sweet story…and PIE! Wow…that’s a decadent one! I’ll have to try it sometime


  2. Mom
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 00:37:39

    Yes, nice story, I believe I met him once and was also charmed.


  3. Michelle
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 02:02:10

    What a lovely tribute.


    • scolgin
      Nov 27, 2012 @ 02:44:45

      Ah, thanks Michelle! And what about the pie — authentic or what? 😉


      • Michelle
        Nov 27, 2012 @ 13:10:18

        Oh, absolutely! Must say, though, that I’ve always preferred a slice of plain old pecan pie. But, then, I don’t like bourbon or college basketball either, so many would say I’m not a real Kentuckian.

  4. The Kat and The Falling Leaves
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 04:12:12

    Great story!


  5. Greggie
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 05:49:26

    Very touching story and sounds like a delicious pie that even I might be able to make.I was in Louisville once many years ago and it was a lovely city.


  6. pal-O
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 18:42:57

    Friends are so important brother and you are a very important part of my life for so many reasons but simply because you know how to be a great friend that I cherish as long as I suffer air in my lungs. Much love & hugs, as you say. So it goes! pal-O


    • scolgin
      Nov 27, 2012 @ 18:49:48

      And you, too, my friend, are one of my heroes. Which is the best I can ever say about a friend. A toast to you and looking forward to the next time our eyes and hands meet for real. //sp


  7. g
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 01:17:26

    Dang, that sounds good!! And what a lovely person he sounds like. Such a loss.


  8. Peter Byck
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 20:46:56

    Sean, thanks for this beautiful and accurate portrait of my Dad. I love finding out things he’d done for folks that I never knew while he was around – sending you pies, loaning a Byck’s employee money for her child’s college application – the list grows. I’ve been told my grandmother, Dad’s mom, was the one people called when they needed bail money after they’d been arrested during civil rights protests in the 60s. Please keep these stories coming. They make missing him sweeter. Best, Peter


    • scolgin
      Nov 28, 2012 @ 21:29:52

      Thanks Peter. Like I said to Amy, I love seeing what you all are up to as well, I can see your dad in your faces and smiles and it keeps him alive for me. He was so proud of all you guys, each for individual reasons that he never tired of talking about. Love the story about his mom, and that doesn’t surprise me. All the best, //s


  9. Benjamin J Thompson (@ThompsonBenjami)
    Nov 29, 2012 @ 23:05:17

    I do not like sweets, generally preferring a cheese course and sherry. This year Christmas will be a wheel of Stilton, pears, and port. But, I adore Derby Pie. Somehow the richness of the nuts, chocolate, and pastry crust win me over. I may have to give it a go.


    • scolgin
      Nov 30, 2012 @ 00:34:02

      I’m the same way, Ben. And I don’t typically care for pie either. Don’t know what it is about DP, but I love it. (Especially with a big fluffy whipped cream.)


  10. Kelley
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 02:16:54

    My mother worked at Byck’s as a teenager in Saint Matthews. It holds very dear memories for her. I’m sad you lost your coffee buddy, but am happy to have read your entry.



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