meet along the way: Shirley K. Davis

This story was originally published as “The Pie Angel: Local woman blesses people with homemade food and hospitality” in the May 2023 issue of The Best Years.

Photo by Megan Casasola

It seems everyone who knows Shirley K. Davis has a story about the ways the “Pie Angel” has touched their life. For example, she cooked for disaster relief workers for a couple of weeks when a tornado destroyed much of Caruthersville, Mo., in 2006. She donates baskets of her homemade chocolate turtles for fundraising auctions, which have been known to bring in $400 a batch. She gives away cookies to fairgoers while working at the gates of the Semo District Fair. She gives homemade baked goods to her physical therapist, servers at local restaurants and meteorologist Laura Wibbenmeyer, on her last day at KFVS12. She quit her job to care for a former coworker’s mother-in-law until the mother-in-law passed away.

And those are just some of the stories people tell.

“I’ve never known anybody like her. And I’m sincere in that,” says Shirley’s friend Rose Wilson, whom Shirley met approximately seven years ago at the casino in Cape Girardeau when Shirley gave a piece of German chocolate cake she’d made for another friend’s birthday to Wilson. “She’s one of the most caring people I’ve ever known in my life. Just anybody and everybody, she’s always caring and wanting to do something for somebody. … Doesn’t make any difference who it is, they’re invited to her home.”

One day, Shirley made chocolate pies and took them to the feed store for one of the worker’s wives who was sick. Soon after receiving the pies, the woman wrote a thank you letter to Shirley and addressed it to “My Pie Angel” on the envelope. The nickname stuck.

Originally from Caruthersville, Shirley is the oldest of 10 children. She remembers making her first cake by herself when she was in the third grade; when she was 11 or 12 years old, she joined 4-H and learned how to can fruits and vegetables. In her high school home economics class, she received the Crisco Award and the Betty Crocker Award.

“My mom was a real good cook. She cooked country food and stuff in the garden,” Shirley says. “And I don’t know, I just started cooking.”

Throughout her life, Shirley has worked a number of jobs, including chopping cotton, cooking at a drive-in theater and threshing milo beans. She has worked at a bank, cotton classing office and flower shop. She worked in energy assistance for Family Services, as a general clerk at the Missouri Department of Conservation and doing demos at Sam’s Club. She worked at the license bureau and in her dad’s grocery and liquor store. She also managed and cooked at the restaurant The Roundhouse for eight months and Shirley K’s for four years in Caruthersville. And she cooked for her family while raising three children as a mother.

Her lifelong tenure in the kitchen is obvious: She has complete command of her kitchen and is calm while adding homemade dumplings into the pot and stirring them on the stove. As she cooks, she talks about the way she loves to go to auctions and is like one of her grandmothers who “never threw anything away,” how her son doesn’t eat sweets, and how hands were the first spatulas, while expertly scraping the side of a bowl with her fingers. Country music from the ‘90s plays on the radio in the background.

On this particular Friday evening, she is preparing to host one of her biweekly Family Nights at her home, in which people from Pemiscot County who have moved to Cape Girardeau County gather for a meal at her and her husband Jack’s home. The gathering began approximately a year ago when Shirley and Jack were eating with four of their friends one Thursday, and they suggested making it a weekly event.

It has since expanded to include people Shirley has worked with and their families, as well as her children’s friends and coworkers. Although there is usually an average of 15 to 20 people in attendance, on this night, there are approximately 30 people there. People of all ages are at the house, from children as young as two years old; talking and laughter fills the home.

Shirley grows or raises nearly all of the food she prepares, or trades for it locally. On the menu for the evening’s meal: poppy seed chicken, two types of ham, chicken and dumplings, salmon patties, asparagus, macaroni and cheese, salad, twice-baked potatoes and approximately eight desserts.

What does Davis love about hosting these gatherings?

“Just seeing them all and seeing them enjoy, and they eat and talk,” Davis says. “I try to fix something that everybody will like.”

Shirley loves flowers, and she and her son Jacob have a four-acre vegetable garden; at the end of each evening, guests are invited to get a plastic bag and go “grocery shopping” from Shirley’s shelves of canned goods in her basement. She also gives away eggs from her chickens.

Jack says he and Shirley both come from large families, which is what drives their desire to host gatherings in their home.

“If you’re around Shirley very long, you know that everybody she meets becomes a friend,” Jack says. “And it just begun as friendships, and it just keeps going, and all the sudden, we need to figure out what we’re going to do to have a social event, everybody get together, and we want our kids to know other kids, we want our grandkids to have a social environment. … You see the mixture. You’ve got people that’s rocket scientists and people that are laborers. When you walk in this door, everybody’s the same.”

Shirley and Jack’s daughter Amanda Davis helps cook the food at Family Nights. She remembers her mom cooking homemade lunches for her and her friends while they were in high school each Thursday and says her friends would start asking on Monday what her mom was making for them. This is how it always was at their house while she was growing up, she says.

“At night, there might be four of us, there might be 14. You just never knew who was coming in and out of the house and eating,” Amanda says. “It’s the same way here [at Family Night] — you walk in, and there’s food. … It’s just kind of like, you come out here, and you’re welcome. … Just kind of like everybody’s family.”

On Independence Day, the Davis family hosts a shrimp boil with an average attendance of 100 to 150 people. They also host a New Year’s party.

Brent Foster was Shirley’s son Jacob’s camp counselor when he was in middle school and became friends with the family through his younger brother’s and Jacob’s friendship as young adults. He says he attends Family Night every time it’s hosted and enjoys meeting new people at the events.

“People everywhere know about Shirley K’s cooking. She’s pretty famous,” Foster says. “The food brings you in, but the friends and the family keep you coming back.”