Some may not know it, but I’ve been Kirk Watson quite a bit. What I mean is that I portrayed him in the Austin-definitive original production of “Keepin’ It Weird” at the ZACH Theatre. Playwright and Director Dave Steakley had all the actors review taped interviews and study our many characters like a science, memorizing every physical tell, every nuanced characteristic and cadence. So, let’s just say I took a minor bath in Kirkness in 2005 and 2006 for the two successful runs of that show. Every night for months I was Mayor Kirk—making people laugh about politics the way he does, perfecting his tilted smile and distinctive swagger, and discussing what the economy and future looked like for an Austin that embraced diversity and gay rights. (His predictions were right, by the way.) But as Kirked-up as I was, I still didn’t know anything about the damn pie. More on that in a moment.
Kirk had cancer as a younger man and says, “One of the gifts of cancer, if you will, is that you think differently about long-term goals and short-term goals. I focus on powerful short-term goals…ten important goals, in order, that align to a long-term vision. Yet, that long-term vision doesn’t distract me from the singular goal we’re working on next—particularly since we’re in session this year.” In a time of political battle lines, stalemates and challenges in Washington, now-Senator Kirk consistently achieves consensus on singular goals and gets things done for us and the great state of Texas. He can, and has, actually gotten people across the aisle to agree on things! He’s built a constituency into a community that supports him with great optimism and confidence. One of his gifts is that he truly understands common ground and the needed recipe to arrive there.
That political recipe, he says, can be as easy as pie. And as it turns out, he can also make a pretty badass actual pie, too: the lauded “Watson Cherry-O Cream Pie,” to be exact. Kirk, who grew up in Fort Worth, tells the story of how the pie and other family recipes have influenced his family and life. “My college roommate from Baylor went to Dallas to take the CPA exam and stayed with my mom. He got back and said my mom had made him the family Cherry-O pie. ‘She made me TWO PIES!’ he said. I was upset because she never made ME two of those pies! It is truly my favorite food. At every special occasion in my family, this was THE PIE.”
The voting body that is the Watson household has reached consensus on this pie, too, although some of the family voting base had previously been disenfranchised. There’s Liz, Kirk’s wife (whom he’s known since childhood). “Liz is a good cook,” Kirk says. “She makes this for my birthday pie.” This wasn’t always true, though. The pie’s rights were challenged because of some issues that arose among the family’s constituents. First of all, Kirk became a public figure and was concerned about…preserving his public figure. Then, their firstborn son, Preston, was diagnosed with diabetes, so sweets were scrutinized. Generally, this was the Pie Recession.
For the Watson Cherry-O Cream Pie to regain the attention it deserved, it would take a maverick, a game-changer, a leader, an outsider who could rewrite the pie rules. It would take second-born son, Cooper. Kirk describes the watershed moment in their family history. “Our other son, Cooper, was born years later, and when he was turning six, Liz made him the pie for the first time in his life…for his birthday. He took one bite of it and leveled a rather severe look at us that I’ll never forget and said, ‘HOW COME I’VE NEVER BEEN GIVEN THIS PIE BEFORE?’” The voters had spoken and pie was for all, so be it.
This morning in the Watson kitchen, Kirk’s singular objective is to make the Cherry-O Cream pie, but he can’t help but reflect about his life’s work, too. “In politics…and pie,” he says, “it’s important not to fear failure.” He pulls the mixing bowl close to him and continues. “It’s important to be biased towards action.” He plops a huge chunk of cream cheese into the bowl. “And it’s important to build new and different constituencies and throw away labels—labels get in the way of consensus.” He reads the label of the cream cheese then asks under his breath, “Does anybody but Philadelphia make cream cheese?” “It’s important not to think about perfection…about the agreement being perfect,” he continues. “It’s more about 84 percent right.” He loosely measures vanilla into his mixing bowl with approximately 84 percent accuracy. “84 percent is a great number relating to consensus,” he says. “When 84 percent of the deciders say, ‘Well, that’s not the way I would have done it, yet it could work,’ that’s a good measure of consensus. Also, I’ve got to admit I love that number 84 percent, because that’s the number that elected me!”
At this point, Liz walks up and whispers to Kirk, “Use the white plates in the cupboard, Honey.” Kirk pauses. Then he says, “She said that because if she hadn’t, we’d eat it the way we eat it around here: We put it in the fridge and anytime someone wants some they go take a spoonful of it, straight out of the pie. It’s kind of a communal pie.” He decides to skip the plates and hands us spoons, instead. And as we stand at the kitchen island scooping pie and humming our approval, our heads bob in agreement. We have indeed achieved consensus, and it tastes so damn good.
By Les McGehee • Photography by Melanie Grizzel