I COLLECT excellent pie-eating experiences the way some people collect Fiestaware. Deep in the dark winter months when no local fresh fruit is in season, I stare into the fire and dream, not of loves long lost, but of that slab of cherry perfection I consumed seven years ago in a tiny town somewhere between Rochester and Iowa.
My ideal pie is a rustic one. Not for me those anemic, perfectionist crusts that speak of skill in the kitchen but deliver little satisfaction per bite. A crust should reveal the elbow grease that went into it. Brushed with egg white and crystalized with sugar, the top crust should stand up to over-baked fruit bubbling up through its pierced pastry. The bottom crust should make a satisfying thunk as my fork breaks through it. And never should a pie be refrigerated, microwaved, or minimized with ice cream.
One of the mysterious truths about great pie is that you have to go to an out-of-the-way small town to get it. Once you’re on Main Street, you have to ask some old farmer wearing a cap with ear flaps where to go for pie. Believe me, he’ll know.
About a year ago, I undertook a vision quest to find the best pie around. I started at the legendary Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin, where the waitresses wear Scandinavian dirndls and everything is rosemaled. Nook founder Helen Myhre says the first step to making a perfect pie is to buy a pig—home-rendered lard is her secret ingredient. I try not to think about this as we order lots of pie. My son, the expert on banana cream, says it’s the best he’s ever had. But I am mildly disappointed. The delicate crust is thin enough to inspire envy in any lefse-maker, but it makes me wistful for more substance. The thunk factor.
Weeks later, I load the car and bring my son to school in Iowa. I stop in Clear Lake, a farming town with baskets of flowers hanging from the street lights and an old-fashioned band shell in the park. At the Linden’s House Sandbar Restaurant—a bar added onto a delightful Victorian house—I order peach pie. The crust is pale and not buttery, but wonderfully flaky and light. The peaches are gems: truly ripe, not mushy, and tart and sweet in the same mouthful.
After a week or two of dieting, I take a friend’s recommendation and head for Jerry’s Other Place in Austin, Minnesota. Jerry’s does a brisk lunch business and has a case full of pies topped with mile-high meringue. To me, cream pie is pudding on graham crackers. I want crust, so I order pecan. It’s a respectable piece of pie, but not the stuff of which daydreams are made. My husband, Bill, raves about the lemon, so I steal a bite, and agree that the filling is satisfyingly smooth.
We head west to Trumble’s in Albert Lea. Twin dessert cases flank the entrance and revolving slices of pie beckon. The cherry pie has an enticing-looking sugary crust, but the filling is too jelly-like and the crust overly brown. Bill has another slice of lemon, which has a nice citrusy snap to the filling and meringue that is exceptionally creamy. We strike up a conversation with a fellow diner, and when Bill mentions we’re on a pie mission, she tells us to stop in Owatonna.
“Do we have to eat more pie today?” Bill whines.
We enter Owatonna on Broadway and drive to the charming town square. Across the street is the stunningly beautiful National Farmer’s Bank (now Norwest Bank) building designed by Louis A. Sullivan in 1906. Our destination, The Kitchen, is just down the street. Ruffled curtains trim the windows where diners and passersby wave back and forth at each other. Along with pie, there is green Jell-O in the pie case, which makes me hopeful.
“The ice cream pie is good,” says our waitress.
“That’s ice cream,” I say, grumpily. “That’s not pie.”
She raises one manicured eyebrow and brings me a slice of the poetically named “Fruits of Nature.” It has a terrific, flaky, thick-but-not-too-thick crust. Nature’s fruits turn out to be fresh strawberries, blackberries, and apples. I eat every speck of crust, even the very edges. The crust of Bill’s apple pie shows careful handiwork on its fluted edge, the apples are thin-sliced the way he likes them, and there is just enough cinnamon in the filling. We are happy pie eaters.
I continue my pie hunt, this time heading north. Existing 35W at Rush City, I find Historic Grant House, a vintage hotel and restaurant with floral wallpaper and golden woodwork. Two regulars don’t even give the waitress their order—she sees them arrive and pops out of the kitchen with plates of the meat loaf special. She confesses that some of their pie is homemade and is not. I have some that is: an exceptionally buttery-tasting crust that surpasses its canned-tasting filling.
I push north. A few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend Mary, describing herself as happily “pie-filled.” She told me to stop at the Scenic Café on Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors. “Incredible!” she promises.
I arrive. The Scenic is on the left, Lake Superior is on the right, and the parking lot is empty. But it is mid-day, mid-week. The place is low and long, paneled in pine, with lace-curtained windows framing the lake view. A man standing behind the cash register is wearing a tall chef’s hat. The blackboard advertises Mediterranean Vegetarian Ragout and a soup called Dutch Wild Rice Salmon with Toothsome Mushrooms. I wonder if the guy in the chef’s hat knows he’s on Highway 61, 13 miles out of Duluth. I have a fine chicken breast with apple chutney, followed by blackberry peach pie.
My pie arrives still steaming from the oven—a handsome, dense wedge that you could lift with one hand and take bites out of like an apple. The filling is a good two inches thick, the pastry crusted with sugar. The crust is pale gold, the edge fluted. The peaches and blackberries are tart and rich, not overwhelmed with sugar or corn starch, just left on their own to boil up their own sweetness. At that moment, it is the best pie I have had in my life. I catch the eye of the guy in the chef’s hat. I nod my head and smile. He smiles back, and retreats into the kitchen.
A hundred miles further north, The Pie Place sits just outside downtown Grand Marais. The glassed-in porch is chilly, so I sit inside the dining room. I have vegetarian soup, which is excellent, and a slab of homemade raisin rye bread. I order raspberry pie. The crust is superb, the fruit firm and tasty. It is great pie. There appears to be something in the North Shore air that agrees with pie bakers.
Back home again, I’m working on a story on state parks that causes me to phone a ranger at Tettegouche State Park, north of Silver Bay. I was just up there, I tell him. Researching pie.
Did you eat at the Rustic? He asks.
Nope, I admit.
Get back up here, he says gruffly. I mean it.
I go back up there with my son’s hockey team, which is playing a tournament nearby. Between games, I pack a load of 11-year-olds who smell like hamsters into my car and head for the Rustic Inn Café, a remodeled log cabin. Beth Sullivan and her husband run the place. Beth bakes the pies. We have a table of hungry skaters, so we order everything. Soon, pie plates have multiplied along the center of a long table and we are all sharing. French apple. Strawberry rhubarb. Lemon Angel with meringue crust. Chocolate with a baked crust, meringue with cinnamon, melted chocolate chips, whipped cream with cinnamon, and chocolate cream. In the summer, Beth bakes 16 varieties a day. The Lemon Angel is a hands-down favorite, but all are terrific. The strawberry rhubarb is sassy and light with an expert, flaky crust. More excellent North Shore pie.
I’m done with my pie story when I head north again for my biannual stay at the East Bay Hotel in Grand Marais. Laura, the night desk clerk, is as hilariously funny as a standup comic, and I lean on the front desk for an hour, hearing the local news. When I mention my pie story to Laura, she off-handedly suggests I try the East Bay pie. I step over Belle, the yellow lab who sleeps in the middle of the lobby floor, and walk into the restaurant for dinner. Tonight is Mexican night, and there is someone speaking Spanish in the kitchen. Dinner is outstanding: fresh tortillas, sizzling rice, hot and fragrant spices. After such a meal, pie seems wrong, and I think I’ll skip it. But then I’ll have to face Laura. So I order: rhubarb.
It is flawless. The crust is pale gold, not pasty and pale, not overdone and brown. It is flaky and light, even along the fluted edge where it is folded over itself. It holds the fruit firmly and tastes of sweet butter. The rhubarb is redolent of summer, and is fresh, juicy, and red. With each forkful, sugar from the crusts sprinkles gently onto the filling. There it is. The most excellent, most wonderful, most perfect pie. My life boils down to this moment, to this simple joy, to me, sitting in a dining room overlooking Lake Superior, alone at a table for two, with this slice of pie. I am glad I have no dinner companion. I want to be alone with my pie.
This appeared in Minnesota Monthly, October 1999.