U.S. Army and Navy nurses at the Santo Tomás civilian prison camp in the Philippines during the Second World War would have agreed; after months of near-starvation, they were freed by American G.I.s armed with rations of "liberation" cherry pies. The story, and the recipe, are found in Barbara Haber's history of American cooks, From Hardtack to Home Fries , culled from cookbooks in Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library. Haber reminds us that familiar food and shared recipes made the kitchen range home for displaced émigrés, bringing Aunt Sylvia's soul food to Harlem, Sacher Torte to Harvard Square, and ice cream and oranges to dusty railroad depots along the Santa Fe trail. The collections of these recipes became a species of batter-spattered belles-lettres. In 1923, Joseph Conrad, in an introduction to his wife's cookbook, praised such literary undertakings as "above suspicion," for their object "can conceivably be no other than to increase the happiness of mankind."
American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America's Back Roadsby Pascale Le Draoulec
"You know you're going on a quest for pie, but you may find something else entirely. Be prepared." These were the prophetic words uttered to journalist Pascale Le Draoulec as she began her cross-country journey along America's backroads. When offered a job in New York, she decided to drive rather than fly into her new life. As a food writer, she decided to turn an ordinary move into a culinary quest. She chose pie as her grail and guide, because, after all, what's more American than pie?
Crossing class and color lines, and spanning every state and variety of pie in the union (from Montana Huckleberry to Pennsylvania Shoo-Fly), the author discovered pie, real, homemade pie, has meaning for all of us. But in today's treadmill take-out world, our fast food nation, does pie still have a place? Le Draoulec's story, based on her adventure, will entertain readers as she seeks to answer this question. As she says herself, "I took the back roads across America looking for pie, and found an untouched slice of Americana."
About the Author:
Pascale Le Draoulec writes restaurant reviews for the Daily News. Her stories ran over the Gannett wire service and in USA Today. This is her first book. She lives in upstate New York.
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Braham (as in "graham cracker"), Minnesota
strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply
to the superiority of their women."
-- Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The obvious destination in Minnesota would have been Betty's in Duluth, practically world-famous for its pies. But I'd heard of a little town called Braham in east-central Minnesota, which hosts an annual Pie Day and boasts a giant mural of a deep-dish pie in the center of town.
I was curious about this small town's love affair with pie.
We could have bypassed Minneapolis altogether, but since we ere so close and had both been weaned on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, we thought we should at least try to find the famous intersection where Mary Richards tossed her wool hat in the air, maybe even fling our baseball caps in solidarity.
City centers can be so stark and depressing on Sundays, and Minneapolis was no exception. We drove around in circles, recalling favorite episodes, and wondering why it was that Mary never stood up to Mr. Grant when she was in his office, or how Rhoda could fit all of that furniture in her tiny studio apartment. We finally gave up and headed for Braham.
Garrison Keillor kept us entertained on the drive north. We particularly enjoyed a sketch on the myriad uses for duct tape, having just borrowed some from Paul Willis that morning to strap that darn glove-compartment door shut.
Braham (pop. 1,300) is so small, we had no troublefinding the mural painted on the side of the Tusen Tack store right where Main Avenue hits Route 60.
We parked across the street from the mural, and leaned against
Betty Blue to admire it from a distance. It was a big pie, all right. Berry, judging from the purple-red drippings. Ribbons of steam billowed from the tawny top crust, its edges coarsely crimped. The mural was bordered with heavy ceramic coffee cups, giving it a real diner feel. The painting was so absorbing and comforting, we barely noticed the elderly woman slowly pedaling past us on her squeaky three-speed bike. I caught her cherry-red tennis shoes in the comer of my eye.
"Excuse me, do you know anything about this mural?" I shouted after her. She made a big circle in the empty street and rode back toward us. I don't know if she was tickled by out-of-towners ogling her hometown mural or if she was just plain happy to be alive and exercising at the end of a glorious summer day, but she was beaming.
She introduced herself as Jerrie Aune, and she wore her Scandinavian ancestry in her high cheekbones, her thin-lipped smile, and the slight tilt of the head.
"Well, you do know you're in the homemade pie capital of Minnesota, don't you?"
She laughed demurely.
"It's Bra-ham, like the gra-ham cracker, she said. "Braaaaaaam.
I had been mispronouncing Braham since we first saw it on the map, giving it a mystical twist-as in Brahman.
"For more than fifty years," she said, "people driving from Minneapolis to Duluth have been taking the shortcut through Braham and stopping for pie at the Park Café."
Of course, I pointed out, it's not much of a shortcut if you stopped and ate a slice of pie at the café.
"No, I guess not," she agreed.
She popped the kickstand on her bike and faced the mural as we did, her hands on her hips.
Her father opened the café in 1946. It had changed hands several times since, but the "hands" have always made the pies from scratch to keep the café's reputation intact.
The Park Café was already closed for the night, she said, "but if you want to come to my house, I have all sorts of information about the town and the Pie Day festival."
So we climbed back in the car and, at 10 miles per hour, followed Jerrie across Route 107 (called Pie Tin Alley as it goes through Braham) pas t the old railroad tracks and to her quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Her husband, Herman, was reading the Sunday paper in the living room, and he didn't seem the least bit surprised that his wife could go out for her evening exercise and come back with two strangers. Jerrie poured us each a tall glass of cranberry juice and set out a tray of pecan-turtle cookies she kept in her freezer for surprise guests.
No sooner had we finished explaining our quest to the Aunes than Jerrie grabbed the phone and asked her friend Phyllis Londgren to come over.
"Phyllis is our own Barbara Walters," she explained. "She knows everything about Braham."
"But I have to warn you... she's very intense." I could hear Herman snicker from his recliner. "That Phyllis. She's something all right."
Herman had the most amazing way of looking at his wife. Miss Sweden could have walked into the living room in a bikini and stilettos, and Herman would barely notice. The two had met their senior year at Braham High School where Herman had gone on to become the music teacher and bandleader.
Herman knew what about Jerrie had caught his eye back in high school, but he wanted to know what had made us stop her on her bike.
"Those snappy red tennis shoes," I said. "If she hadn't been wearing them, we might have photographed the mural and forged on to South Dakota."
Herman crinkled his nose. "I really like those a lot, too," he said.
Then Herman excused himself to go find something he thought I might be interested in. He returned ten minutes (and three pecan turtles later) with the September 1956 issue of Ideals magazine, which contained the following Harriet Beecher Stowe excerpt on pie:
The pie is an English institution which planted on American soil forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species. Not merely the old traditional mince pie, but a thousand strictly American seedlings from that main stock, evinced the power of American housewives to adapt old institutions to new uses. Pumpkin pies, cranberry pies, huckleberry, cherry, green currant, peach, pear and plum, custard, apple, Marlborough pudding-pies with top crusts and pies without, pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around and otherwise varied, attested the boundless fertility of the feminine mind, when once let loose in a given direction.
Fancy the heat and vigor of the great pan formation, when Aunt Lois and Aunt Keziah and my mother and grandmother all in ecstasies of creative inspiration, ran, bustled and hurried, mixing, rolling, tasting, consulting, alternately setting us children to work when anything could be made of us and then chasing us all out of the kitchen when our misinformed childhood ventured to take too many liberties with sacred mysteries. Then out we would all fly at the kitchen door, like sparks from a blacksmith's window.
The doorbell rang and Phyllis Londgren blew in like a twister. Her arms were loaded down with history books, folders, pictures, and even official Braham pie tins -- as though she had been preparing for this moment for years.
Careful to pronounce Braham correctly, I asked Phyllis how the town had earned the title of pie capital of the state, particularly when lutefisk eaters across Minnesota speak so highly of Betty's Pies, off of old Highway 61, in Duluth.
The mere mention of Betty's made Phyllis bristle.
"Betty's may have good pies, but Braham is the pie capital," she said, and, in one long uninterrupted breath that would have put Harry Houdini to shame, recounted the story.
It all started when state officials launched a "Celebrate Minnesota" campaign to promote tourism across the state. They encouraged smaller communities to "brighten themselves up a little," put their best foot forward, even host an annual celebration of some sort. Since Braham had long been known for its-Park Café pies, Phyllis suggested at a civic meeting that the town host an annual Pie Day. The first festival was held on July 20, 1990. All the church ladies of Braham made pies by the dozen. There was a pie-eating contest for the kids. "It was all very garden-variety," Phyllis said.
About a year later, then- governor Rudy Perpich stopped into the Park Café unannounced, with his wife, after visiting a local rodeo. Perpich had made a campaign stop at the café once, and he'd remembered the pies.
Phyllis heard that the governor was in the house, as it were, and she raced over to the Park café. "I grabbed a pot of coffee and refilled his cup and then I sat down right next to him in the booth," she said.
"And that's when I told him, 'Governor, you should name Braham the Homemade Pie Capital of Minnesota!"
Phyllis pounded her fist on the table so hard that both Herman and the pecan turtles jumped. Phyllis popped one in her mouth,
"Jerrie, you're a regular Perle Mesta!" she said.
Because no one ever says no to Phyllis, the governor's official proclamation arrived in the mail within days and was immediately hung in the main dining room of the Park Café. Bolstered by its official status, the town's annual Pie Day just grew and grew until it finally required a committee to make preparations year-round.
A group of women named the Peach Ladies-all in their 70s and 80s -- are called in to peel and slice buckets of peaches for the event. Entertainers are flown in from Sweden, and competitive pie bakers travel from as far as Maine to participate in the various contests.
"It's gotten totally out of control," said Phyllis, beaming. Of course,with expansion have come problems.
A few years ago, the committee approved a "cow pie" contest, in which festivalgoers had to guess in which section of an open pasture a Holstein would leave, ahem, a cow pie.
"The Swansons would bring in a couple of their heifers, and then you'd have to wait all day for those cows to crap," Phyllis said, rolling her eyes. The event was shelved after three years. Herman snickered.
Pie Day has even had its first political scandal.
To celebrate and cement its new identity as the "pie capital," the people of Braham decided to put out a cookbook of prize-winning pie recipes in 1993. They solicited pie recipes from all over the state to compete in a number of categories. The clear winner in the custard-and-crearn pie category was the creamy peach pie "family" recipe submitted by a certain state senator. None of the judges noticed that the creamy peach pie, made with Jell-O, ice cream, and instant-pudding mix, was, in fact, absolutely peachless. The local press had a field day. What's more, the governor's "family" recipe had, in fact, come from the back of a General Foods package. The scandal erupted the same week said governor had been slapped with a paternity suit.
Phyllis insisted we meet with the pie committee at the Park Café early in the morning before leaving town. She would make sure Gary, the high school media center director, would be there. Gary was in charge of the pie-baking contest, she said, and "he's a very eligible bachelor." She winked at each of us.
Phyllis snapped a picture of us in front of our license plate. Then she handed me a soft-cover book the size of Webster's Dictionary, on the history of Braham -- a little something she threw together for Braham's centennial.
Our heads were spinning when we got in the car. As much as we loved Phyllis, we thought of calling up Garrison Keillor and suggesting another use for duct tape.
There were still about thirty minutes of daylight left, so, as soon as we got to the dreary Cambridge Imperial Motel about 12 miles away, we put on our roller blades and headed toward the local high school, where we bladed in circles in the newly paved parking lot to work off our day's intake of calories: pork sausage and pecan turtles,
I stayed up far too late reading about the history of Braham, with characters straight out of Lake Wobegon.
My favorite was J. Wallace Rock, an undertaker and fireman who also served as city clerk for thirty-four years. Rock always did his books in the mortuary or the fire hall. I learned that the "pooper-scooper" was invented in Braham, and that Braham was also the birthplace of the first handheld egg beater.
I stayed up so late reading that I managed to sleep right through the alarm. The committee was waiting for us at the café, tapping pencils, at a U-shaped table when we came screeching in, without our morning coffee, "like sparks from a blacksmith's window."
We were surprised at how serious everyone was about Pie Day, especially Gary the Bachelor, a real stickler about the entry rules for the contest. The event was only a couple of weeks away, and, dearly, nerves were a tad frayed.
What's more, the committee was on pins and needles, waiting to hear if their request to have a highway sign posted on Route 107 promoting Braham as Minnesota's pie capital had been approved.
No one was more serious than pie baker Lola Nebel. Though not on the committee herself, Lola had gotten a call from Phyllis late the night before, urging her to attend our breakfast meeting.
Lola had been the first-prize winner at the very first pie-baking contest at the first Pie Day in 1990. She had since gone on to win several state-fair sweepstakes and had even recently been a finalist in the Pillsbury bake-off held in San Francisco.
"I guess I've always been kind of competitive," she said, her hands resting on her stack of winning recipes.
Marilyn McGriff, a local historian and librarian, was much more low-key, even though she is the one who is ultimately responsible for getting five hundred pies baked for Pie Day each year,
"Basically, we've got it down to a science now," said Marilyn. "As long as you're breathing, you can volunteer to help make pies for Pie Day."
The pies are prepared over a three-day period, with volunteers working three shifts a day, mixing the dough, then pressing the crust in tins, then filling the shells and layering them with a top crust. The pies are baked off in the high school cafeteria -- about eighty at a time. Most of the pies are fruit: rhubarb, raspberry, cranberry, and apple, and many combinations thereof, she said, because the local health inspector, rightly, had "issues" with cream pies being sold on the sidewalk unrefrigerated.
Pies are so integral to the identity of Braham that when Marilyn visits local schools on Community Day, she always brings a justbaked pie to illustrate the meaning of community.
"I tell the children that every community needs a good foundation and infrastructure -- that's the crust," she said. "The filling is made up of churches, businesses, banks, and schools -- all the things that make a community work.
"The fluted or crimped edges are more decorative than essential," she went on. "They are the trees on Main Avenue, the gazebo in Freedom Park. They are what makes a community a much more pleasant place to live."
The banana cream pie at the Park Café is what makes Braham such a nice place to live, a customer at the counter chimed in. "We never go without it," said owner Ellie Grell.
Kris and I ordered a slice of fresh rhubarb with a Dutch-crumb topping instead. It looked healthier, and maybe we needed some tartness to transition back to the real world.
When I returned to New York, there were two pieces of mail with a Braham postmark waiting for me. One was Lola Nobel's recipe for Rosy Raspberry Pear pie, which follows. The other was a copy of the July 22 issue of the Star, Braham's local newspaper, with the words "See Page 4" scribbled on the front page.
I turned to Page 4 and saw this screaming headline:
"Pie Book Author to Include Braham in U.S. Pie Book."
Beneath the headline was a very large picture of Kris and me, standing next to Betty Blue, in the Aunes' driveway. Jerrie and Herman are standing close together, on their lawn, off to the side. Oddly enough, the setting sun is hitting the IBRK4PIE license plate in such a way that is glows.
"Your license plate looks like a halo, " Phyllis Londgren had scribbled on a Post-it note affixed to the article, which was, I'm guessing, written by her, although it had no byline.
The article related our visit-blow-by-blow -- and ended with this paragraph:
By the time they left Braham, around noon, they had a vast amount of information regarding the role pie plays in east central Minnesota. There are many in Braham who are looking forward to the book. The author had not arrived at a title yet, but Braham hopes to be one of the first communities to know when the book is available as well as its title ...
You betcha, Phyllis.American Pie. Copyright © by Pascale Le Draoulec. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Pascale Le Draoulec is the restaurant critic for the New York Daily News. Her stories ran over the Gannett wire service and in USA Today among other magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York City. This is her first book.
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