Read an Excerpt
When I bite into a slice of coconut cream pie at Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery, in Staunton, Virginia, I know where I am. One taste tells me with extraordinary smooth and rich flavors that take me home--or what I'd like home to be--a place of warmth and comfort where mothers and grandmothers fawn over me with delicious temptations from the oven. "One more slice, honey. Everything will be all right." Another bite and I absolutely believe it. That is the magic and glory of pie.
Pie takes you home even when you're sitting at a table in a restaurant that seats 250 and serves half a million meals a year. Even the waitresses buzzing around, the countless murmuring conversations, and the clanking of dishes and silverware don't detract from the ultimate pie experience. No food conjures images of home and hearth the way that pie does.
Pie is center stage when you walk into Mrs. Rowe's Staunton eatery, one of the most successful family-owned restaurants in the state of Virginia, a family business since 1947. Glass cases brim with puffy meringues, some dotted generously with chocolate chips, some just nicely browned, enticing eaters to wonder what delicious secrets lie beneath the sugary mounds. Often passing glances turn into stares as the hostess attempts to get people seated.
"What kind of pie is that?" one man wants to know. "Lemon meringue? Coconut Cream? Chocolate? Butterscotch?"
Answer: all of the above.
Pie. Some are born to make it; it's in the flick of their wrist, the intuitive touch in the tips of their fingers, and exacting instincts about how it should taste, look, smell, and even feel in the mouth.
Mildred Rowe was one of those people, blessed with sensitive, practiced hands and an extraordinary palate. She gladly filled the role of "Pie Lady," a nickname her customers gave her. Her green eyes sparkled, her hands went to her hips, and a smile spread across her face. "If you want some of that blackberry pie, you'd better order it now." Knowing that the specialty, seasonal pies would go fast, Mildred advised her customers to order dessert before anything else--just one of her personal touches that made customers feel special. Of course, that it was good for business did not escape her.
Mildred's extraordinary pies became legendary. Even as she earned the title of the undisputed "Queen of Pie" in the Shenandoah Valley, and maybe the state, she never took her role for granted. She was always seeking better recipes, better ingredients, and better financial success, balancing good food, reasonable prices, and staff management with the need to earn a living.
Now that Mildred is gone, her family and staff carry on. They strive for balance and efficiency in a constantly fluctuating business environment. Now the balancing act includes holding true to Mildred's vision while meeting the growing demands of over half a million increasingly younger customers each year.
Pie is one of the mainstays that has allowed the business to expand. Mildred once served slices of coconut cream, strawberry rhubarb, or chocolate pie to restaurant customers exclusively. Then, seeing a business opportunity, she began to sell whole pies to other local restaurants. At least four restaurants now buy whole pies from Mrs. Rowe's. Whole pies are also sold to locals on a regular basis, especially around the winter holidays.
The homemade pies Mildred made famous remain the most popular dessert at her restaurant. Throughout much of the country, pie is passé, having given way to fancy desserts like mousse, crème brûlée, and the inevitable biscotti lining coffee shop counters. But at Mrs. Rowe's, in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, pie has never gone out of fashion.
Maybe it's the way the valley is wedged between the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge, but change takes its time here, where folks still make a date for pie and a plain cup of coffee. With its paneled walls, homey green-checked placemats and menus, Windsor chairs, and lacy curtains, it's the kind of establishment that provides the perfect backdrop for catching up with family and friends. And if customers are lucky, Tootie McLear, an employee of thirty-five years, will be perched behind the cash register to fill them in on the weather and the latest local news--or she'll just smile and look pretty.
Mike DiGrassie, Mrs. Rowe's son and heir, and the general manager and owner of Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery, moves around behind the counter, watching over the food as it comes out of the kitchen much the same way his mother did (except she sat on a stool). One minute he's at the register helping out, the next he's flying into the kitchen, and the next he's packing up a bag of Mrs. Rowe's delicious cookies to go.
Mrs. Rowe's restaurant business has more than doubled in the years since her death. Mike, his wife Mary Lou, and their son Aaron created M & M Management, which is the umbrella organization for all of their interests. Not only does Mike manage two restaurants--the newer one is Mrs. Rowe's Country Buffet in Mount Crawford--he has also expanded the business to include three cafeterias at local businesses and a catering company. Mary Lou, who manages the burgeoning catering arm, says its most requested desserts are the mini-pies. Mike, Mary Lou, and Aaron are passionate about the family business and about keeping up the quality of the food, especially the pie--mini or not.
Pie is just as popular at Mrs. Rowe's Country Buffet, located in the middle of Virginia's Mennonite community, as it is at Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery. The pies stand on their own island, across from the long buffet tables of sweet sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, lima beans, fried chicken, and other American fare. The pies offer a cascade of color, from the deep brown of chocolate to the light tan of peanut butter, and from the golden hues of custards and lemon pies to the red, purple, and yellow shades of fruit-filled pies with juices spilling out the side. Already sliced, these pies sinfully lure innocent passersby. "We have customers who eat three or four slices of pie every time they come in," says Susan Simmons, once the kitchen manager at the buffet, who now works for the catering branch. "It's incredible, but true."
Mrs. Rowe's Country Buffet is located off Interstate 81, twenty miles north of the Staunton restaurant. Aaron DiGrassie, Mike's son and Mildred's grandson, is the general manager. A chef by training, he stays in the kitchen, either overseeing the cooking and baking or doing it himself. His wife, Nicole, a new mother of the DiGrassies' only grandchild, is the business manager.
At Mrs. Rowe's Country Buffet, travelers get a real slice of Shenandoah Valley life alongside their slice of pie. While the restaurant is popular with locals who live contemporary lives, it is also a favorite with some Old Order Mennonites. The ladies wear white prayer caps and modest, simple dresses. The men also wear plain outfits. Some are family farmers. Some drive automobiles, while others depend on a horse and buggy. They all enjoy eating pie at Mrs. Rowe's Country Buffet. They feel welcome in the down-home country atmosphere, where cookie jars line the walls and silk flowers adorn every table.
This book includes several Mennonite pies, most notably the shoofly pie, which reflects the Pennsylvania German influence in Virginia. The Mennonites are keepers of Pennsylvania German foodways because of their general shunning of modern conveniences like electricity and therefore refrigerators. Today, Old Order Mennonites, the strictest group within the religion, still have no electricity. As a result, the recipes have changed little over the years since the mid-1700s, when the Shenandoah Valley's Mennonite population, masters of this pie, came down from Pennsylvania to Virginia, where land was cheaper and more plentiful. Shoofly pie became a traditional treat in this part of the South, along with a few other pies, including raisin and sour cream and raisin.
This book also includes a regional recipe that might surprise some readers: the Old-Fashioned Monterey Maple Syrup Pie. Although most people think of states like Vermont when they think of maple syrup, Virginia has its own sweet stock of it, especially in the "Little Switzerland" of Monterey, in Highland County. Southerners have been tapping maple trees for generations--and often getting a head start on their Northern neighbors. They can start tapping in January or February, whereas Northern tappers must wait until March.
Of course, this book also contains many of the signature pies of Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery, including a few classics that first appeared in Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley. And finally, this book features some "attic classics"--recipes discovered in hand-scribbled notebooks and dusty recipe boxes, published for the first time in these pages. Bertha, Mildred's sister, who chronicled the family recipes, had a notebook that was especially fruitful. Willard Rowe, Mildred's second husband, also kept a small black notebook full of recipes and restaurant management notes, which yielded recipes including his namesake Willard's Chocolate Pie.
Defining a vast and diverse region by its pie was a daunting task. I am merely a writer intrigued with Southern food and its stories. I searched and searched for a definition of "Southern" pie that spoke to me and rang true in my heart. Southern cook, baker, and cookbook author extraordinaire, Damon Lee Fowler, penned a definition of Southern baking in New Southern Baking: Classic Flavors for Today's Cook. I think it's a perfect description of "Southern" pie: "Its strength and beauty, like so much of the South's rich jazz, blues, country, and gospel music traditions, lies in its blending."
Hallelujah, and please pass me another slice.
Pie Tips from Mrs. Rowe's Bakers and Our Recipe Tester, Kate
• For pies with a top crust, use an egg wash to create a nice golden brown hue.
• If you're going to fill a pie shell with a cooked filling, prick the crust with a fork to keep it from bulging up in the middle. This will help keep the shell level in the bottom and on the sides.
• Fruit pies have a tendency to run over, so always place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet for baking. It's a good idea to do this for all pies--just in case.
• Chill all rolled dough; the resting time lets the gluten relax. Cold dough is less likely to shrink as it bakes. The dough will hold its shape, then the fat melts and produces steam pockets, which make it flaky. So, cold dough + hot oven = flaky, nonshrinking crust.
• Let frozen pies stand at room temperature for five minutes before cutting.
• Custard fillings continue to cook when the pie is taken out of the oven, so don't overdo it.
• Pies are usually best served at room temperature (except for frozen and cold pies, of course). You can refrigerate them to preserve them longer, but remove them from the refrigerator about an hour before mealtime to create a more fresh-baked quality.
• To keep the crust from shrinking or bubbling during prebaking or parbaking, place a sheet of parchment on the pie crust and weight it down with dry beans or pie weights.
• The amount of liquid needed in a pie crust can depend on the weather. On a dry day you need more, on a wet day you need less. So try putting in one-half to two-thirds of the total amount of liquid, then see where the dough is and add more liquid as needed in tiny increments.
Mrs. Rowe's Baking Tips
• Always read the recipe through first, checking to see if you have all of the ingredients. Assemble the ingredients and utensils.
• Margarine may be substituted for butter, but it's no substitute for flavor.
• Eggs give more volume when used at room temperature. Large eggs weigh about 2 ounces. If small eggs are used when large eggs are called for, the batter won't be the right consistency. Always use large eggs for the recipes in this book. When the recipe calls for separating eggs, the whites should be beaten until very stiff before folding them into the batter; then fold them in gently, just until there are no remaining patches of white.
• To measure dry ingredients, heap the ingredient in the cup or spoon, then level with the back of a knife. When measuring flour, don't shake the cup, as this can pack in the flour and add as much as an extra tablespoon or two of flour.
• Preheat the oven and always place pans in the center of the oven, on the center rack.