Dessert In The Land Of Pie

Jun 15, 2015

Pie or cake?

From time to time, a southern magazine or newspaper will pose that question and invite readers to weigh in. That only goes to show how Southerners don’t know pie like they should.

Where I grew up in Central Illinois, the dessert question is this: What kind of pie shall you have? Ice cream is the consolation prize when all the pie is gone. Cake, banana pudding, and cheesecake aren’t in the running.

Middle America is ground zero for pie cafes. Any truck stop, any local restaurant worth its salt will serve pie, the homemade variety with crackly flour crust, no cheater’s graham cracker crust or a previously frozen variety. The meringue should foam as high as the clouds, the crust should flake on the fork just so. Cream pies should be chilled; fruit pie warmed and served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream ready to melt.

“Let’s stop and have pie,” was a call to high tea. “We’ll have lunch and pie too,” means the person was going all out to win your favor.

Why pie is the favorite is a mystery. Pies are not necessarily easier or cheaper to make and the crust can be a challenge. I remember learning how to make a rolled pie crust in the cooking unit in my home economics class. I remember my mother rolling out a lump of chilled pie dough, scraping enough off the edge for me to make a miniature pie with the scraps. I placed them in a small Banquet pie tin and Mom baked the two pies at the same time, a mother-daughter project.

One of my favorite childhood books was Rootie Kazootie and the Pineapple Pies, a tale about stolen pies and a tree that grows more. Obviously, Rootie lived in Illinois.

In Illinois, pie roots grow deep. My great-grandmother was famous for her custard pie. My grandmother’s pie baking attracted a stream of travelers and hoboes to the back window to beg for fresh pies cooling on the sill. No doubt hoboes had secretly marked her fence or mailbox to tell others: Stop Here! Great Pie!

The “pie safe,” a quintessential feature in a Midwestern farm kitchen, says something about the value of pie, not cake.       

Some restaurants considered pie to be the signature dish. Swartz Restaurant of Decatur, Illinois, was known in its day as a pie haven with more varieties than Baskin Robbins has ice cream. I still own one of their take-home pie pans, a souvenir of coconut meringue, my favorite.        

Recently, I visited Illinois and took care to scope out my old pie haunts to be sure I had my annual fix. I found it at the Rosebud Café in Pana—a delectable slice of coconut cream with thick meringue and toasted coconut on top, a tasty welcome home.