Blueberry or apple, peanut butter or lemon meringue, there's nothing quite like a slice of pie. Jenny Offill searches for the perfect crust, the ultimate filling, the pie to end all pies
Everyone was jealous of me. I was going to spend an entire week eating pie. Apple pie, lemon pie, chocolate pie, pecan pie, and anything else the good people of the South had to offer. It seemed a patriotic thing to do. Every good American loves pie. Mark Twain included five kinds of pie in the list of things he missed most about America while abroad. Jack Kerouac sang its praises, too, claiming it was nutritious and delicious, and helped him think big thoughts. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe agreed, calling it "an English institution which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species."
My own pie obsession had burst forth in college, a reaction to a miserable summer spent working at a health food restaurant where the only pie in sight was tofu cream. I took up driving aimlessly through the North Carolina countryside. Three simple rules governed my back-road rambles: no highways, no fixed destinations, lots of pie. I soon learned all the signs of a good pie place: pickup trucks in the parking lot, handwritten specials, a steady stream of customers in elastic-waist pants.
When college ended, so did my weekly pie quests. I moved to San Francisco, then New York. Both pie deserts. One night, after a dispiriting stop at a diner that served chocolate mousse and crème brûlée, but no pie, I decided the time had come to set off in search of pie.
My plan was simple but ingenious: get a car, drive around, look for pie, eat pie, repeat. What could possibly go wrong?And yet, as I would soon learn, a successful pie tourist needs more than just enthusiasm and an attractive wardrobe of elastic-waist pants. Also required: patience, stamina, and a high tolerance for Christian radio.
My first stop was Nashville, the home of country music and, I suspected, a lot of good pie. On my way to the hotel, I spotted a likely prospect, a yellow building with a sign that said PIE WAGON—MEAT & 3, 6-2. ("6-2" indicated their ridiculously short hours of business. Luckily, I'd arrived just in time.) The parking lot was full. I counted three cop cars and, amazingly, a Rolls-Royce. Already I felt like a pie genius.
I went inside. The Pie Wagon was not much to look at, but the woman behind the counter was smiling and every table was taken, all signs of a good meat-and-three. Meat-and-threes get their name from the food they serve: the meat of the day and a choice of three vegetables. Macaroni and cheese, baked apples, and Jell-O count as vegetables. I picked out my "vegetables" and asked for pie.
"We don't have pie," the cashier said. "How about some nice banana pudding?"
Baffled, I looked around the room. Sure enough, everyone was eating pudding.
"Do you ever have pie?" I asked.
"On occasion," she said. "If someone cares to make one."
Clearly, the Pie Wagon was criminally misnamed. Seeing my long face, the cashier suggested kindly that they might have pie tomorrow.
A voice from the kitchen called out to correct her: "Bread pudding, more likely."
I tried not to be disheartened, but after two more "no pie/just banana pudding" debacles, I was starting to panic. Had Nashville, God forbid, become a pieless town?Happily, that night, my faith in the city was restored when I ventured into Rotier's, a 58-year-old meat-and-three in an old plantation carriage house. I sat at the counter and ordered the house specialty, lemon pie. It had a graham-cracker crust, fabulous tart filling, and an inch or two of Cool Whip on the top.
Two pies later, I headed out of Nashville, looking for the country café of my dreams. I soon found it in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, home of the charming Bell Buckle Café. The Heinke family bought the place in 1993 and now host their own radio show fromthere every Saturday, featuring the best bluegrass talent in the area. They have their own record label too, named (you guessed it) Bell Buckle Records. The food—smoked barbecue, vinegar slaw, and a fantastic coconut meringue pie—draws in even non-music lovers. I got an extra slice to go.
The Bell Buckle Café seemed a hard act to beat, but I had high hopes for my next stop: the Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle, Georgia. This restaurant, housed in a revamped mansion, is famous for its massive buffet of Dixie delicaciessuch as sweet potato casserole and fried green tomatoes. It's also famous for its desserts, any of which could kill you in your tracks. There were three kinds of pie alone. The dining room was filled with lively retirees, flirting and gossiping. One of them chided me for taking only one piece of pie, explaining that the rule at Blue Willow is that everyone must have at least two desserts. As a matter of journalistic integrity, I felt compelled to sample them all—pecan, sweet potato, and peanut butter. Each was great, but for the last piece of peanut butter pie I would have knocked over an old lady or two.
My pie enthusiasm was at an all-time high, yet the next leg of my tour proved surprisingly arduous. I drove and drove only to find a variety of picturesque country cafés either boarded up or, worse, pieless. I consoled myself with the lovely scenery and the eternal promises of Christian radio. Wispy cotton blew across the road as I sped along, eyes peeled for signs of pie.
I finally reached Columbia, South Carolina, at dusk and drove straight to Main Street. My plan was to have dinner at the Capitol, a 24-hour diner famous for its crackerjack house band of fiddling and yodeling local politicians. Everything I'd heard about the place sounded great—counters and booths unchanged since the fifties, pictures of the state capitol on the walls—but when I got there the restaurant looked closed. I spotted an ominous sign in the window. The Capitol wasn't just closed for the day. It had closed for good. Once again, I hit the highway, this time heading for Savannah.
The only thing that tempered my disappointment was the thought that at the next stop I wouldn't have to eat pie alone. I'd convinced my friend Laura to drive up from Florida and join me. She suggested we drive to Georgetown, South Carolina, a coastal pie wonderland, she claimed. It was a beautiful drive and the promise of amazing pie seemed right around the corner. On the way, we spied a shack with an EATS sign and a full lot. "This is it," Laura said. Inside, there were red-checked tablecloths and a long shelf filled with jars of chowchow, a kind of spicy pickled relish that usually indicates a serious Southern cook is in the kitchen. "We'll just have some pie," I said. The waitress pointed to a box on top of the refrigerator. "All we've got is tiramisù," she said.
By the time we got to Georgetown, all the pie places were closed. I was despondent, but Laura kept a level head. She's an anthropologist who specializes in rural Florida culture. She has no trouble talking to strangers and ferreting out important info—social customs, religious beliefs, where the hell to find some pie. Twenty minutes later, we were eating two towns over at Lee's Inlet, a filling station turned restaurant that has been in business since 1948. Everyone comes for the amazing seafood, but the homemade pie is just as good. There were three kinds the night we went. We only tried two, chocolate-chip walnut and coconut-cream meringue, because Laura, a good Floridian, refused to eat Key lime pie outside her home state.
Then it was back to Savannah for another day of pie scouting. At Nita's Place, letters from ecstatic customers were the only decorations on the wall except for a pair of giant praying hands. At least half of the letters seemed to be about the sweet potato pie, and we could see why.
The last stop on the pie tour was Montgomery, Alabama, and it was there that my trials ended and I finally found pie heaven, at a little place called Martin's. The unassuming wood-paneled dining room was homey and inviting. I flagged down a waitress and asked if they had any pie. "Oh, do we!" she said, laughing. "What kind you want?" Then she reeled off 10 kinds that I could get either by the slice or whole. I chose butterscotch meringue and was thrilled to see the meringue was sky-high and the crust was flaky with that goodness that can only come from lard. On my way out, I ordered a whole chocolate meringue to go, still giddy from the sheer ease of it.
At the airport, an old lady offered to watch my pie, then winked. A businessman next to me began to rhapsodize about his late mother's cherry pie. The president came on TV and started talking about the war. "What America needs is courage," he said. "What America needs is faith." I looked around the waiting room at the motley crew of travelers eyeing my box. Clearly, what America needs is pie.
Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things.
Bell Buckle Café SLICE OF PIE $2.49; MEAT-AND-THREE FOR TWO $17, 16 RAILROAD SQUARE, BELL BUCKLE, TENN.; 931/389-9693
Blue Willow Inn BUFFET DINNER FOR TWO $36. 294 N. CHEROKEE RD., SOCIAL CIRCLE, GA.; 800/552-8813 OR 770/464-2131
Lee's Inlet SLICE OF PIE $4.50; DINNER FOR TWO $50. 4460 HWY. 17, MURRELL'S INLET, S.C.; 843/651-2881
Nita's Place SLICE OF PIE $1.50; BUFFET DINNER FOR TWO $18. 129 E. BROUGHTON ST., SAVANNAH, GA.; 912/238-8233
Martin's Restaurant SLICE OF PIE $2.25; MEAT-AND-THREE FOR TWO $15. 1796 CARTER HILL RD., MONTGOMERY, ALA.; 334/265-1767
Pie Wagon The Pie Wagon has moved and now has pie. SLICE OF PIE $1.55; LUNCH FOR TWO $13. 1302 DIVISION ST.; NASHVILLE, TENN.; 615/256-5893
Rotier's SLICE OF PIE $2.50; MEAT-AND-THREE FOR TWO $14.50. 2413 ELLISTON PLACE, NASHVILLE, TENN.; 615/327-9892
This old-school “meat and three” has been a local mainstay since the 1930’s. The chicken’s batter shatters with every crunchy bite. Be sure to order a side of corn muffins, crisp on the outside, fluffy, buttery, and piping hot on the inside.
Blue Willow Inn
Housed within a Greek Revival mansion in the small town of Social Circle, the Blue Willow Inn is a traditional Southern, buffet-style restaurant. The Blue Willow rose to fame after an exemplary review from columnist/humorist Lewis Grizzard and has regularly been lauded as one of the region's best Southern restaurants by publications like Travel+Leisure and Southern Living. The interior has a plantation feel, and the burgundy and green dining rooms feature antique tables and chairs, crystal chandeliers, and Blue Willow china place settings. The buffet features four to five meats, including the restaurant’s famous fried chicken, along with sides like collard greens, mashed potatoes, soups, and chicken and dumplings.