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American Pie

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.

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