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American 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.

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