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.