Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 7, 2012

Great pie quest reveals life’s artistry


CNHI

— By Mike Hinkle

CNHI News Service

Let’s get off politics, disasters and crime for awhile and talk about something — wonderful. Let’s talk about pie.

I know the simple act of closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and visualizing your favorite pie works wonders in calming the agitated spirit. I also know it’s almost impossible to carry on a heated argument and think about pie at the same time.

One of the best ways to end a painful verbal altercation is for one of the combatants to say, “Hey, why don’t we get some pie?”

Sharing a piece of pie and a good cup of coffee is a surefire way to start rebuilding burned bridges. Add a generous dose of friendly conversation to a piece of pie and you have the beginnings of a strong relational cement that can grow into a lifelong friendship.

Baking pie is more than the simple operation of combining ingredients. Baking pie, and doing it right, is a metaphor for a well-lived life. Properly baked pie is also a metaphor for the progress of civilization from savagery to cooperation and hopefully, on to refinement.

For the last year, I’ve traveled across America exploring small town cafés and out-of-the-way eateries where the pie makers’ art is preserved and esteemed.

This journey led to cranberry bogs of Massachusetts and Wisconsin where the bitter cranberry is tamed by association with sweet apples to produce an aromatic pie filled with contradictions. On the outer fringes of Florida’s Everglades, I encountered pie makers who claim to have the original recipe for the legendary Key lime pie.

I followed the peach, apricot and cherry harvests through fertile orchards in California where I learned the right fruit, harvested at the right time, prepared the right way, embraced by the right crust can produce “The Holy Grail” of fresh fruit pie.

In the primordial forests of Washington, venerable pie makers shared the secret of the rarest of blackberries; blackberries that can only be gathered by knowledgeable harvesters prepared to brave the insects, snakes and other unseen dangers that guard these remarkable forest delights.

These magical blackberries have flavor much richer than other blackberry varieties and they can be enjoyed without the distractions of those tiny seeds.

All preconceptions about apple pie based on a lifetime of superficial pleasures disappeared when I tasted pie made from fresh apples peeled and prepared by an artist who knew how to tease and coax his apples into achieving perfect consistency and flavor.

I found the flavor of pecan pie enhanced when I learned the pecans that went into the making were lovingly gathered by the pie maker herself from trees nurtured by her family for generations.

I learned the fraternity of America’s great pie makers is in decline. Assembly lines turning out thousands of cheap pies produced according to rigid corporate recipes are pushing the real artists into extinction.

Those who take pride in combining the finest ingredients according to age-old family recipes cannot compete with giant concerns flooding supermarket shelves with dull pies that can be bought for $3.69 each.

When I set out on this journey in October 2011, I’d planned to announce a winner. I now know that would be impossible. All those dedicated bakers who preserve and exalt the pie makers’ art deserve to be recognized and esteemed.

Even so, we decided to single out one particular pie maker for commendation, not because he makes the best pie, but because his café offers such a unique combination of experiences. Think spurs and spandex. Here’s what I mean.

On the great divide in New Mexico, we discovered “The Good Pie Café.” Mike Rawl, the proprietor regards each pie as a work of art. He combines the most flavorful local produce — pinon nuts, green peppers, cherries, apples and red chilis — in unconventional recipes to produce pies not only beautiful to behold, but remarkable in taste and aroma.

We were amazed at the unusual blending of ingredients matched by the unusual collection of patrons. Working cowboys, still wearing spurs, stopped in for a quick lunch and sat beside Danish bicyclists wearing spandex riding garb who came in for a brief rest in the middle of a thousand-mile ride.

Such an unusual pie eating social event could only happen at a place called Pie Town, N.M., of course.

Now let’s get back to politics. Take a bit of unsolicited advice. If your candidate lost the election, a piece of pie will make you feel better. If he wkn, have a piece of pie to celebrate. And be a sport. Offer a piece of pie to the loser.

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Mike Hinkle is a columnist for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.