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America's best pies
No road trip is complete without a taste of local pie. That's especially true in these places.
September 3, 2003: 11:09 AM EDT
By Paul Lukas, Money Magazine

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) - A few months back, a friend of mine hosted a TV party to watch the Kentucky Derby. So I did what any fan of regional Americana would do for such an occasion: I baked a derby pie.

Cherry pie at The Cherry Hut  
Cherry pie at The Cherry Hut in Beulah, Mich.

If you've never heard of derby pie -- a delicious chocolate-walnut confection -- then you've never lived in Kentucky, where it's a popular dessert. But maybe you're from Memphis, home of fried pie, or Mississippi, land of sweet potato pie. This regional variety is apt, because any way you slice it (ahem), pie is classically American, not just culinarily but culturally, mirroring our national diversity.

Indeed, as Pascale Le Draoulec noted last year in her excellent book, "American Pie," "There isn't a state in the union that doesn't boast a signature pie...Pie transcends all lines of race, color and class." And as the New York Times editorialized with only slight exaggeration in 1902, pie is "the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our national supremacy." Moreover, because pie takes time and craft to make, it has become a symbol of vanishing homespun virtues in our increasingly hectic lives.

With all this in mind, I set out on a pie quest. My goal was to find pie that reflected its native turf, and thereby America. I left out apple pie, which is more national than regional, but found plenty of local delicacies. Here are the highlights, listed from east to west.

Maine: Maine is blueberry country, and this year's crop should be coming in just about now, making this an ideal time to visit Moody's Diner (Rte. 1, Waldoboro; 207-832-7785), whose gorgeous neon sign has been attracting hungry travelers since 1934. The blueberry pie ranks with any in the state, the flaky crust a perfect foil for the fruity filling. And if Moody's is sold out of blueberry pie (it's been known to happen), the four-berry pie -- a blueberry-raspberry-strawberry-blackberry knockout -- makes an excellent backup.

Vermont: Most truck stops serve pie, but it's usually forgettable at best. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a better maple cream pie than the one served at the P&H Truckstop (Exit 17 off I-91, Wells River; 802-429-2141), a homey old-school road stop with a world-class bakery. The pie's custardy filling initially just tastes rich and smooth, but then the unmistakable flavor of Vermont maple syrup kicks in. It's addictive stuff, so get an extra slice to take in the car -- you'll be wanting more within a few miles.

Pennsylvania: Amish country is the home of shoofly pie, which features a crumbly brown-sugar topping over a molasses filling. An Amish favorite because it doesn't require refrigeration -- ideal for people who shun electricity -- it supposedly got its name because farm wives were forever shooing the flies attracted to the molasses as the pies cooled. Many yummy versions can be sampled at Lancaster's Central Market (King and Queen Sts., Lancaster; 717-291-4723; open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), the nation's oldest publicly owned farmers' market.

South Carolina: Although Georgia is the Peach State, peach production is significantly higher in neighboring South Carolina, where the Kudzu Bakery (120 King St., Georgetown; 843-546-1847) turns out the region's quintessential peach pie. The fruit filling sits in a huge scalloped shell of crust, which tastes like it was made with enough butter to keep a dairy farm working overtime. A crumble topping, heavy on the brown sugar, completes the single most delicious pie I sampled while researching this article. Unfortunately, peach season is over for this year but plan a stop next summer.

Florida: Although Key lime pie can now be found all over the country, the definitive place for it is still the Florida Keys. No place serves a better version than Manny & Isa's (Overseas Hwy., mile marker 81.6, Islamorada; 305-664-5019), a folksy diner that uses limes from a neighbor's tree. The result is creamy but firm, and agreeably tart, cool as an ocean breeze on a hot Florida day. The restaurant is now closed for renovations, but should be open again by mid-October.

Michigan: Cherries are so endemic to Northern Michigan culture that the airfield in Traverse City is actually called Cherry Capital Airport. Judging strictly on the culinary merits, the nod for the region's best cherry pie goes to the Grand Traverse Pie Co. (525 W. Front St., Traverse City; 231-922-7437), a gourmet-quality bakery that opened in 1996 and has quickly become the local gold standard. But my sentimental favorite is the Cherry Hut (216 N. Michigan Ave., Beulah; 231-882-4431), a family-run restaurant dating back to 1922, where the excellent pie comes topped with a generous dollop of Americana.

Sour cream raisin pie  
Sour cream raisin pie

Wisconsin: Most of Wisconsin was settled by Germans, but there are also pockets of Scandinavian heritage, most notably at the Norske Nook (13804 Seventh St., Osseo; 715-597-3688), an outstanding Norwegian bakery that makes scores of pies from scratch daily. The Nook's signature item is sour cream raisin pie, whose tangy custard filling is studded with plump raisins and topped with a mountain of meringue that defies gravity like a greaser's pompadour.

Montana: Huckleberries -- wild relatives of blueberries with a sharper taste and toothier seeds -- have resisted commercial cultivation and grow only in mountainous regions like northwestern Montana, where roadside shops sell huckleberry jam, huckleberry ice cream and, of course, huckleberry pie. Amid hokey theme emporiums with names like the Huckleberry Patch and Huckland, the area's most sublime intersection of crust and filling comes from the Spruce Park Cafe (10045 Hwy. 2, Coram; 406-387-5614), a nondescript diner attached to an Exxon station, whose topnotch pie makes a perfect capper to a day spent at nearby Glacier National Park.

Olallie berry pie  
Olallie berry pie at Duarte's Tavern

California: One of central California's lesser-known crops is the olallieberry (rhymes with "koala bear-y"), which tastes like a mix of blackberry and raspberry. It's great for pie, and the place to get it is Duarte's Tavern (202 Stage Rd., Pescadero; 650-879-0464;, a fourth-generation family restaurant. The crust is light and flaky, and the deep-burgundy filling is rich and tart -- first rate! Take home a jar of olallieberry jam too.

This listing isn't exhaustive, of course -- I didn't have time to track down the definitive banana cream, lemon meringue or pecan pie, among many others, or to visit Pie Town, N.M. (yes, that's really its name). While such diversity makes pie research a challenge, it surely bodes well for America: As that New York Times editorial noted, "No pie-eating people can ever be vanquished." Or famished.

Paul Lukas won $80 at that Kentucky Derby party, plus his pie was a big hit.  Top of page

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