And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
I realize that I haven’t blogged in AGES (this is my first post in 2016, for crying out loud!). The reasons are discussed in the last paragraph. However, I WILL be returning to (semi) regular blogging this summer. Sometimes life gets in the way, but one of my passions is sharing the Good News about the Culinary Geography of America’s Midwest, aka Flyover States. In the meantime, Happy Pi(e) Day! March 14 (3.14, get it?) is Pi(e) Day!
One Pie Discovery in Ohio
To say that the exterior of Henry’s Restaurant is unassuming would be generous, complimentary even. It’s rather more weathered, more punched by life, more beaten, with an almost defiant air challenging people to enter. Step inside and you’re transported into a mainstay of rural agricultural life—the local café or diner, where the worn décor is heavy on Americana and scratches, with waitresses probably named Darlene or Thelma, and the loyal and local clientele is met with conversation that probably began a visit ago and is being picked up again (you can imagine the ends of these coda’ed with “To Be Continued”). Henry’s Restaurant is one of these gems, the kind popularized by Road Food pioneers Jane and Michael Stern.
And Just How Does One Discover a Place Like Henry’s?
I Googled “best pies in Ohio” after my boyfriend told me about a place west of Columbus on US-40 (the National Road, for those interested in historical transportation and geography) that supposedly, allegedly, mythically served Really. Good. Pie. Google, that technological advance that refuses to let undiscovered jewels remain undiscovered, yielded Henry’s Restaurant in the small agricultural village of West Jefferson. Intrepid explorers that we are, the two of us decided to make a pilgrimage to Henry’s for a sampling of those pies.
The Place and the Ambience
Henry’s is easy to miss. And miss it we did at first, the boyfriend saying “that’s it” as we drove past it. Henry’s is not in the middle of the town, but along the outskirts, where its neighbors are agricultural fields and warehouses. A U-turn at the next intersection and then a left turn into the crumbling concrete parking lot brought us to what we hoped would be a pie heaven, pie mecca, pie nirvana. Pie, it seems, does elicit near religious feelings for many (and while its origins aren’t American, it has become a contender for the National Dessert).
To put it bluntly, the place looks like a dump or decrepit aging service station on the outside—peeling, faded, yellow paint on a pair of garage doors. The same peeling, faded yellow paint adorned the main part of the structure, the one housing the restaurant. Two doors, one with the requisite “Use Other Door” posting and the cardboard “Yes, We’re Open” and neon “Open” signs beckoned to us to come in. This place could have looked desolate and forbidding, but the half-dozen vehicles in the lot gave us hope. We figured the place was reasonably popular. So we walked in, looking for lunch and pie.
The décor was honest and cheap and its ten or so tables were half-filled with customers. It’s the sort of place that holds their annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner on March 6 because “we like to do things early here”, as per the waitress. We’d arrived after the presumed lunch “rush”, as it was by now 1:40 in the afternoon. With eyes like a hawk spotting a hapless squirrel, I homed in on the whiteboard listing the day’s eight pies. I may or may not have been drooling as I recited the list to the Boyfriend (henceforth referred to as “BF”). Then the lone waitress called out to me, saying “Honey, that list ain’t up to date”. She erased four of the eight options (bye bye apple pie, sayonara coconut crème), leaving us to choose between rhubarb, strawberry rhubarb, chocolate crème, and lemon meringue. Well, no problem—narrowing my options probably made it somewhat easier to decide (oh, the paradox of choice). This is the type of place that will run out of certain flavors, so it might be best to get there early; indeed, they ran out of two more varieties by the time BF and I got ours.
People can make meals out of pie and I was sorely tempted to do just that. But rather than embarrass myself by ordering two pieces of pie (and wanting three), I opted for a cheeseburger before pie (as did the BF, though we did get different toppings). The burger was fine, but that’s not what I was there for (and that’s also not the subject of this post). So Step 2 of the ordering process was at hand. Given that we wanted to try each other’s pies, we ruled out the rhubarb and strawberry-rhubarb combination. BF picked rhubarb (and I KNEW he would). I opted for lemon meringue. I’d been thinking about making a lemon meringue pie for about three or four years and still hadn’t gotten around to it. But I hadn’t eaten one in years and I was ready! BF had the opportunity to get a scoop of ice cream with his (the fruit pies do have a la mode as an option), but he declined. As we waited for our food, we enjoyed the entertainment, namely the other patrons. One kid, who must’ve been all of nine years old, busily darted around the dining area and kitchen, clearing tables and taking them back to be washed. Some high school students (all eating pie!) joked around with each other. And a “Mr. Fisher”, clearly an honored and regular guest, was spoken to by both the waitress and a couple of other customers.
And then they arrived. Substantial slices to go with our decaf coffees. The rhubarb pie was delicious—sprightly tart, yet sweet, without being overly gloppy (as can be the case with so many fruit pies).1 The flaky crust enhanced the fruit, yielding a delicious flavor explosion in one’s mouth. On to the lemon meringue, with its billow of browned egg-white and sugar topping. The meringue was soft, not tough, and the lemon shone through in the custard base without being overly tart. Yes, the Pie Gods had graced us with dessert blessings.
The Scoop of Ice Cream that Got Away and the Conversations of Others
As noted earlier, ice cream can be served on top of a slice of fruit pie. Two people at another table opted for the dairy enhancement. As the overworked waitress brought the pies to the table, an almost flawlessly spherical ball of vanilla fell off one pie slice onto the floor. She set the pie pieces down and then chatted with her customers for a bit, joking about the ice cream.
Enter stage left. The young boy walked in through the door into the dining room, intently looking at something that was not the floor. BF watched him, saying “he’s going to step right into it”. So we observed silently, waiting for the inevitable. Then then inevitable became the evitable. Into the ice cream he trod, perfectly centering his step into the middle of the scoop. He glanced down, appearing slightly dumbfounded, before continuing on his way into the kitchen, not bothering to wipe his shoe. That was some of the entertainment!
We got to enjoy our pies with Act Two of the entertainment—eavesdropping in on the conversations of others. We (the collective, societal “we”) often listen to exchanges other people make, since, given the volume at which some folks talk, it may be difficult to avoid. Usually these are fairly dull, ordinary affairs. But a couple of elderly friends (one male, one female) about a table or two away from us bantered about, discussing a particular cable channel (Me TV) that specializes in old, very old, television shows. A sample of what we overheard:
Woman: Do you ever watch that Me TV channel? I like that one.
Woman: They have all the old shows. I like The Andy Griffith Show. Of course, I’ve probably seen all of them.
Man: I haven’t seen them all. Of course, I’m getting so old that I forget them, so maybe they just seem new to me.
Woman: Now I’m not a Trump person, but I really don’t like how Fox News is treating him.
Man: Uh huh.
Woman: He’s running his campaign fair and square.
Man: Uh huh.
Will We Return?
The short answer is “of course”. I mean, there are more pie varieties to be sampled. Next time we’ll probably try to get there early enough to be able to select from the entire pie list. And maybe then I WILL have two pieces of pie for lunch!
And Now for the Temporary Goodbye
Okay, I haven’t blogged in months. My job has me a lot busier than normal (typically busy anyway, but this academic year seems like I’m an order of magnitude busier), and my weekends are pretty booked (for some delightful personal reasons). So (unless I announce something on Facebook), I won’t be getting back to a regular posting schedule until sometime after the semester ends (yes, folks, I’m an academic). I look forward to getting around to more blog posts about the Joys of Culinary Discovery and Geography in America’s Overlooked Flyover States! See you later!
1 Gloppiness and a rubbery texture are a sign that the pie fillings came in a big industrial-sized can.