As I pulled into the Woodhaven Family Restaurant in Wilkes County, N.C., last Sunday, I was thinking about Moby Dick. You remember, Herman Melville’s monstrous mountain of a white whale that led the tortured Captain Ahab on an epic chase across stormy seas and into the depths of obsession.
Moby Dick came to mind Sunday because of the sign on the Woodhaven door — “Homemade pies.” Let me explain.
Ahab was powerless to forego his overwhelming need to pursue the white whale even if the chase carried him beyond any charted path. I, on the other hand, have criss-crossed this great country in search of a prize even more elusive than Moby Dick: the perfect pie. I believe that one attribute of a manly man is a life-long quest in pursuit of something too large to be acquired. In my case, it’s the perfect pie.
This calling is not as simple and glamorous as it sounds. A couple of years ago, in July, my hardy crew of experienced pie stalkers endured temperatures in excess of 110 degrees in crossing the California desert. We were happy to face this hardship in order to be in Barstow when the peach harvest got underway. We followed the harvest as it moved north and expanded to cover apricots, cherries and tangelos. Further up the coast, we were there when the legendary Marion County berries were being harvested in Oregon and Washington.
All along the route, we followed a strict set of demanding criteria to select locations where our elusive prey might emerge. Our search carried us to unlikely places like well-known chain restaurants. We sought out hard to reach “mom-and-pop” cafés where local pie appreciators told us we might find what we were looking for.
Most of the time, the results were heartbreaking; clumsy crust, runny fruit, unappetizing atmosphere, unskilled servers — any number of factors that leave the searcher yearning for perfection. But then, once in a while, the clouds would part and we’d catch the dreamy tastes and aromas of the possible.
The physical and emotional dangers are obvious. The indiscriminate, undisciplined pursuit of the perfect pie can pile tons of dangerous pounds on the expanding frame of the unwary seeker. Many’s the pie hound whose doctor has forced him to call off the search or die.
Then there’s the toll taken by facing day after day of disappointing pie. For the weak and faint hearted, the quest for the perfect pie can be brutal and disheartening. But some of us can never stop. We know it’s out there and we’ll never abandon the search.
That’s what pulled us into the Woodhaven parking lot last Sunday, an unlikely roadside café that promised homemade pie.
But the Woodhaven presented a danger we’d never encountered before. Before we could begin our interview about their pie, Miss Debbie, our waitress, threw us a curve ball. She got us off on the subject of liver mush. We were so amateurish in our handling of this unanticipated subject that practically every patron in the place joined in the tutorial singing the praises of liver mush — or liver pudding as the true devotees called it.
Before we could return to the real business of our visit, Miss Billie, the obvious Queen Mother of the Woodhaven, insisted we try some fried liver mush on the house. Maybe I’ll devote an entire column to liver mush in the future, but let’s get back to the pie.
The “pre-pie” build-up was splendid. Miss Billie told us their pies were baked each morning by a mysterious little mountain matron named Helen Elledge. Now allegedly deep into her 80s, Miss Helen rises before dawn every morning to craft her pies using ancient recipes that are closely-held clan secrets. Miss Billie and the others spoke of her with such reverence that we wondered if Miss Helen was real. She could have been some mysterious mountain legend that magically appeared with enchanted pies.
In a state of high excitement, I ordered butterscotch meringue. I’d never had butterscotch pie before. It came as close to perfection as any pie I’ve ever had. Who knows? If it had been served by the hand of Miss Helen herself, my quest might have been over. But, as Captain Ahab would understand, the search must continue.
Oh, by the way, Sept. 28 is the 118th anniversary of Herman Melville’s death. I don’t know about you, but I plan to have a slice of pie in his honor.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
Wed, September 23, 2009
by Michael Hinkle