Montana's Best Pies
August 31, 2006
By Adrienne Newlon/for Montana Living
From Main Street to the county fair, seeking out the sweet things in life
When Pascale Le Draoulec set out on a road trip from San Francisco to New York, her quest was to explore her American roots.
She did it by exploring pie.
Le Draoulec was raised in California by French parents in a home steeped in French cuisine and culture. But she was in college before she tasted her first piece of pie. For her crosscountry trip, she decided that (aside from her trusty Volvo), pie would be the perfect vehicle for accessing people and stories small towns tended to otherwise keep to themselves. "Pie making reflects the characteristics of America's frontier spirit," notes Le Draoulec, "ingenuity, resilience, tenacity, competition." She found that the affection evoked by pie endeared her to the townsfolk in each place she passed through. They warmly and readily shared their stories and recipes with her, knowing that she shared their love of the all-American dessert.
One of Le Draoulec's favorite pies (huckleberry peach) came from Spruce Park Cafe, an unassuming diner attached to a gas station in Coram, Montana, near the entrance to Glacier National Park. The cafe is owned by Laura Hansen and Mary Lou Covey and is widely known for great pie. Hansen and Covey have been friends for over 25 years, and took over Spruce Park 10 years ago, from its previous owner. They put their own stamp on the cafe by upgrading the ingredients and preparation of the food, and made the restaurant non-smoking. They were told they were crazy to make such changes, but, like pioneer women before them, they were tenacious and committed to their ideals. Spruce Park is busy and popular to this day. Since the two women actually reside in Whitefish, they decided to open a new, more upscale place in December 2002. LouLa's was t their answer.
LouLa's is located in the Masonic Temple building in downtown Whitefish. It is airy and cozy at the same time - the warm-gold walls present local artwork, and there is a fireplace to warm the dining room and lend a homey affect.
As you approach the service counter at LouLa's, you are faced with a display case full of the same pies that have made Spruce Park Cafe famous. Berry-peach pies, apple-praline, lemon meringue, and three kinds of chocolate cream, cherry, pecan. The covered pies all have LouLa's trademark wide-latticed crust, sprinkled with crystalline sugar. Shortening is the essential ingredient for great crust, Laura says. "Whenever I go to Italy to visit my friends, I always bring flour and shortening, so I can make American pie. There's nothing like it over there. They just love it."
LouLa's colorful fruit pies are thickened with tapioca, and have a nice tart nature - ready to be complimented by ice cream or their homemade whipped cream. The cream pies, such as chocolate-cappuccino, are rich, high and silky. The apple-praline is a decadent version of a traditional apple pie, with pecan halves and dark sugar praline slathered over the top crust. The crusts are thin, nicely crimped, and tender. Pascale La Draoulec so loved the huckleberry-peach pie at the Spruce Park Cafe, she wrote about it in her book, American Pie: Slices of life (and pie) from America's back roads.
There is truly something special about pie that transcends cultural differences and culinary echelons. In her book, La Draoulec refers to the "sweet and sensible" aspect of pie.
Esther Chessin, owner of a Missoula bakery, Bernice's, has similar observations.
"Pie is healthy and naughty at the same time - pretty, but accessible" says Chessin. Bernice's team of bakers uses a pastry that is half butter, half shortening for the crust of Bernice's pies. This flaky and flavorful crust houses berry, pumpkin, lemon-meringue, apple-streusel and other, creatively filled pies, which are mingled with other delicious and eye-catching desserts that bring throngs of students and seasoned locals to Bernice's both day and night. "My customers play hard and they love to eat real desserts," she says.
You may come to Bernice's for the wonderful pie or cake, but you'll stay for the people. Bernice's is often crowded, but, not to worry, the community tables eliminate long waits for a seat. A recent winter morning found Phillip, a longtime regular, reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln and enjoying a cup of Bernice's strong and satisfying coffee. "There's no such thing as a private table here", Phillip said. "I come here every day to read or write, and maybe have a conversation with the folks at my table. It's a comforting thing - we need this more these days."
At Bernice's you'll find moms and small children bonding over the trials and joys of motherhood, students discussing politics or philosophy, or those in their 30s and up sharing their opinions on current events between bites of dessert or quiche. The bakery, itself, embodies many of the characteristics attributed to pie - hominess, warmth, sweetness, nostalgia.
The frontier spirit and ingenuity that Pascale Le Draoulec evokes in her writing are embodied in Nancy Garness of the Coffee Cup Cafe in Hamilton.
The Coffee Cup Cafe has been on the corner of South First Street since the 1930s and Garness has been making the pies there for the last 17 years. This hardworking, 50-year-old grandmother makes pies at Coffee Cup from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m., then goes home to watch her two grandsons so her daughter can work her shifts at the cafe. Garness started out washing dishes at the Coffee Cup and one day the baker quit. "They [the management] had their doubts about me at first," she says, but they let Garness do the baking. It didn't take long for her to prove herself a consummate pie maker.
Garness had learned to bake pies at the age of five at her grandmother's knee. She's never used recipes, and her pies are loved by everyone in town. "I have a touch with pie, I think, because my grandma taught me. She said "'If you're going to do it, do it right.' Making pie is my favorite part of the job." On a given day there are at least 12 to 15 different kinds of pie in the case at Coffee Cup.
Garness attributes her delicately flaked crusts to shortening and apple cider vinegar. Among the multitudes of fruit pies, she adds her own brand to the apple pies by using only McIntosh apples, which melt in your mouth with each subtly spiced bite. Her sour cream lemon is a big seller, and of course, in the Montana summer, huckleberry is king. Her favorite? "I really don't like it (pie) anymore," Garness laments. "Once in a great while, I'll get a craving for huckleberry, but that's about it."
Charlene Shannon of Great Falls also loves to bake. This 25-year old single mom took Best of Pie for her pecan pie at the Montana State Fair in Great Falls last year.
Shannon had entered her pecan pie in the fair only one other time, at age 19, and got first place. She thought her pie was a winner partly because she put stars all around the edge of the crust. She cut out the pie dough stars with a star-shaped toy of her daughter's - that frontier ingenuity again.
The three judges of the state fair pie competition looked at the crust, flavor and texture of filling, overall color and presentation. Shannon was stunned to find her pie in the winner's case with the best of pie ribbon on it, and she's proud of being the winner among many older, more seasoned pie makers. Her crust, inspired by a Martha Stewart recipe she once read, has a touch of sugar in the dough, and she uses all butter, which she swears is the way to go. Her pecan pie filling is no secret. "It's just the recipe off the Karo syrup bottle," she admits. "One day I ran out of dark syrup and had to make up the other half cup with light syrup."
Pie entails love and loyalty, both from the maker and the consumer: Those who love to make pie are hard and fast about what makes the best crust, how they crimp or decorate the edges, how sweet or tart the fruit fillings. Those who love to eat pie usually have a certain kind they are crazy for, one or two they always come back to. Mary Lou Covey's explanation of the halcyon affects of pie? "American pie is comfort, grandma's house, nurturing, and memories."
Bees have a genetic memory of where to go in the summer. "People have the same thing with pie," said LouLa's Laura Hansen, offering a more scientific analogy to why we always come back to the comfort food of pie.
Whether you go to LouLa's, Bernice's, The Coffee Cup Cafe, or to your mom's house, when you eat pie, you aren't just eating today's dessert. You're eating the culinary manifestation of American culture, history, and ingenuity that has been passed on for 200 years. Pie is, in every way, a true slice of life in Montana.