By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2001 Gourmet Magazine
OF ALL THE pie-eating destinations in all the world, Iowa may be the best. Its greatness is obvious in the jaw-dropping array of flawless entries at the State Fair in Des Moines each August. But Iowa is also a place where you can expect to eat excellent pie every day, in any place that has a small-town café—which is to say in every town between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
On a mission to eat America’s finest pie, we drove through the Hawkeye State in April. Torrential rain and twisters notwithstanding, we love road-tripping through this place in the spring. The smell of black-dirt farmland permeates the wind as crops sprout in plowed fields; just-born livestock crowd the grasslands, staying close to mothers’ teats; and farmers, shaking off the winter doldrums, make a point to suspend chores at midmorning and take a social trip to town.
In Sully (population 904), they meet at the Coffee Cup Cafe. As Jane walks into the little cinder-block luncheonette just after 9 A.M., an ad hoc convention of local farmers is in process. Sixteen men in various seed-company caps sit over coffee, trading weather observations. Jane claims a table while Michael photographs the row of pickups, battered and worn from real farm use, mustered out front—an irresistible Roadfood image.
Jane blushes as the men wonder, very loudly, why that stranger is outside taking pictures of their trucks. “Don’t worry, that’s my husband. We’re just tourists. He likes to take pictures of stuff.” The men find it even more amusing when Michael sits down inside and shoots a close-up of each plate of pancakes and each piece of pie that arrives at our booth.
“I take pictures of everything I eat,” Michael says. At that, the men puff with pride. One even offers his (lovely) cinnamon bun for a portrait and a taste. “Bet they don’t have anything like this where you’re from,” he crows. And he is right.
At every meal, the Coffee Cup Café has freshly made pie available; many customers have a piece after breakfast … or for breakfast. It is not considered at all odd to eat pie at 7 A.M., and given the magnificence of these double-crust beauties, why should it be? No words we can conjure are dainty enough to describe the fragile, brittle crust, dusted with glistening sugar crystals—a crust that doesn’t so much break as shatter. We polish off two pieces of “cherryberry,” the flavor of the blackberries and dark cherries poised on a fine line between tart and sweet.
Few café desserts are worse than an inferior cream pie, but none are as splendid as an expertly made version like the banana cream at the Coffee Cup. A single piece quivers precariously as the waitress sets it down on the table, its yellow custard jiggling, the foamy white meringue wafting like just-spun cotton candy in a breeze.
Even more ridiculously weightless than Coffee Cup Café cream pie is a slice of the lemon chiffon at Stone’s, in Marshall-town. A town café since 1887, it is now renowned for its “mile-high pie”—a gelatinized wedge of lemon fluff that rises so far above its crust that each slice is approximately three times taller than it is wide and tends to topple over at first contact with a fork. Stone’s mile-high pie is unique, an apt dessert in a truly odd restaurant that offers “tender young beef heart with dressing” on its everyday menu, the front of which depicts a bar of music with the lyrics, “Under the viaduct … down by the vinegar works.”
Good crust is fundamental to good pie, and it has been our contention that one reason Iowa’s pies are the best is that it is America’s top pig-producing state, meaning there is a large supply of—and a long tradition of using—pure lard. As it turns out, the use of lard (or not) in a pie crust is a real culinary issue in these parts; we hope that Jane Miller, pie baker at Tony & Veda’s Family Restaurant, in Malvern, will forgive us for mentioning that she chooses not to use it in her crust. Miller’s crust is fine, but what’s special is her meringue, as tender as a warm marshmallow. “I fought with that meringue until I finally got it right,” she tells us. Her secret: powdered sugar rather than granulated, to make it extralight.
As fans of pop-culture extravagance, we first visited the town of Stanton in the 1970s to gaze upon its 40,000-gallon coffee pot. The pot—a water tank with a spout and handle added—is still perched on a 90-foot tower as a salute to native daughter Virginia Christine, who played “the kindly Swedish neighbor” in the Folgers coffee ads of the ’60s and ’70s. Stanton has a short main street and a café called Susie’s Kitchen, where “VALKOMMEN!” is stenciled on the wall to greet customers. Susie Johnson’s lace-edged Swedish pancakes with lingonberries are a memorable regional breakfast, but for the midday crowd, her café is simply the place to go for hot beef sandwiches and a piece of pie. Listed on the blackboard the day we stop in is the poetically named “fruit of the forest”: a mélange of apple, rhubarb, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries heaped into a crust that is as fine as pastry can be.
When we ask Johnson how she makes such incredibly light crust, she shrugs and says, “It’s just regular crust.”
And? We need to know more.
“Regular crust, made with lard,” is all she wants to say. When she learns we are writing a story, she gets excited … but not about pie. Instead, she directs us to Stanton’s newest roadside attraction: a gigantic cup and saucer to match the gigantic coffee pot. “Now, that is worth writing about!” she says. For Susie Johnson, as for so many Iowans, out-of-this-world pie is an everyday fact of life.
Coffee Cup Cafe
Tony & Verla’s Family Restaurant