I will go a long way for some good eats and I’ll go even farther for a good slice ‘o pie. But driving north of Duluth, MN takes the proverbial cake, er, pie. I carved out a little free time over the July 4th week and decided to pack up my little car and head north. My pal, Laurel, recently returned from Argentina is killing some time back in Minneapolis over the summer so I thought I’d hightail it up there, say hello and hear all about her trip to South America for the wine harvest. I also planned to see an old college pal and stop at another friend’s cabin on the way home. But first … that pie.
Laurel was a great tour guide and knowing how much I enjoy an excellent food find, she went out of her way to show me the goods. High on the list was Betty’s Pie’s north of Duluth in Two Harbors. I had heard a lot about this place recently – it came highly recommended by three different people and I seemed to remember Jane & Michael Stern talking about it on a Splendid Table podcast. I was beyond excited to check it out but that was irrelevant; all I had to hear was the word “pie” and I was in. I love pie.
So we piled into her little car and headed up to Minnesota’s northshore on a little field trip. After a quick stop to say hello to her grandmother on the way, and another at this fabulous place called Tobie’s to inhale one of their famous caramel rolls, we hit Duluth for lunch at The North Waters Smokehaus. Another great stop – wow. This day was shaping up beautifully. Then it was up north for the highlight of my trip. Pie. Pie. And Pie!
It seems everyone in Minnesota knows about Betty’s Pie’s and has a story. Believe me, I asked and heard them all over those few days and the majority involved family camping trips and an eagerly anticipated stop at Betty’s on the way home. It’s been around since 1956 so I suppose they should have stories and now I have one too! We walked into the take-out area (there’s a lunchroom/counter as well) and I was immediately overwhelmed. There were 21 choices. Egad. What to order? Baked fruit pie or cream pie? Fruit or chocolate? What is Bumbleberry versus Great Lakes Crunch? (FYI … both mixed berry pies but great lakes has apples & rhubarb too.) What’s French Cream? What exactly are those 5-layers in the 5-layer pies? Oh and did I mention that Laurel can’t have dairy OR gluten so I was flying solo here?
The sweet teenage counter girls were everything you think lovely young midwestern girls should be. Friendly, helpful, fresh-faced, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They answered each one of my 572 questions politely, offered their own personal insight and helpfully guided me toward my ultimate decision … a slice of Bumbleberry (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry) AND a slice of Coconut Cream to go. You didn’t think I’d get out of there with just one slice did you? Oh please.
While we stood around waiting for my slices I noticed a small hand written sign on the counter … “blackberry peach mini pie shakes $3.” Whoa, what was this? The lovely counter girl informed us that it was a smaller version of their famous “pie shake.” What, pray tell, is a pie shake? Apparently, these geniuses take a vanilla shake, throw in a slice of pie – any pie – in the blender and hit “mix”. Yep, a slice ‘o pie in your shake. This is what happens when restaurant employees get bored. I had to have one. Considering it took me 30 minutes to decide on my first two slices, I asked the counter girls (now three of them) about their favorites. The leading contender was Banana Cream and, being a fan, I just went with it. The quickest decision I made all weekend.
Five minutes later, I had the most incredible thing I’ve ever tasted. A large extra creamy vanilla shake with hints of banana and the occasional chunk of pie crust. It was fantastic. One of those bug-eyed, disbelief, holy shit kind of moments. Laurel just laughed and took my word for it. I will now purposely save a piece of pie from here on out just for one of these. In fact, I’m already thinking what pies I can make just to smash-up in a shake. Perverse logic, I do realize, but raspberry is currently leading the pack.
I stumbled back to the car in a bit of a shocked happy stupor, and we headed back to “The Cities.” Being the good passenger/friend that I am, I promptly passed out in a delirious sugar coma. The two slices, packed safely in a bag at my feet, would have to wait until later.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to those slices right away but you know what? Even a day later, for breakfast, they were still damn good. The crust was flaky and even a bit savory/salty which was a nice contrast to the fillings (I suspect lard or shortening over butter and a quick glance at the shop’s cookbook while I was waiting confirmed this.) The Bumbleberry was dark and fruity, not overly gummy as some fruit pies can be, with the tussle of mixed berries resulting in a really tasty combination. In fact, I think “Bumbleberry” sounds so much more interesting than “mixed berry”, don’t you? The Coconut Cream was straight up comfort on a plate – rich, creamy, every so slightly coconut-y without the stringy, fakey taste or rubbery texture that can sometimes plague this variety. And the topping was real whipped cream, not some grotesque shelf stable crap (I’m convinced that fake stuff has melted Ziploc bags in the ingredient listing.)
My only regret is that Betty’s is so damn far from my home though they do mail order. Well only mail order pies; we’re on our own for the pie shakes.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: TWO FAT BUTTS UP! There are A LOT of fantastic things going on here. First and foremost, I was with a good, funny, wonderful friend. Who drove. That we drove a few hours for PIE not only cracks me up but illustrates how wonderful the people in my life are and how they understand me. Then there was the pie, oh sweet delicious pie. Add the unexpected surprise of a pie shake and it just may have been one of the best road trips inside I road trip that I’ve ever taken. So, make a pie shake and try not too think too hard about what’s in it. That’s not the point and will absolutely kill the spirit of the whole thing. You should appreciate and be able to laugh at the fact that you’re eating pie a la mode in a glass. And it’s good. Really really good.
UPDATE in the wee hours of 7/16/10 … I just saw a TV commercial for Dairy Queen celebrating the 25th anniversary of the blizzard with the special “Pecan Pie Blizzard.” Hmmmm…. it has “crispy pie crust, roasted caramel, pecans and creamy DQ soft serve.” Well damn. But here’s the thing … is it real Midwestern milk and cream in that shake? Is that pie homemade and freshly baked with a real lard crust? Oh, I think not my friends! I doubt it’s even pie as we know and love it. More like boxes of stuff, drop shipped from a distribution center somewhere in El Paso or Hartford or Boise. Pie crust in one box, caramel in another. After having a REAL pie shake, this just depresses me. I was also informed tonight by a group of co-workers that making a pie to put in a shake is an absurd waste of time. I gotta get new co-workers. I bet they’d like that blizzard thing.