Chairmen of the Gourd
3421 W. 44th St., Minneapolis; (612) 924-6013
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m. daily
1300 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis; (612) 825-2525
Hours: Monday-Friday 5:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; Saturday noon-1:00 am; Sunday noon-10:00 p.m.
I'll never forget where I was when the news hit, the earthshattering news. Would the world be the same? Ever again? No. Certainly, no. Maybe it hit me so hard because I was thinking of Martin Amis's words, from his memoir Experience, about that core human activity: "Cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead." Except, for me, it's more than that; it's cursing, yes, but it's cursing and shooing the cat and thinking of lunch. The inflexibility of it all, the vulnerable humanity--it's almost too deep for tears.
The day was October 17. The news was this: David Stelts, the manager of a hardware store in Leetonia, Ohio, had broken the world record at the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-Off. One thousand one hundred forty pounds.
"In the name of all that's holy," I cried to the roiling sky above, "holy water, Holy Week, holy rollers, holy mackerel, etc."--I get very specific in my agonies. I really do.--"When will the madness end?" It was then that I caught sight of myself in the glass: My eyes were as two black holes dug in palest snow. So that's why passersby had been trying to auger through for crappies. I drove them off and turned my thoughts to the murderous fields of Ohio, where so many--so many!--would doubtless now be sacrificed in pursuit of these vainglorious "world records." Because world-record pumpkins don't just grow on vines. I mean, of course they do, but at what cost? For every competition pumpkin that makes it to the spotlight, countless more die anonymously in the fields--bitter, lonely deaths! Suffering at the hands of weather, at the snoot of vine borers, at the maw of poorly piloted forklifts. Or, most cruel, exploding under the crushing weight of their own girth.
That famed elegy, "RIP", of the great Australian Pumpkinus Giganticus bard Tony Hickman, echoed in my ears:
"Here lies Betty
She blew out
Couldn't take anymore...
And there's old Mavis
The best of the lot
An unfortunate victim
Of blossom end rot...
I'll never forget Blossom
She met with bad luck
On the way to the weigh-off
She rolled off the truck.
It's not a pretty litany. Ever since 1996, when gardeners broke the elusive 1,000-pound pumpkin barrier, roadsides have been littered with the pulchritudinous corpses of so many Mavises, so many long-suffering Blossoms....Suddenly, I knew what I had to do. I had to dedicate my day to ensuring that these valiant vegetables didn't go unrecognized in this number-obsessed world of cold records and chilly weights. I had to, I had to eat a lot of pie. I had to.
I got on the horn. It wasn't Thanksgiving yet, so few places already had their pies. Mildred Pierce: No pumpkin pie. The Birchwood: Ditto. French Meadow. Cafe Latté. New French Bakery. Nope, nope, and nope. There was no pumpkin pie at too many places to name. But I remained undeterred, because I knew there was pumpkin pie, and plenty of it. In fact, that's exactly what they said when I called the folks at Pearson's. "Do you have any pumpkin pie?" I quavered. They didn't even need to check: "Plenty of it!" Plenty of it. Too deep for tears. At Hamlin's, the tiny lunch counter downtown, they answered, "Nope, but we can make you some for Monday!" Turtle Bread had some. So did the Highland Grill. And, most improbable, so did upscale southwestern fantasyland Bar Abilene. It was then I took my oath: Not one pumpkin would go down unrecognized in the Twin Cities this day! And also, for part of Monday!
Now, if you've never spent your day roaming around eating pumpkin pie, the beauty of this concoction--generally made simply from puréed pumpkin, cream or evaporated milk, eggs, sugar, and spices--is that it's incredibly easy. You'd have to work long and hard to make an inedible pumpkin pie. Perhaps this explains its longevity in American cuisine. People have been eating pumpkin pie at least since the second Thanksgiving in 1622.
I have decided that the pie at Turtle Bread must be the most like what the Pilgrims ate. It seems like the perfect thing to get one through a long winter when the only other amusements are thinking about putting a lot of fish in the ground with a lot of cornstalks come spring, freezing to death in the meantime, and feeling morally superior to the British. Turtle Bread serves a huge piece of pie ($3.25), easily four inches across, brown as a dun foal I knew once, called Dun Foal. More than any other pie I tasted, Turtle Bread's had an essential pumpkin taste, unobscured by sweeteners. It tastes like a vegetable--but in a good way, a way that tells you it's the real thing, not pumpkin-flavored custard or a gin fizz. The crust was a perfect counterpoint; it tasted strongly of butter, and the flaky, sweet, almost pastrylike consistency provided fanciful contrast to the earthy filling. Head baker Gregory B. Wayd says Turtle Bread will offer pumpkin pie through early January.
Next I went to Pearson's, where pie is one of the essential food groups, just after hot dish, soup, Swedish meatballs, and heart medicine. An old lady in the next booth noticed me grinning over my pie ($2.90), a squat, church-basement-looking offering with an attractively brown top. "You're happy today, aren't you?" she asked me. I sure was. The pie smelled strongly of nutmeg, and my thesis that even lackluster pumpkin pies are pretty good was holding up. She invited me to join her conversation circle, and we all soon concluded one is never too old to wear silver.
Zooming over to the Highland Grill, I discovered their version of pumpkin pie ($3.95) is more savory than sweet, the crust salty and mostly unsweetened, the pumpkin filling super-spicy. It was very good, in a manly, forthright, and burly sort of way. I only wished that instead of coffee I had gotten a beer to go with it, like the dark Summit Alt Bier they had on tap, or at least some rebar and a few hammers to flail.
I also tried Baker's Square, because I was curious how their pumpkin pie would stack up. They offered two versions, pumpkin ($1.99) and pumpkin cream ($2.99). No one bothered telling me that pumpkin cream pie is just the exact same pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top of it. Luckily, when they handed me two identical slices of pie, one with whipped cream, I pretty much figured it out. Then my server told me she had thought it odd when I ordered them both. I thought she was odd. We narrowed our eyes at each other and bided our time as the minutes ticked by, one minute into two, and then back to one, which surprised us both.
The only thing you need to know about Baker's Square is that you're not missing anything. The pumpkin pie here has a peculiar oily sheen and gelatinous texture, and there's nothing vegetal about it whatsoever. The nicest thing about these offerings is that you can really taste the cinnamon, the distinct hot note of it. And the way the pie on the table looked exactly, exactly like the pie in the photos on the table, down to the T-square perfect edges.
Later that night I had Bar Abilene's pumpkin pie (pictured), and it was a revelation. The restaurant that brought us real margaritas made with real lime juice was not content with the traditional version of pumpkin pie ($4.95). Instead, they've come up with one topped with caramelized corn flakes and pecans. Yeah, I know it sounds wacky, but it was truly excellent, and the corn flakes didn't contribute anything but crisp. Texture was a big part of the experience here; the pumpkin filling was nicely loose, allowing it to cling alternately to that sweet, nutty, cinnamon-laced topping or the perfectly crisp crust. Even after a day of tasting all the tricks that pumpkin piehood had to offer, this pie came out on top. Oddly, charmingly, my waitress, Bridget Harrington, had made the pie herself. She's a pie lover encouraged in her enthusiasms by the restaurant's kitchen. She's a talent, that kid, but all I can say is, Beware: Last time I was encouraged by a kitchen I woke up in Tijuana handcuffed to Dun Foal.
Monday at Hamlin's, owner Barry Hamlin had indeed made pumpkin pie ($2). When I slid onto a stool at the small central counter, I saw immediately that three other people were already feasting on the stuff. When mine came, it was simply beautiful: a clear, fresh orange-brown, the top dotted with little mahogany rings where bubbles had burst during baking. It had a sweet, clear flavor, and its crust was the Hamlin's classic flaky, lard version. Barry Hamlin says the key to that sweetness is maple syrup--he got the recipe from a Lioness cookbook (Hamlin collects ladies' auxiliary and church cookbooks). Sliding the little white plate away, I felt thoroughly satisfied, fulfilled, and secure in the knowledge I had done my part for all the blown-out giant pumpkins, albeit in a completely lazy and selfish way.
Only one question remains: Which pie was the best? Either the Bar Abilene or the Turtle Bread. They were both so very good, so very different. City slicker, country bumpkin. And did you ever notice how bumpkin rhymes with pumpkin? Poet Tony Hickman has. He has also noticed pumpkin rhymes with somethin'. And with tradition. Well, kind of, sort of. Oh, the fragile effervescence that is the relationship of humanity and pumpkinkind!
Other pies: Pearson's Edina Restaurant, 3808 W. 50th St., Minneapolis, (612) 927-4464; Highland Grill, 771 Cleveland Avenue S., St. Paul, (651) 690-1173; Bakers Square Restaurant and Pies, 2239 Ford Pkwy., (651) 698-0775; Hamlin's Coffee Shop, 512 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 333-3876.
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