IN 1995, MY FAMILY DISCOVERED the Thunderbird Trading Post, a 1945 structure standing alone on the crest of the Continental Divide in Pie Town. Earlier, on a quest to see the Very Large Array, we had spied a sign for Pie Town and agreed to go there afterward. For pie! But when we got there, we found the trading post all but defunct. Only weeds prospered. A sign on the door read for sale.
Seeing lights through the screen door, we ventured inside. An elderly couple watched us as we rummaged through dusty, yellowed postcards. My curious mother asked why there was no pie. With a reply as dry as his personality, the old man stated, “Too much work.”
We bought a few mementos and drove back to our base camp. My mother, Mary Knapp, had baked many a pie in my grandmother’s café, in Illinois. I heard her mutter, to no one in particular, “If that were my pie shop … ”
We got home to Dallas but couldn’t forget that sad place with no pie. My then husband, Thomas Hripko, a talented writer and musician, wrote a bluesy ballad about Pie Town’s plight, “No More Pie in Pie Town.” One day, he broached the subject of buying the building. We called my mother, in California, and she jumped at the opportunity to put the pie back in Pie Town. There was just one problem: money.
Dallas bankers were soon ushering us out of their glitzy high-rise offices, trying not to laugh. In their defense, it was hard to find a map that showed Pie Town really existed. Finally, a third-generation banker from Socorro, 83 miles east of Pie Town, got it. He remembered going to Pie Town—for pie—when he was a child. We got the loan.
Thomas and I made many trips to New Mexico from Dallas to help Mom. My daughter, Wendi Rae, happily gave up a gap year in Chicago to work on the café. After a few rounds of proposing quirky names for the business, we decided on one that described what we were: modern-day Pie-O-Neers.
It took a vast amount of elbow grease, but we finally had a grand opening for the Pie-O-Neer, on November 11, 1995. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Pie Town once again had pie.
About a year later, Mom encountered health problems that forced her to move to a lower elevation. I decided to make a major life change to fill some really big shoes.
Wendi Rae and I put Mom on speed dial, racked up enormous long-distance bills (this was before cell phones!), and headed into a rough transition. In a few years, we gave up on serving diner-style meals and focused solely on pie. With that, we hit our sweet spot. Crowds came, stories were written, and even a documentary film was made.
Why was pie such a powerful draw? I spent a good part of the next quarter-century trying to figure that out. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but my special calling is talking to people, and I talked to a lot of people.
Often, I used my time with customers to discuss the “why” of pie. Most conversations contained a common thread. Pie was invariably tied to a memory. Comfort. Family. A longing for something I call “connective tissue.” Pie seems to be just that: a vehicle that can transport us to another place in time, a safe place in an ever-changing world.
Beyond that, pie just chills people out. Eating a slice of pie requires a “here and now” mentality. With each forkful, a decision must be made: Crust or filling? A bit of both? Start with the tip of the triangle or the fluted rim of crust? Whether these are voluntary or involuntary decisions is subjective.
I do know that a really good slice of pie can induce a state of bliss. At that point the maker’s intention—to compel someone to feel something—is achieved.
For the maker, the process itself can be Zen-like. Once you’ve conquered your fear of the crust (or go ahead and purchase it premade—no judgment), there’s no end to the options for fillings. What’s in season? Is it harvest time, and friends are bringing you apples from their trees, wormholes and all? Or do you just need a healthy dose of chocolate? Take advantage of any opportunity to get lost in the tactile satisfaction of using your hands to create something. This is not a beauty contest. Get it in the oven. Wait for it to cool. Share it. Everybody wins. We may never know the “why” of pie, but we can always use another slice of bliss.
I include three recipes for crusts in Pie Town Pies, plus instructions on blind-baking crusts for custard or cream pies. This is the most basic recipe you can master. A tip: Every day, pie crust comes out differently. If the mixture seems too dry to hold the shape of a ball, add a little more water, but don’t add too much at a time. Most of all, have fun with it. This is your creation.
Apples, chiles, and pine nuts are indigenous to New Mexico and good for you. Chiles contain capsaicin and pack more vitamin C than oranges do. Pine nuts are rich in antioxidants and fiber. And we all know that apples keep the doctor away. Consider this pie a health food! Green chiles come in varying heat levels. Start with mild chiles, maybe mix in a few mediums, and use hot ones sparingly. A frozen “autumn roast” version will give you a nice mix of red and green chiles with medium heat. Hint: Keep some ice cream handy.
Think “fudge brownie”—with a kick! Use only pure red chile powder, not a mix that includes other spices. Start with mild chile; add hot chile for more punch. The pie filling may puff up while baking, then fall and crack when cooled. That’s okay. This recipe produces a thin pie; you may want to double the filling recipe and use most of it for a thicker pie, reserving the remainder for another use. The optional cherry topping adds sweetness and color.
PIE, OH MY
The Pie-O-Neer is alive and well in Pie Town, open Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. The new Pie Lady, Sarah Chavez, whips up an array of pies as well as burgers, burritos, and “Miss Mary’s Sunday Dinner,” a full meal named in honor of Kathy Knapp’s mother (and served on vintage cafeteria trays) that draws the entire town. Follow the café’s Facebook page for details on holiday pies—which are available for pickup or shipping. Contact 877-PIE-TOWN (743-8696), email@example.com for flavors, prices, and availability.
Pie-O-Neer; 5613 US 60
Pie Town Pies: Making Pies with the Pie Lady of Pie Town, by Kathy Knapp, is independently published. It’s available on Amazon, but for an autographed copy, email Knapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.