Pie Day in Mullen, Iowa: June 6

As friends describe their jolly summer car trips, I feel jealous. I’m glad they are adventuring, but that’s not in the cards for us this year. My workaround is to peek through the rear view window of time and savor the car camp trip to our niece’s Chicago wedding in June, 2019.

Next to the wedding, a favorite experience on this trip was Pie Day. An overview of mid-west cafes will lead to this surprising story. But before that, here’s a 10-second summary of the 3-week journey. The super rapid tour is chronological–here we go:
Life on the open road is exhilarating. We’re free to make moment-by-moment choices as we roll along gray roads.
At first, I have qualms and fears because we are vulnerable oldsters amidst strangers in a strange land.
Four tough-looking bikers roar into our first gas station. I’m cautious, but Jim wants to examine the bikes. Turns out these guys are Bikers Against Child Abuse. They’re on their way to support a child in the Tonopah courtroom. My heart is melting.
We swerve off lonely Idaho St. Hwy 75 to take a break at the amazing dilapidated Museum of Ornithology–“Called by Some the Smithsonian of the Desert.” I promised a short preamble to Pie Day, so if you want to know more, ask on the contact page.
A diner next to us in a cafe in Twin Falls, Idaho exclaimed, “Be sure to see Shoshone Falls.”
Here’s our distinguished picnic partner in Yellowstone. Exciting, enchanting park lands surpass our expectations.
Unexpected road art connects us to folks in new territories. An entire Wild Art story will be devoted to this sometime in the future.
After being lost all day near the Badlands–no GPS and no paper map for South Dakota–we aim for the northern Nebraska border by dead reckoning.
By chance, we finally nestle into an idyllic camp site at Walgren Lake State Recreation Area east of Hwy 87, NW Nebraska. We are thrilled by our first mid-west birdsong symphony. We’re the only human audience beneath this astounding performance.
Carhenge captures our imaginations wrapped with good humor–on Hwy 87 NW Nebraska.
Jim Reinders was a crazy Stonehenge scholar. Back on his Nebraska farm, he made a replica for his family reunion. Instead of using megalithic stones, he and his friends repurposed their most abundant resource: junk cars. Locals call the opening event a hullabaloo.
We have no idea Dubuque, Iowa is a cultural mecca. We allow ourselves to be tourists for several days to enjoy dozens of beautifully executed murals, a fantastic museum of natural history, and an art walk along the Mississippi.
We live it up in the historic Red Lion B&B. The host and food are fabulous–the price oh so reasonable, so different from California.
Sumptuous dining with five desserts in Chicago’s shee-shee RPM restaurant is an extraordinary treat with our daughter and her husband, Jamie and Joe Napoli.
The sign for Nevada’s Hickison Recreation Area on St. Hwy. 50 is so inconspicuous and the dirt road is so long that we pass by before making a U-turn.
Petroglyphs connect us to humans from 10,000 years ago. The light in this photo is an accident, but it expresses the woo woo awe we feel.
There’s much, much more to say, but this concludes a round up of highlights near dusty back roads (mostly.) Of course, your drive through 10 seconds may be fast or slow…
Now we begin the tour of mid-west cafes. We’re starving and sick of p&j sandwiches + trail mix. We discover the excellent 3rd Street Bakery in Alliance, Nebraska.
A team of lithe soccer girls and older, chunkier folks are in line for specialty items such as the Humdinger. Note the normal sized doughnut on the left. Humdinger is four times larger.
Friendly wall messages entertain us with signs and products.
The town seems prosperous as we window shop. Gift displays give a sense of the town’s culture.
Each day we slowly cruise through dozens of mid-western towns. Many don’t seem to have flourishing economies.
Most towns don’t have cafes, bakeries or restaurants, but when they do, the cuisine is often Mexican.
We find one classic diner in a silver stream trailer, but the carefully displayed nostalgia-driven 1950’s decor does not make up for the bad food.
Some cafes make an effort to provide a western ambiance.
Morning menus are acceptable–we always have scrambled eggs and home-fry potatoes.
We are starving early one morning when we discover the town of Early.
The cafe’s open sign lights us up.

Tables are full of oldsters like us. They’re chatting about dead calves, about rain and  mud making harvest difficult, about health problems. Although talk is about how bunged up they are and other discouraging topics, the tone of the conversation is congenial, even jovial.  BTW, no one is using a cell phone or device. Their attention is on the here-and-now social scene.

Bob immediately introduces himself to us. We are included in the conversation. He tilts his head, warning, “Take everything you hear in here with a grain of salt.”

They greet Lucille, who slides into the last open booth. Harry says, “Come on over here–plenty of room. ” She says, “I’m fine.”He cajoles and teases, “Come on over–look–I’ve got my hands above the table.”

Another old guy pats the seat next to him.

She returns their banter with, “I’m FINE!  Anyway, you are too grumpy!”  She turns to us saying, “I can say that to him because he’s my brother.”

I enjoy my Little Mickey.

If our appearance were different–had we worn tie dye outfits and rings in our eyebrows or if we had brown or black skin, they may not have been so friendly. Being Californians happened to be the right amount of being different.

Still heading east toward our Chicago destination for the wedding, we come upon the town of Mullen.  The mid-afternoon low energy lull plus our numb butts put us on high alert for a cafe. Not evident in this town. Buildings are spare and seem neglected. Vegetation and landscaping are minimal. No one is outside.

While Jim’s gassing up, I go in to see the attendant, a woman who looks like she wants  a nap. I ask her about a sign Jim saw on the outskirts of town. It said, “Pie Day.” She perks right up and exclaims, “OH you must go!  Cross the tracks, turn left and you’re in Old Town. Go to the museum 2 blocks down.”

There are only two blocks, so we easily find it and park next to a breezeway between buildings. Old folks are seated around little tables in the narrow passageway. Next to the plastic gray market table, the dry erase board lists 12 pies in different colors. Every pie you can imagine costs $2.00– $2.50 for ala mode.

Jim chooses apple pie; mine is strawberry rhubarb. The lady shouts the orders up to the women in the 2nd story window of the museum.

I don’t have the presence of mind to photograph my slice of pie, which I wish you could see and taste. This over-the-top pie generously overflows with fruit full of flavor. The smooth cornstarch syrup–not too sweet–contrasts with a delicate crust made with butter. It’s polka-dotted with extra large grains of baked sugar glistening in the sun. The glorious slice is crowned with an ample scoop of vanilla ice cream. I eat it slowly to savor the combination of tastes. I wonder who made this pie so lovingly and how this extraordinary pie feast came about.

Meanwhile, Leonard joins us. He grins broadly, announces he is 85–“born and raised in Mullen.” His life summary included wisdom from his grandad’s Depression era experience: “You win some, you lose some. If you don’t have anything, you lose none.” He seems to live a joyful life without being sucked into needing to buy stuff.

Leonard is a local flower visited by many butterflies, so our table becomes a central attraction. Folks come to chat with Leonard and when they see us they exclaim, “I don’t know you!” We stand up with each introduction. Rod shakes Jim’s hand while saying, “I see you haven’t stepped too close to a razor in awhile.”

BTW, Jim has had no razor near his beard in 52 years.

I learn the answers to my questions. Pie Day is their annual high school reunion, which they have been celebrating in this fashion since 1916. Since then, reunion participants have enjoyed about 11,124 slices from 18 pies per year.

One hundred and three pies made every year is a conservative estimate for Mullen, a village of about 500.There are a thousand or more mid-west hamlets and towns where women (I assume mostly women) have been making pies for hundreds of years. In one cafe, we see a chalk board tally of how many pies Evelyn and Carol have been making–the score was 1,109 to 976.

Pie Math:

Meanwhile, at Mullen’s Pie Day, I suspect the woman with an elegant bouffant hair-do and high heels must be a major-player-mover-shaker. Her sweeping gaze scoops us up. She glides toward us asking, “Who are these kids running around here?” She’s laughing and teasing us the way she does with everybody.

The breezeway wind picks up and almost knocks Jim’s pie plate over. He recovers it in the nick of time, but Leonard’s pumpkin pie flies and spills all over him. He’s pretty shaky, so we run for napkins and water to clean him up. Others join to help, but mostly they thank us.

California cafes often have fresh salads and interesting, healthy, eclectic cuisine, but it is normal to feel socially isolated. Everyone is glued to their devices–their nimble thumbs are speeding through games or Google-landia or perhaps they’re texting someone somewhere, but they don’t seem to be having conversations. Hardly any eye-contact.

We smile as we remember mid-west cafes. And, of course, Pie Day was delicious, refreshing, heartening.  Never mind that the town appeared forlorn or that their culture feels foreign. My prejudices and judgments disappear. Sometimes I love to be wrong.

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18 thoughts on “Pie Day in Mullen, Iowa: June 6

  1. Now I want to load up the camper and go pie hunting across America.
    Thanks for that taste of adventure


  2. Such a wonderful adventure, so well-told and I LOVE the photos. Makes me glad that I introduced the two of you!!!


    1. Dear Barbara, every day we are grateful for your match-making. You are starting your day while I’m up fretting about a technical Wild Art error at 2 a.m.? We happen to meet at 2:47 a.m.–I must communicate with you better than this.


  3. Hi gretsch I sent you a photo of a newly planted artichoke with 3 little bulbs….do I let them bloom or pick them in time? Hope all is well….I may go up and see friends in Santa Rosa soon…want a quick visit? Mike


  4. Dear Gretchen,

    I love these! Road trips are just the best, unless you have a terrific book, a fabulous garden, the love of your life at home, a pot of greens & beans on the stove.

    How are things? I wrenched my neck, a long healing time for this. My new leg is still an inch too short. I see her today but options aren’t good – not much room to lengthen it.

    Otherwise, here is our epiphyllum that just opened:

    Love, Amber



  5. Thank you, Gretchen! Lot’s of fun, the pies look delicious and it was wonderful that you folks connected so well with Midwestern folk….great bridge building! Hope life is good! Diane Baines

    “Start from where you are–not where you wish you were. The work you’re doing becomes your path.” —Ram Dass



  6. Oh Gretchen, I so love travein’ with y’all during this here pandemic. Makes me feel right at home. You really are the best, takin’ all of us wanderin’ as you do. Wasn’t sure I wanted to come back….


    1. yaaaa, Lena– some bittersweet times. Thank you for your special way of replying. I’m still thinking about our party conversation about our old skin. Gotta do that story somehow.


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