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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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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