The Secret Life of Pie Town, New Mexico
When I first learned that there was an actual place called Pie Town, I had a definite idea of how it should look. My rather intricate vision involved streets paved with cookie crust, street lamps shaped like apples, and churches with meringue spires.
Well, this vision turned out to be pie in the sky. In truth, Pie Town is located in a relatively remote part of southern New Mexico, and is very much the small frontier town. When I went there, I was told jokingly that its name is inspired by the fact that the town is "exactly 3.14 miles from the middle of nowhere."
It's true: Pie Town isn't considered a huge destination by itself, but is more of a pleasant stopping point when traveling along the Continental Divide Trail. Of course, I should pause to note that for me, Pie Town was in fact the total sum of the reason for my journey. Since that involved a total of 7 hours (three and a half each way) from Santa Fe, I would certainly classify this voyage as a pie pilgrimage.
Why Pie Town?
As the legend goes, the town gets its name from an enterprising local who began to sell sundries and snacks, notably pies, to travelers passing through. Without much else to discern the town, it began to be referred to as "Pie Town". The name caught on, and has held strong.
Interestingly, pie has not been a constant in the town that bears its name. There have been long stretches when no pies, or worse, not very good pies, have been sold.
Today, two of the small handful of retail businesses in Pie Town are pie related: the Good Pie Cafe and the Pie-O-Neer. The former is only open seasonally, so you'll have to wait until spring to sample their pies; as the Pie-O-Neer advises, "our days and hours change like the weather"—that is to say, call ahead if you're planning a trip to try them out.
Living in Pie Town
So who lives in Pie Town? Originally settlers were from Texas and Oklahoma, heading west during the Dust Bowl days and hoping for better lives. Today, the residents are varied. The quiet nature of the town is great for individuals who appreciate solitude, but it also has an artistic magnetism: the town's remote location can be appealing to artistic types seeking freedom to pursue their art without distraction. I hear there are even a few people who "cashed in their 401k to live the dream" (of eating pie 24-7, perhaps?) Since there isn't much industry in Pie Town, however, many residents make their money elsewhere, or through ventures not associated with the town itself.
Interestingly, because there isn't a huge population in Pie Town, the pool of potential employment candidates isn't huge; many young workers at the town's cafes will actually come from elsewhere, hired for the season.
Owning a Business in Pie Town
Working at the Pie-O-Neer makes for an ideal work-life balance, says proprietress Kathy Knapp; she gets plenty of interaction with people during the day, but then can settle into a quiet country life with no internet or TV after the cafe closes for the day.
She goes on to say that pie-wise, there's a lot to live up to in Pie Town. At one time, customers were so few and far between that "I used to be happy just to see people." Today, things have changed and Knapp says the restaurant has had to up the ante. "We've had a lot of good publicity, and we've worked hard to keep that standard high, but when people walk in, they are expecting pie theater."
Her staff, which includes talented musicians, is happy to oblige—it wouldn't be unheard of for one of the employees to strike up the fiddle or guitar to entertain guests while they enjoy their pie. Oh, and you might have to wait to Instagram that pie picture. Internet service isn't always reliable in Pie Town.
What to Eat in Pie Town
Of course you'll be eating, well, pie. But which type? Here's a rundown of what to expect at both of the town's pie cafes.
At the Good Pie Cafe, you'll find an atmosphere that kind of looks like your crazy uncle's garage—in an absolutely charming way, of course.
Several types of pie are on offer each day. The flavors are noted on a "pie chart" drawn on a white board. The most popular is their New Mexican Apple Pie, which includes the state's famed green chile and is scented with piñon. It's even been featured in Smithsonian Magazine. Adorably, the finished pies are adorned with the state's symbol on top, forged in pie crust.
Simple and homey, these pies are characterized by a sturdy crust and served without much pomp and circumstance. I wouldn't go out of my way to call any of the pies I tried here "complex" or "gourmet", but they were all very good.
Not too far away, you'll find the Pie-O-Neer.
The atmosphere is different here, sort of like grandma's house, if your grandma was a doily-loving homesteader. It's highly lovable.
Pies are a little more sophisticated here, with a flaky and tender crust. There are several flavor variations available on any given day; on the day I went, offerings included coconut cream with a delicate meringue topping, apple-cranberry, and chocolate cream. They also have an apple pie with green chile and piñon here, but on the day I went, they had already sold out.
The coconut cream pie was heavenly—upon taking a bite of the meringue puff on top, which disintegrated like a sweet cloud as the taste of the coconut cream made itself known, I found myself wondering why lemon meringue seems to have a monopoly on the meringue when it comes to pie real estate.
Will Pie Town Change Your Life?
Listen, I drove 7 hours total to enjoy pie in the town that bears its name. Was it life changing, fireworks-inducing pie? No. But the experience calls to mind a passage in the classic Donuts: An American Passion in which John T. Edge refers to the act of eating beignets at the famous Cafe Du Monde as being a "rite of passage". While they're not the only friteur in town, he says, there's something to having the experience of eating them there and taking part in that ritual.
I vote that Pie Town is similar in this regard: while there's plenty of pie to be had in the USA, in bakeries, diners, and maybe even in your very own kitchen, there is something amazing about eating pie in a town which has a rich history attached to the buttery crusted stuff.
About the author: Jessie Oleson Moore is a writer, illustrator, gallery owner, and cake anthropologist who runs Cakespy, an award-winning dessert website. Her first book came out in October 2011, and her second book came out in May 2013.