Savoring Pie Town

Sixty-five years after Russell Lee photographed New Mexico homesteaders coping with the Depression, a Lee admirer visits the town for a fresh slice of life

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“So are you calmer?”

“I’ve got such a long way to go. You know, when you come to a place like this, you bring all your old stuff with you. But this is the place. We’re not moving.”

Since the sculptor was staffing the visitor’s center, it seemed reasonable to ask if I could get some PieTown literature.

“Nope,” he said, breaking up. “That’s because we don’t have any. We have a visitor information center, but nothing about PieTown. We do have brochures for a lot of places in the state, if you’d like some.”

Outside the post office, on the community bulletin board, there was a hand-scrawled notice: “Needed. Support from Community for Pie Festival. 1) Organize a fiddle contest. 2) Help set up on Friday 10 Sept.” The planners of the all-day event were asking for volunteers for the big pie-eating contest. Judges were needed, cleanup committees. There would be the election of a Pie queen and king. Candidates for the title were being sought. Sixty-four years before, photographer Lee had written to his boss Roy Stryker in Washington: “Next Sunday at Pietown they are having a big community sing—with food and drink as well—it lasts all day so I’m going to be sure to be here for that.” Earlier Stryker had written to Lee about PieTown: “[Your] photographs, as far as possible, will have to indicate something of what you suggest in your letter, namely: an attempt to integrate their lives on this type of land in such a way as to stay off the highways and the relief rolls.”

There had been no passage of years. It was as if the new stories were the old stories, just with new masks and plot twists.

And then there was the Daily Pie. I’ve been to some restaurants where a lot of desserts were listed on the menu, but this was ridiculous. The day’s offerings were scrawled in a felt-tip pen on a big “Pie Chart” above my head. In addition to regular apple, there was New Mexican apple (laced with green chili and piñon nuts), peach walnut crumb, boysen berry (that’s the spelling in Pie Town), key lime cheesecake (in Pie Town it’s a pie), strawberry rhubarb, peanut butter (it’s a pie), chocolate chunk crème, chocolate walnut, apple cranberry crumb, triple berry, cherry streusel, and two or three others that I can no longer remember and didn’t write down in my notebook. The Pie Chart changes daily at the Daily Pie, and sometimes several times within a day. A red dot beside a name meant that there was at least a whole other pie of that same kind back in the kitchen. And a 1 or a 2 beside a name meant there were just one or two slices left, and apparently wouldn’t be any more until that variety came up in the cycle again.

I settled on a piece of New Mexican apple, which was a lot better than “tasty.” It was zingy. And now that I’ve sampled my share of PieTown’s finest selections, I’d like to relay a happy fact, which is probably implicit anyway: at the Daily Pie Café—where so much of PieTown’s current life unfolds— they serve much more than pie. Six days a week they make a killer breakfast and a huge lunch, and two days a week they dish until 8 p.m., and on Sundays, the pièce de résistance, they’re glad to work you over with one of those all-afternoon, old-fashioned turkey, ham or roast-beef dinners with potatoes and three vegetables that your grandmother used to make, the kind that got sealed lovingly in family albums and in the amber of memory.

For three days I took my meals at the Daily Pie, and as it happened, I became friendly with an old-timer named Paul Painter. He lives 24 miles from PieTown, off the main road. Six days a week—every day that it’s open—Painter comes in his pickup, 48 miles round trip, most of it by dirt road, arriving at the same hour, 11 a.m. “He’s steady as a damn stream coming out of the mountain,” said Mike Rawl, husband of Daily Pie Café pie chef Peggy Rawl, not to mention the café’s greeter, manager, shopper, cook and other co-owner. Every day Painter puts in the same order: big steak (either rib-eye or New York strip), three eggs, toast and potatoes. He’ll take two hours to dine. He’ll read the paper. He’ll flirt with the waitresses. And then he’ll drive home. Painter is deep in his 70s. His wife died years ago, his kids live away. He told me that he spends every day and night alone, except for those several hours at the café. “Only way I know what day of the week it is, is from a little calendar I keep right by the light bulb in my bedroom,” he said. “Every night I reach over and make a check. And then I turn out the light.”

Said Rawl one day in his café, after the rush of customers: “I’ve thought about it a lot. I think the very same impulses that brought the homesteaders out here brought us out. My family. They had the Dust Bowl. Here you’ve got to come out and buy a tax license and deal with insurance and government regulations. But it’s the same thing. It’s about freedom, the freedom to leave one place and try to make it in another. For them their farms got buried in sand. They had to leave. Back in Maryland it never really seemed like it was for us. And I don’t mean for us, exactly. You’re helping people out. This place becomes part of the town. I’ve had people running out of gas in the middle of the night. (I’ve got a tank out back here.) You’re a part of something. That’s what I mean to say. It’s very hard. You have to fight it. But the life here is worth the fight.”

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