Pie for breakfast, pie for dessert

When I left Little Rock Sunday morning, I had one thing and one thing only on the brain: pie.  Pie for breakfast, in fact.  It was the fault of the wonderful website Roadfood (http://www.roadfood.com/) where I had learned that just off interstate 40 east of Little Rock in the tiny town of Devall's Bluff, Arkansas resides an enchantress of pie.

Mary Thomas gets up early every morning to make pies and bake them in a huge old fashioned black stove she got from a school that closed.  When the pies are all baked, she sits in her chair by the door of the little room that's attached to the kitchen where she works her magic and sells them to a steady stream of eager customers.  A hand written poster board above her head lists possibilities but regular customers seem to know to expect their choices to be limited to whatever's still left.  On Sundays, she told me, she usually takes it easy and doesn't bake or fry any pies - today I was just lucky, at least on the baked pie front.  She'd felt like it and had time so there were three flavors to choose from: chocolate, coconut and sweet potato. Hmmmmm.......!

We jawed on about all sorts of things, aching knees, grandchildren, photography, her granddaughter that works for CNN.  I welcomed the pleasant diversion since it gave me more valuable time to decide: chocolate, coconut or sweet potato?!?  It was no use, time wasn't going to help.  Alright then - sweet potato if I have to choose!  After fetching a box, Mary opened the tall door of an ancient icebox and extracted the just baked pie with one hand and guided it smoothly and gingerly into the waiting box with the other.  Just as she placed the cherished package in my hands, a trio of dapperly dressed men fresh from church pushed open the rickety screen door and the process began again.

Right across the street from Mary's pie shop is a barbecue place (where she used to work) called Craig's.  I stopped in and ordered some pork ribs to go, so I could have a picnic later when the mood struck me.  As I sat and waited for my order, it became clear that the only way I was going to enjoy the experience was if I was willing to turn the knob down from it's usual setting of ruthless city girl efficiency to a more laid back got all day country girl level. In the meantime, I amused myself by watching the steady stream of locals that stopped by to pick up grease spotted brown paper bags filled with lunch of various sorts.  At long last the Styrofoam clam shell holding my bright orange pork ribs appeared and I set off down the highway to find a nice spot where I could indulge in the ancient sport of separating meat from bone in the pursuit of nutrition.

I chose a classic rest area, one which had a number of shaded picnic tables fanning out from the main drive.  It was nice and quiet except for the soft roar of the nearby interstate and the sound of the breeze moving through the trees, which made the day feel distinctly fall-like.  I ate the ribs, one by one, thinking deeply on how they compared to those found in my home town.  Well, they weren't shabby exactly, but they sure couldn't hold a candle to what I was used to back home.  Silly midwesterners - I think they must put Twizzlers in their barbecue sauce!  Twizzlers and paprika.  That's what makes it spicy.

I really liked the vibrant orange color of the grease against the white Styrofoam and so began indulging my picture taking urges.  While I worked to get the composition and lighting just right, a gorgeous blue butterfly fluttered down onto the table at my feet, braving a fierce breeze to investigate the orangey scene of carnage.  From experience I knew to just go ahead and take a picture right away because time was of the essence and sure enough by the time I had stooped down to try and take a close up shot, the wind had blown the poor creature on its way.

After lunch, I got back in the car and hunkered down to put some miles under me since I was due in Carbondale, Illinois by early evening to have dinner with my dear friend Joan.  I chose tedious interstate driving to make time, but found to my relief that I was more than amused by the variety of signs I kept encountering.  For example, one billboard I saw proclaimed the road I was travelling on to be the "Highway to Hell Yeah!" Not long after that, I saw an 18 wheeler go by headed the other way on the interstate that had "Jesus is Lord" printed in huge two foot font arcing across the side of the container.  Underneath, in smaller, fancier script, the sentence continued emphatically: "NOT a curse word!"  There were plenty of unusual sights to entertain me all the way to Carbondale, including nonstop fields of cotton in various stages of harvest.  The puffy white fibers looked lovely against the backdrop of cotton ball clouds that dotted the sky.

I joined my friend Joan for some delicious dinner at a little vegetarian cafe in Carbondale (university in town=quirky food usually available).  Joan is one of those glorious friends that I can neglect to see or talk to for years and years but it never keeps us from just picking right back up where we left off when next we finally meet.  We caught each other up on what had been happening in our lives and compared the progression of gray hair on both our heads.  I experienced a feeling of comfort when I recognized that this is one of the ways that aging looks.

I bid Joan goodnight and retired to my room at the budget motel to get some writing done.  Later in the evening, I sliced a generous wedge of the ruddy brown pie from the round, the faintest scent of cinnamon reaching my nostrils as I pulled the triangle from the pie plate.  It was incredible.  Dense but not heavy, light but not flavorless.  The crust was masterful - flaky with plenty of body and taste of toasted flour.  Every time I took a  bite, a pleasant and mysterious flavor lingered on my lips after the morsels of sweet potato had dissolved away.

Thank you Mary, for making such marvelous pie and thank you life, for letting me find it.

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