Above photo: The strawberry rhubarb pie from Lisa's Pie Shop was the author’s overall favorite.
Story by Abby Carney; photos by Mary McClung
Abby is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist from the South. She has written about food, art, culture and everything in between for the Washington Post, Forbes, Texas Monthly and more. Follow her on Twitter. Mary McClung is a freelance food/editorial photographer based in Indianapolis. Her work can be found in local and regional magazines and online.
A pie lover eats her way through the Hoosier state.
I’m not ashamed to admit it — my pie obsession spans decades. On childhood birthdays, I may have been one of the only kids who opted for pie instead of cake. I was once the youngest winner of a pie-eating contest at a local church picnic. And in high school, I even built a successful little pie-baking business. All this to say — I’m no novice in the pie department. So when I was given a chance to take a journey along Indiana’s back roads, sampling some of the best pies the state has to offer, I did not hesitate.
It was an assignment I felt born for.
There’s no question: Indiana is pie country. In Slate’s dessert compendium, the United Sweets of America, every state was represented by a locally treasured dessert. And you guessed it, Indiana got pie — sugar cream pie to be exact, also known as Hoosier Pie. It’s a nutmeg-dusted custard, a pie borne of hearty, hardscrabble people (the Amish and Shaker communities of the 1800s). It was traditionally thrown together with the barest of ingredients when purse strings were tight, winters were harsh and fresh fruit wasn’t available.
If I'm totally honest, sugar cream is not my go-to flavor. I find it achingly sweet, without too much depth or complexity. Now, we have access to such an abundance of ingredients, so why be so basic? I believe that Indiana’s legendary piemanship (my word) is best expressed with fruits, puddings and chocolates. Don’t hate me, Hoosiers; I just wanna try all your pies.
Braced for a dentist’s appointment when I returned home, I began my pie voyage north from Indianapolis. On my first night of travel, I made a dinner pit stop at the legendary Essenhaus, where I overheard an Amish-dressed server quip to her table: “The only wine you’ll get here is somebody whine-ing.” (Womp womp.)
Favored by tourists, Essenhaus is worth a visit if dining inside an Amish buggy is your sort of thing (an actual option). They serve over 30 pie varieties; I made quick work of my chicken pot pie and left room for a slice of raspberry chocolate cream. Exhausted, I brought it back to my bed-and-breakfast for bedside consumption. Its creamy pudding filling and chocolate flakes lent pleasant solace to a road-weary traveler.
I really hit the pie jackpot on a nondescript stretch of highway between Nappanee and Indianapolis. Tucked between a discount tobacco store and an auto insurance office, inside a strip mall near Indiana University’s Kokomo campus, was a humble sign that read Mom’s Homemade Pies. I had a hunch this hole in the wall would be an ace in the hole and felt sure of it when a homey middle-aged woman walked out in a hairnet and white apron. Fake fruit lined the display cases, and ivy covered the walls, adorned with decorative plates and tchotchkes — the epitome of homestyle chic.
“Are you Mom?” I asked.
She nodded, introducing herself as Alyona Puckett and proceeding to tell me how she and her husband, Dave, started their business six years ago. They’re kin to Puckett’s Pie Shop up the way, the original family business started by Dave’s mother many moons ago (and now operated by his brother). Every pie at Mom’s is made from scratch, and the crusts are hand-mixed. Alyona proudly plugged her chicken pot pie recipe (a best-seller), noting that Mom’s distributes pies to six local grocery stores. I went for the blueberry and was enraptured by the not-too-sweet filling made from whole blueberries, encased in a tender, flaky crust that Puckett rightfully bragged about.
Chugging along, about 18 miles down the road, I pulled into the little gravel parking lot outside Lisa’s Pie Shop in Atlanta. I spied a travel trailer that proudly proclaimed the pies “award-winning.” Inside, ribbons, trophies and press clippings dominated the small shop the namesake owner runs with her niece. When I inhaled a fresh-out-of-the-oven strawberry rhubarb mini-pie, I wasn’t at all surprised by her many accolades. This was the best contender in the land, with its perfect, hand-crafted crust and naturally sweet-tart center. It’s all a bit ironic, however — Lisa claims she doesn’t even like pie!
Another honorable mention: the surprisingly mellow and not oversweet black raspberry pie I scored from Nappanee’s Bakery & Treat Shoppe. After an Amish customer politely insisted that the owner bake something the shop had run out of — “Go on, I’ll wait.” — I started salivating. It was a jackpot, with thin, artful latticework stretched across a berry-rich, bulbous surface.
Shipshewana’s Country Corral Restaurant does a commendable strawberry slice, made with berries from E&S Sales — a grocery store where local Amish and Mennonite families do their bulk shopping. The top layer of cream is freshly whipped and the crust has a savory, buttery bite. And if you’re really in it for the full pie haul, other stops frequented by pie obsessives include Rise’n Roll (with several locations throughout Amish country), New York Times-reviewed Blue Gate Bakery — I favored the simple purity of their chocolate slice — and family-owned Country Lane Bakery.
On my last evening in Indiana, I arrived at my Airbnb accommodations near the Indianapolis airport; my host helped me cart all my sundry pie tins and boxes into the kitchen. He looked at me with wonder. I solemnly explained that I was working — “Eating these pies is my job, sir.”
“But ... how do you stay so skinny?” he mused.