Easy as pie
By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
Special to The Jefferson Herald
A delegation from the board of directors of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association will be making a road-trip to Jefferson soon. They will present an engraved glass plate to owner Beth Hougham, chief baker Elaine McDowell and the rest of the staff of the Uptown Cafe, signifying that the classic eatery just off the northwest corner of the courthouse square is the home of the “Best Pie on the RRVT.”
And then the members of the delegation will of course sit right down to sample whatever pie the Uptown has available that day, because the four varieties of “Mile-High Meringue Cream Pie” and the seven kinds of fruit pies the Uptown regularly offers are all exceptional.
And friends, let me tell you, the “Mile-High Banana Cream Meringue Pie” is ecstasy.
“Do you put an unusually large number of bananas in those banana cream pies?” I asked McDowell. “I’ve told people it’s the banana-est banana cream pie I’ve ever eaten. How many bananas do you typically put into one of those pies?”
McDowell’s answer: “We put in as many bananas as will fit. We really do load them up.”
Customers rave about the quality, as well as the variety and the quantity. And when they had the opportunity in our first-ever “Best Pie on the RRVT” contest, they voted their appreciation. The Uptown Cafe’s pies received more than 1,200 votes in the polling that was open from June 1 to Sept. 1.
That made the Uptown the runaway winner.
In a distant second place are the also-outstanding pies at Patrick’s Restaurant, located trailside in Adel.
Frankly, I’ve never had a bad piece of pie at places along the RRVT. So let’s salute the five other contestants, too — the new Crossings Bistro & Brew of Minburn, PJ’s Drive-In of Panora, David’s Milwaukee Diner at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Dexfield Diner in Redfield, and Bell Street Market in Yale.
“I don’t know that we really accomplished all of what we hoped we’d do with the contest, but I hope we accomplished at least some of it,” said Jim Miller, an RRVT Association board member from rural Waukee whom we called the “RRVT Pie Czar” because the contest was his idea. “The main thing we wanted to do is encourage more trail users to get off the trails when they come into our towns, go into the local businesses and spend some money.
“And I hoped we’d see a good deal of discussion among trail users about the pie, other food and other good deals that they are finding.”
Well, I can attest it’s been a summer of pie-buzz and pie-buying at the Uptown in Jefferson. One of the reasons for that: Hougham and her staff have been making much more use of the cafe’s website and its page on Facebook. Now the pie schedule is posted weekly, letting people know what pies are going to be available on what days.
The locals know that McDowell has the beautifully decorated meringue pies coming out of the oven at about 10 a.m. most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
“Right at 10 a.m., we’ll have people showing up who like the particular kind of pie we’re offering that day,” McDowell said. “In fact, sometimes they don’t wait. They’ll call in earlier and ask us to hold a piece for them.”
Owner Hougham says that McDowell “has mastered the meringue — she really has.”
McDowell says that’s something she learned in 10 years she spent baking in the nutritional services department at Greene County Medical Center. And she’s perfected it in the 14 years she has been baking at the Uptown.
Pie has been a main attraction at the Uptown from when Hougham began running it in 1996.
“We’ve been known for our pie right from the beginning,” she said. “It started with my late mother, Mary Ellen Meinecke, coming in and baking them for us. Then I picked it up, then we hired Elaine (McDowell) and we get everybody involved in it from time to time.”
The RRVT was built into Jefferson soon after Hougham started operating, and the Uptown has always seemed to be popular with trail users — especially for breakfast and for pie.
“I think they kind of like our Mom & Pop-shop atmosphere in here,” Hougham said. “I think the bikers like to seek out the local joints, you know? And that’s what we are.”
But, actually, she has somewhat modeled it after one of the most enduringly popular cafes in Des Moines, the Waveland Cafe at about 48th and University Avenue. Beth Meinecke Hougham, a native of Greene County, learned the restaurant business in Des Moines working at such well-known favorites as Johnny’s Vets Club, Gino’s and the Waveland.
“I’ve always said the Uptown Cafe is sort of ‘The Little Sister Cafe of the Waveland Cafe,’ ” she said. “They’re alike in a lot of ways.”
If you’ve been among the trail users who have been stopping into the restaurants along the RRVT and trying the pie, you probably have gotten the feeling that many of the pie bakers who are working now are very interesting characters.
Certainly one of the most interesting is Charlotte Jackson, 86, who does the pie baking for the Dexfield Diner in Redfield. She bakes one of the most distinctive pies available along our trail — a walnut pie.
It’s somewhat like a pecan pie, except the walnuts seem to give it more of an Iowa flavor than the southern flavor you think of from pecans.