Here is your assignment, if you have time this weekend: Drive down to The Aroma Pie Shop in Whalan, MN, near Lanesboro. It’s a schlep, we’re aware of it, but keep in mind that the last 10 or so miles you’ll drive before arriving at the shop must rank amongst the prettiest bits of countryside in the state: dramatic bluffs, the idyllic rippling of the Root River, sheer rock faces, and steep hills overlooking the road with birch trees poking out at 45 degree angles. And the drive ends with pie. And this is the last weekend of 2013 that they’re open.
For context on the sort of pie we’re discussing, here are the various grades of pie:
Perkins: God bless Perkins for committing to make the worst pie possible using modern methods and ingredients. Part of the unmitigated, Joseph Conrad-esque horror of Perkins pie is that it looks terrific in the case, but it turns to crypt ashes and and a keening wail of sorrow in your mouth. It’s the let-down that devastates. It is bad pie as performance art.
Institutional Pie (bad): Some sort of miserable doughy, flavorless, or sugar-sweet crust filled with an all-sugar, gummy canned fruit filling. You can choke it down if you need to, but you probably shouldn’t.
Institutional Pie (edible): Somehow Rainbow supermarkets turn these things out. Too sweet, one note, cheap crust — but the proportions balance, and it’s a pie-like object. It qualifies as dessert, barely.
Restaurant Pie (typical): The wow factor isn’t there, that’s for sure. But it’s not a disgusting sugar bomb, and the crust shows signs of being made by a human being, and nothing is burned. Norske Nook in Osseo, WI, for example tends to hover around here, although it can wander one or two clicks in either direction depending upon the season, the pie, and the current management.
Homemade Pie (flawed): Even inept homemade pie tends to have a lot going for it by dint of the honest ingredients and wholesome intentions. Ultimately, short of a pie left in the oven until it catches fire, fruit and spices and sugar and crust combined with even modest care are going to taste delicious. Heck, apple crisp tastes delicious, and it can be assembled on the fly while drunk and blindfolded.
Homemade Pie (good): There is something magical about good homemade pie — the tested recipe, the carefully calibrated crust, the sweet-but-not-oversweet filling. Perhaps the ingredients were plucked from the baker’s backyard. Homemade pie is one of the best things you can eat, full stop.
On par with good homemade, and absolutely worthy of being mentioned in the same sacred breath:
Aroma Pie Shop of Whalan, MN: Absolutely worth the freaking drive. (See also: Stockholm Pie Company.)
The young woman working at the pie shop recommended that we try the Chocolate Cashew Pie, so we ordered a slice ($4). It was the best possible realization of hot fudge pie, a slightly chewy, profoundly chocolatey, not-overly sweet mass of fudge-like filling topped with slightly salty cashews for both flavor and textural contrast. Unlike anything we’ve ever tried before. Absolutely brilliant.
We tried three other pies at Aroma: Strawberry-Rhubarb (just stellar and heart-warming, not to be missed if you get the chance), Apple (quite good), and Peach (really good; the first peach pie in recent memory wherein the filling tasted like actual peaches, and not miscellaneous peach-esque pie filling product).
The Aroma Pie Shop is a magical place located within a magical place located inconveniently far from Minneapolis-St. Paul. Such is life. What a drive! What pie!
The Aroma Pie Shop
618 Main St, Whalan, MN
HOURS: Thur-Mon 10am-5pm
Season ends: Sunday, Oct. 27 — reopens in May