Pie Case of the Gods

Fall isn’t complete in the Pastry household without a trip to west-central Indiana and the Covered Bridge Festival. Few people know it, but it’s Parke County, Indiana and not Madison County, Iowa that is the real covered bridge capital of America. The fact that no one’s every made a sappy movie about Parke County starring Meryl Streep is big point of pride there. They’ve got over 30 covered bridges, but then who am I kidding? The only reason I go is for the food.

For ten days every October the courthouse lawn in the county seat (Rockville, Indiana) is covered with ramshackle concession stands, each offering its own specialty. There are giant kettles of white beans and ham hocks:

…”whole hog” sausage sandwiches…


…corn fritters…

…apple and pumpkin butter…

…plus steaming bowls of fresh-fried chicken gizzards, fresh squeezed cider, cups of chicory coffee and pork chop sandwiches. I’ve been going there since I was a kid, and back then there was a chicken barbecuing operation that stretched an entire block. Charcoal fires with iron grates were lined up next to each other for probably 50 yards, and skinny old men in coveralls pumped barbecue sauce onto the poultry with converted pump-action pesticide sprayers. That was good eatin’, friends.

All that said, the culinary crown jewel of the Covered Bridge festival is the little town of Tangier, Indiana (population: next to nobody). Every fall the locals convert a multipurpose community/Boy Scout/VFW hall into one of the hottest dining spots in Indiana. The specialty of the house: buried beef.

What is buried beef you ask? It is nothing less than cuisine à la Caterpillar. The cooking vessel is a fifteen by three-and-a-half foot trench in the ground and the only implement is a backhoe. A wood fire is lit in the trench and allowed burn down to embers. At that point a layer of sand goes in, then packet after packet of tin foil-wrapped beef brisket. The whole thing gets covered with dirt and left to cook overnight. What emerges the next day is serious-good, slow-cooked meat that they serve up on buns, cafeteria style:

But that’s not the best part. Because no visit to Tangier is complete without a trip to the dessert case, which is a national monument to the art of pie-making.

Inside it, the fruits of months of little-old-lady labor are on display. There are slices of the classics of course: apple, pumpkin, cherry and pecan. Yet depending on when you get there you’ll find elderberry, rhubarb, apricot, raspberry, blackberry, persimmon, buttermilk, raisin, mincemeat, gooseberry….

Pardon me, I blacked out for a second. This year I confess I was a bit saddened to see some pre-made crusts in the case (you can tell those by the perfect crimp around the edges). But the reality is there simply aren’t as many octogenarian pie-makers in Tangier as there used to be. These days it seems they hold some of the best stuff in back. But if you ask nicely — really nicely — they’ll bring out a slice of Ada’s famous black raspberry and hand it you with a wink.

The Covered Bridge Festival is going on through next Sunday. Don’t miss it if you can help it.

13 thoughts on “Pie Case of the Gods”

    1. Hey Malini!

      They look similar, but black raspberries and blackberries are in fact different fruits. They’re both members part of the Rubus genus of plants, but the fruits themselves have different structures. In fact as I understand it, blackberries aren’t actually fruits but rather aggregates of individual, separate little drupes. That would explain their seediness, which I confess I don’t really care for.

      Black raspberries grow wild all over the eastern side of the Midwest, and in the eastern US generally.

  1. Interesting – the Indiana way of making “buried beef” sounds similar to how native Hawaiians use the imu to make lau lau and kalua pig. I wonder if there’s a shared connection or just convergent evolution at work.
    But mmmmm-pies!

    1. I think I see where you’re going, Ron: could ancient Polynesians have built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? It’s a darn interesting question. My guess, however, is somebody vacationed to Hawaii in the 60’s and brought the idea back, along with a whole bunch of those little cocktail umbrellas. Since then it’s been on its own evolutionary track. 😉

      – Joe

  2. And the buried beef and imu (and umu in Samoa, I think) are very similar to the Maori hangi.

  3. Looks like you’ve answered what time of year is the best time to come visit the great ole USA on holidays!


  4. Mmm, Chicory coffee. Being Vietnamese-American, that sparked my interest immediately! That, and the converted pesticide-sprayer for BBQ sauce. Are you serious!? hilarious. 🙂

  5. It’s so funny to find someone actually mention Tangier. I reside just west of the community building where the buried beef is served. While I do my best to avoid festival traffic and generally stay home for the ten days, my daughters and I always make the short trip for lunch one day each year. The beef is always delicious, and well worth the extra drive if you are in Parke County for the festival. I made the mistake of passing up on the pie this year, but wish I would have at least snuck a slice of black raspberry home to enjoy later.

    1. I’ve passed by your house many times, Lindsay! We missed the festival this year, the first time in many years. We normally camp somewhere nearby, then strike early, hitting the whole hog sausage stand before the lines form. Ah…so sad. That black raspberry pie is amazing. Thanks for the good memories though. See you next year!

      – Joe

  6. We went to Covered Bridges fest this year….. actually we are driving home from it now! We only made it to Rockville and Montezuma before it ended. So, I’m sure disappointed that Tangier was over before we could get there and enjoy some buried beef. My hubby was all about the hog roast in Montezuma. Which was great. But beef brisket. Nuff said.
    I Google buried beef and found your blog. Glad I did. 🙂

    1. Hey Niki!

      I hope you passed on my regards to this year’s Montezuma Pig Shack Queen! I didn’t get there this year, but I’ll make a whole hog sausage sandwich and eat it outdoors to make me feel like I’m there. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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