My mother would have loved this place.
First, there is the name. Who in the world wouldn’t want to visit a place called Pie Heaven?
Then there is the atmosphere. Who wouldn’t want to stay awhile amid the smells of hot, steamy blueberries, melting butter and aromatic spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg?
Pie Heaven, a Plymouth farm store, gets especially sweet-smelling the week before Thanksgiving, when owner and baker Sherry Davis rises at 4 a.m. and begins making pies – by hand, one at a time. She mixes each filling batch individually, using her grandmother’s recipes, and hand-crimps each edge.
“You can feel it when the dough is just right,” she said.
Feeling the dough was not one of my mother’s gifts. I can recall leaning my cheek along the kitchen counter and watching with dread as my mother tried to make pie dough. She threw the flour, sprinkled water, and cried. The dough stuck to the counter, stuck to the wax paper, and wouldn’t come off the rolling pin. She could get things unstuck by adding more flour, but that usually resulted in a crust that tasted like driveway dirt and felt like eating a tire off my father’s 1953 Ford.
Every holiday it was the same disaster, and I am sure Mom would have traded her oldest child (me) for Sherry Davis’ gift of pie making.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Davis will make more than 300 pies and 50 dozen yeast rolls this week.
There will be the traditional pumpkin, mince and apple. There will be strawberry rhubarb, raspberry, chocolate cream, lemon meringue and nearly any special order a customer can concoct. “We offer more than 20 different kinds of pies,” she said.
On a recent morning when chicken potpies were being made, Davis raced back and forth between the preparation table, the sink, the convection ovens and the supply shelves.
Behind her were row after row of spices, baking powder, huge sacks of flour. Next to her was an apple peeler that can handle 5 bushels of apples an hour. Fresh yeast rolls were baking in the oven, filling the room with – well, heavenly scents.
Dwarfed in her white cook’s coat, Davis said she often feels like Lucille Ball in her famous chocolate factory conveyer belt sketch. “Things got going faster and faster and she had to start putting the chocolates in her mouth, her shirt and pockets,” said Davis with a laugh.
But her right-hand cook’s helper makes all the difference for Davis – it’s her mom. Beulah Bemis, at 72, would put a 20-year-old to shame with her energy. She is the chief cheerleader, supply manager and dishwasher, and an inspiration to Davis.
“You cannot imagine how special it is for me to work with her every day,” Davis said recently, while filling a blueberry pie. Davis’ husband, son and father are also frequent workers in the kitchen.
Further connecting the generations are the very recipes Davis uses. “They were Nana’s,” she says gently, recalling learning to cook from her grandmother, Mabel Bates of Hartland.
“I was such a tomboy that I wanted to learn what was quick and over with so I could get back outside to play,” said Davis. “My sister learned to sew and do handwork. I didn’t have the patience.”
Davis recalls that there were always homemade biscuits, molasses cookies and pies in Nana’s kitchen. And that culinary skill has apparently grown throughout the family tree.
Davis operates Pie Heaven at her husband’s family farm, Davis Egg Farms, which for generations supplied eggs to most of central and northern Maine. The chickens are gone but Kevin Davis, Sherry’s husband, continues the tradition as a broker, delivering eggs from the western mountains to Calais.
On many of his delivery trips, he brings home the key ingredients for his wife’s pies: Houlton Farms Dairy butter, potatoes from Caribou, blueberries from Machias.
He also is the chief dough roller, complete with his own apron. “He thinks it unmanly,” Sherry Davis said with a laugh. “He’ll finish rolling all the dough and then say, ‘I think I’ll go pull an engine.'”
But as his wife’s biggest fan, Kevin built the kitchen addition on the farm store in 1986 when his wife tired of working for the retail giant Ames Department Stores. “I traveled too much,” she said of her responsibilities. “Kevin asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘Make pies.’ And here we are today.”
All of the pies are quick-frozen, so the store experiences no waste, unless there is a special order for fresh pies.
Davis said her customers are mostly working families who don’t have the time to make either sweet or savory pies. “That’s what they tell me,” she said. “They just don’t have time. There are also those who just never were able to master rolling out pie dough.” She said she feels great pleasure thinking of them enjoying her cooking around a holiday table.
“But all pies are not created equal,” a smiling Davis admits. “Sometimes I’ll take one out of the oven and say, ‘My, that’s an ugly pie.’ Kevin eats those.”
His favorite? Sugar-free raspberry.
And hers? “Chocolate, of course!”
Sherry Davis’ Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Filling
3 cups rhubarb, chopped
1 cup strawberries, sliced
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients in bowl and place in pie crust. Bake at 325 degrees for one hour.