"Who knew Fairbanks was so fabulous! " Michelle
When I returned to Fairbanks on July 31, after spending 5 1/2 months in New York City, I was eager to participate in one summer activity in particular: berry picking. My Fairbanks friends are usually quick to answer calls for advice but my Facebook status asking for the best berry picking spots was met mostly with crickets. A few weeks later I encountered a similar mumming of the word while writing this story for the News Miner.
If you think that it’s bad to ask a Fairbanksan for the location of his or her favorite berry-picking spot, try asking for a pie recipe. Ask about pie eating, on the other hand, and folks are eager to share. While foodies in the Lower 48 have waged cupcake wars for the past few years, Fairbanks has maintained solid footing in the world of pie.
“I’m a confirmed Hilltop fan,” local photographer Phil Ackley said. “I didn’t even know there were other options.”
The truckstop, located about five miles north of Fox on the Elliott Highway, became famous thanks to one part word-of-mouth, one part Internet and a heaping dash of the “Ice Road Truckers” reality TV series, in which Hilltop has made cameos. On a recent Sunday, the “Pie List,” displayed on an erasable white-board, boasted 10 different flavors ranging from blueberry and pistachio to strawberry-rhubarb to the rumored favorite, the Fatman.
“He and his staff’s favorite was the ‘Fatman’ pie, made with walnut pie crust, cream cheese and some kind other over-the-top ingredients,” N.B. from Eielson Air Force Base posted on Yelp.com, a website on which people can review restaurants and other businesses, about one of the pie makers at Hilltop.
While a few recipes from Hilltop appear in a 2002 book called “The All-American Truck Stop Cookbook,” by Ken Beck, Jim Clark and Les Kerr, Hilltop’s bakers are tight-lipped about their culinary secrets.
“I can’t answer your questions,” one said. “It would be grounds for firing.”
Lips are not much looser at Take 5, located in The Artisan’s Courtyard building on College Road.
“Ninety-five percent of the pies come from family recipes,” said Sherrie Merdes, who owns Artisan’s. She opened Take 5 in 2007 and sold it, recipes and all, in November.
Many of Take 5’s pies are gluten-free. “Our bestsellers have been gluten-free chocolate espresso, peanut butter and strawberry-rhubarb,” she said.
When asked if she would share a recipe, Merdes answered, “Oh no … I wish I could.”
Over at Wolf Run Dessert & Dinner House, located in a wood and stone chalet near the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Josh and Jennifer Rindlisbacher offer up about six pies each day. Most flavors, including cherry-amaretto, sour cream-apple and peach-raspberry, were devised by them. Two others, pecan topped with chocolate and bourbon and their best-selling peanut butter pie, were inherited from the previous owner.
When asked if he had a recipe that he was willing or able to share, Josh fell in line with a genial, “Uh, no.”
At the annual “Liberry Music Festival and Berry Pie Throwdown,” taking place at the Golden Eagle Saloon in Ester on Saturday, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to buy your way into a recipe.
“It’s not exactly a pie social. That implies a much more proper and genteel event,” said Deirdre Helfferich, publisher of the Ester Republic newspaper. “This is a get-down, bribe-the-judges, dancing and foot-stomping and whistling, roaring, cheering-type event. We had 41 pies last year and are expecting far more this year.”
The proceeds from pie sales and bribes will benefit the community-created John Trigg Ester Library.
When asked if there were any frontrunners in the pie auction, Helfferich said, “My mother got a letter from U.S. Sen. Begich for her ‘Lenin Meringue Pie’ last year, but it’s very difficult to say because there are so many really excellent pie makers in the vicinity.”