I hosted a small dinner party the other night. Leading up to it, I agonized over what to serve. My guests, though not particularly fussy, deserved to be fed well. I wanted to impress. After all, my discerning mother was on the guest list. To distraction, I fretted. I had articles to write, a dog to walk, a novel to work on. This couldn’t go on. What was I to do? Then it hit me. A deus ex machina stared right at me. One of the articles I was to write concerned an iconic Spillimacheen dessert…
Nola and Dennis Alt arrived to the Columbia Valley in the early nineties. They came from Corsicana, Texas, an hour’s drive south of Dallas. “We left Texas at the end of a hot and humid August, and when we got here, we felt like we were in heaven,” said Nola, who left behind a career in corporate IT. The Alt’s settled in Spillimacheen, purchasing the old forestry complex across the road from the winding, somnolent Columbia. For the past four years, Nola and her friend Nancy Fehr have run the Spilli Station Cafe. This year is their last before handing the reigns over to new owners Bernie and Patty Derbyshire.
It’s a delightful cafe. The kind of place where everyone knows everyone and everything under the sun can be discussed. “Even when we’re closed, people come to just sit on our picnic tables out front and talk.” The cafe has changed hands through the years, but there’s at least one remaining constant: a dessert Nola brought with her from Texas.
I arrived to the cafe on a smoky Saturday afternoon. Through the doors, there Nola was to greet me, smiling. She served her dessert paired with a cappuccino. We sat down, began our conversation. I wanted to know its origins, the ingredients, the method. “I found the recipe in the Corsicana daily newspaper in 1988,” she said. “I was hosting a potluck and it was a quick and easy recipe, my husband thought I was crazy to serve it.”
The dessert? Peanut butter cream pie. “Dennis didn’t think people would go for the peanut butter,” she said laughing. In the American South, pecan pie is a far more popular, traditional dessert. That night, the pie was a hit. “And the recipe has stayed the same since except for one small change,” Nola said. “I drizzle caramel over it as a garnish.”
Simple are the ingredients: graham cracker crust, regular peanut butter, and cream products for the filling and topping.“What’s crucial is the salted peanuts on top. They give a wonderful contrast.” I asked Nola about her method, she smiled. If she told me, I’d soon be pushing daisies. After my first bite, my world went from black and white to technicolor. That good? Yes. Also because, since Easter, I pledged to myself a diet without added sugar.
Nola and I continued our conversation. Not long was it before I realized the dessert’s true essence. Sprung from the pie was our discussion. We had only just met, there’s a disparity in our birth years, but I felt like I’d known Nola for years. We talked about wetlands ecology, politics, technology, grassroots farming, soil alkalinity, diner culture. We talked Canadian, American sensibilities, our shared passion for New Orleans cuisine. Yellow dog democrats, civil rights, Ann Richards, Elliot Coleman, and Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Collective. Breadth and depth.
I’m convinced. This is the fundamental reason people come from all over Alberta and B.C. to eat Nola’s peanut butter cream pie. Or, maybe it’s for no other reason than the taste. To be considered later. While Nola and I talked, Nancy handled the front and the little cafe was busy despite the smoky pandemic. I left with a frozen pie under my arm. On a picnic table out front sat an elderly couple, patrons of the cafe since the nineties. I asked them if they liked the pie. They gave me a look like: is an elephant heavy? They said there was only one problem. “Slices aren’t big enough.”
Later, I had my dinner party. The appetizer, too much jalapeño. Lips were on fire for the olive oil soaked main. But then I released the ace up my sleeve. Before I finished asking for its approval, plated were seconds, thirds.