Eating On the Edge #22: "Straw-Rhu" from the Ashes

Mt. Lemmon, Arizona: "This is such humble food my mother wouldn't put it on the table if the pastor came," Pam the Pie Queen tells people who drive across a state and up a mountain to eat the Pennsylvania Dutch fare at her tumbledown joint that has survived not only 35 years of changing tastes but also the Great Fire that burned down everything around it.

Behind a battered counter, Marty Mollo doles out the family-secret smokehouse sausage, turkey breast, ham hocks, mushroom-barley soup, and all the rest. For dessert, "straw-rhu"-strawberry-rhubarb pie-disappears as fast as the wild blackberry, peach, cherry, sour cream apple, and a dozen others.

"Marty's just the front man," Pam Rinella explains with tenderness of her life-long husband. "I'm the old @#$% that does all the work."

My food radar gets no credit for this one. I'd driven up the 25 miles from Tucson to see what was left after a fire five years ago devastated the forest and the 250 acres that had been grandfathered in for private use. It was the Mt. Lemmon Café or hunger pangs.

Since forever, Tucsonans have ascended the 8,000-foot mountain to throw snowballs when it was suntan weather below. A hardy few built funky year-round cabins at a settlement called Summerhaven. A ski resort and campsites thrived. But five years ago, as tends to happens when humans alter ecological balances, Mother Nature and Father Time cleaned up the place with raging fire.

Now, money replaces natural selection. Old leases weren't renewed; new building codes are draconian. Costly condos are going up on the remains of the old log-sided lodge with its stone fireplace mountaintop, and Mt. Lemmon pioneers have gone.

Pam lost her 200-year-old sauerkraut pot. At 65, she works up to 20 hours a day because she can't find people who want to commute for what the café can pay. But she and Marty aren't going anywhere.

"We're open everyday the mountain is open, honey," she told me. It has been like that since the 1970s. "I came here with a 3-year-old and nothing but a chainsaw. My daddy loved his smokehouse, and he worked it until he was 83. I'll do the same. If I could have the privilege to continue bringing this food and this culture to people, I'll die happy."

In the end, she said, it's not about fancy recipes. "What really is good food is when you find someone's heart beating on the plate."

Mort Rosenblum is a former Associated Press reporter now based in Paris and Provence. He is the author of several books including A Goose in Toulouse, Chocolate, and the recent Escaping Plato's Cave, as well as a frequent contributor to Bon Appétit. Here, he shares memorable meals from his recent travels around the globe.

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