Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
Driving along a curveball road in Nova Scotia, my visiting friend reads a handmade sign outside a church hall. "Strawberry Supper, $12," she says, puzzled. "You guys eat strawberries for dinner?"
As a Nova Scotian, I know and love these community events: home-cooked meals, ample portions and desserts – lots of desserts. I ease into the gummed-up parking lot. It's only four in the afternoon and the church yard is packed, as if a giant magnet has attracted the entire village.
People join friends in a lineup that zigzags to nowhere in particular. Kids run rampant and older folks are invited to make their way to the front. Nobody notices the wait or chaos; they're too busy chatting. We join the line and get caught up on the local dirt even though we don't know a soul.
Summer is berry season and that's when the county's finest cooks modestly strut their stuff, baking family favourites passed down through generations. Everybody pitches in to fundraise for the local church halls, fire stations and community centres. Those who can't cook will serve food or wash dishes.
I explain to my friend that strawberry suppers offer the usual rib-stickers, such as roasts, baked beans, ham and potato salad, but that's just to keep Canada's Food Guide spies happy. Really, we're here for the desserts.
These humble dining events are open to the public and cost less than a pair of grandiose lattes in the city. And if you think strawberries for supper is just not right, well, then wait for blueberry season.
From our shameless eavesdropping we learn that Betty somebody has baked her legendary pie-in-the-sky: strawberry-rhubarb meringue. My friend and I make it our mission to score Betty's pie – like everybody else.
We're led to a long table covered in a tablecloth decorated with dancing spoons, smiling plates and marching cups – adding a touch of mid-century nostalgia. The table is jammed with homemade rolls, butter, salads, pickles and beets.
The first course is a delicious turkey dinner, which we vow to pick at. Then we taste the home-made dressing, mash, veg, cranberry and slices of turkey slathered in gravy and devour the whole thing.
Meanwhile the dessert list on the chalkboard has everyone's attention: strawberry pie, shortcake (with biscuits), strawberry-rhubarb pie, strawberries and pound cake. For strawberry-phobes, there are lemon, pecan, blueberry and apple pies.
I spot Betty's artistry on a table. Each slice is layered with plump, red strawberry-rhubarb filling, crowned with swirls of meringue and golden drops somersaulting down the peaks.
As our dinner plates are removed, we notice pie choices dwindling. I draw a deep breath and ask our friendly server if she could get us two slices of Betty's pie.
"Which Betty? McIntyre or Maclean?" she asks sweetly. I note one raised eyebrow from the man beside us, suggesting you don't request specific people's desserts. Unless of course, you're local, then through what appear to be a series of clandestine hand signals rivalling a Masonic convention, certain people wangle the coveted pie.
I fess up that I don't know Betty's last name because I heard about her pie in the lineup. I mumble a brief apology and await my pie fate. In a blink, she swings by with two large slices and says, "There's no Betty Maclean. I was just having a little fun with ya, dear. Enjoy."
The serving of this pie-in-the-sky ought to be accompanied by a Nova Scotian bagpiper – it's that good. The crust, like buttery lace, melts on contact. Sweet strawberries dance the tango with the tart rhubarb, creating a wild taste sensation. While technically superfluous, the meringue adds a frothy finishing touch. We delight in every morsel, then exchange a knowing glance that we both want to lick our plates.
Barely able to move, my friend and I say farewell to those nearby. The elderly gentleman who has amused himself listening to our pie shenanigans eases out of his chair. As the server steadies him, he says: "You still make a great pie, Betty." Mr. Cheeky then winks at me. Betty blushes the colour of strawberry jam and dashes off before we have the chance to gush, and thank her for the amazing pie-in-the-sky. Maybe next year.