Her Norske Nook was a pie piper, but now Helen Myhre's just rolls out cookbooks

October 20, 1993|By Kathie Jenkins | Kathie Jenkins,Los Angeles Times

OSSEO, Wis. -- About 1,200 pieces of pie are sold every day in this small farming town. That's almost a slice per resident.

We are not talking ordinary pie. Osseo -- located between Madison and Minneapolis -- is the home of Helen Myhre (pronounced MY-er), who practically reinvented the pie at her Norske Nook cafe. People from all over America detour off Interstate 94 to eat Mrs. Myhre's pies: apple, banana cream, blueberry, butterscotch, cherry, raspberry, coconut cream, rhubarb, glazed peach, homemade mincemeat, custard, lemon, chocolate, pumpkin, sour cream-raisin and fresh strawberry.

The "Today" show's Willard Scott has stopped by for pie. So has Charles Kuralt of CBS, and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. David Letterman heard about it and flew Mrs. Myhre to New York to teach him how to bake a pie.

Eating pie, of course, is great. But Mrs. Myhre's customers all started to want recipes. That got Mrs. Myhre thinking about how much easier it would be if she had her own cookbook.

So when "Farm Recipes and Food Secrets From the Norske Nook: the Midwest's 1 Roadside Cafe" (Crown: $24) came out in May, it pleased just about everyone. Written with Mona Vold, a former Osseo resident, the book is rural and folksy, filled with recipes and stories about the life of a Midwestern farm woman. A featured selection in two book clubs, it is already in its second printing.

Not all peaches and cream

L But despite all this attention, Mrs. Myhre is not impressed.

On the phone with her New York publisher, she has just been told that the second printing will take a month. "Hah," she says as she hangs up, shaking her head and frowning. "If I ran the Norske Nook that way, I'd have been out of business a long time ago. If I was low on pies, I'd get right with it and make some more before we ran out."

And that is not all she has to frown about. "The book wasn't quite the way I wanted it to be," Mrs. Myhre says. "I told my stories, but Mona had different ideas."

In the book, Osseo is transformed into something resembling Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon.

Granted, there are plenty of Norwegian bachelor farmers in the small hamlet, and everyone in these parts drinks cups and cups of weak coffee. But Osseo is not Lake Woebegon; the Norske Nook is not the Chatterbox Cafe.

Mrs. Myhre was also annoyed that she was asked to leave one of her favorite recipes out of the book: red cherry bars. "The editors didn't want maraschino cherries because they had red [food] coloring in them," says Mrs. Myhre. "I told them, 'Look, it isn't only New York that is going to buy this book.' Still, they demanded I make a substitution. What do you substitute for red cherries. Grapes?"

No Miracle Whip?

Miracle Whip was also unacceptable. "When I made potato salad or coleslaw down at the Nook, I used Miracle Whip," says Mrs. Myhre, still bristling at the effrontery of a New York editor. "Now they were telling me they didn't like my ingredients."

To satisfy them, Mrs. Myhre made mayonnaise from scratch, doing, she says, "everything I could to snap it up . . . even added lemon juice."

It's difficult to imagine anything wrong with her recipes. In a world of plastics and preservatives, real food has been the key to her success.

After more than 20 years of farm life, after raising six children, Mrs. Myhre took a job cooking at a root-beer stand. She was 40 years old. Every week she peeled 600 pounds of potatoes. Every day she made cakes and doughnuts, rolled out cookies, flipped burgers, roasted chickens and served dozens of hot-beef sandwiches. By 1973, the drive-in had been sold and the new owners owed her six-weeks' back pay. Looking for a steady source of income, the enterprising Mrs. Myhre bought the Star Cafe, one of three restaurants in town.

"I asked the owner if there was any money to be made in restaurants," says Mrs. Myhre, "and she said 'Oh, yeah.' " The bank wasn't so sure. They agreed to loan her money only if she would put her two farms up as collateral. "I wouldn't do it," says Mrs. Myhre. "I wasn't prepared to take my two homes with me if I went belly-up."

She came up with most of the money herself and renamed the place Norske Nook after a group of Norwegian men who sat in the corner of the place every morning to drink coffee and gossip. Mrs. Myhre kept the menu small, bought locally and made all her dishes from scratch.

Being prepared with roasts

Every night before she closed the restaurant, she'd put three 22-pound beef roasts and six 12-pound pork roasts into the oven to slow-cook until morning. "That way if we ran short of our special for the day," says Mrs. Myhre, "we'd always be able to give them a roast dinner."

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