Mollie and Mrs. Rowe: Local author carries on restaurateur’s legacy
Her baked pork tenderloin was legendary; her breakfasts made famous by interstate word of mouth long before the Internet, her spoon bread praised by neighbors and food critics alike; but these were all runners-up, mere bit-players in Mildred Rowe’s story when compared to the star. Pie was the dish of choice of Mrs. Rowe, founder of the eponymous Staunton restaurant. Up until she died at 89, Mildred Rowe carried pies to family picnics and bereaved neighbors. Mrs. Rowe’s bakers now roll out 100 pies a day: pies with fruit and cream, chocolate and brown sugar, peanut butter and maple syrup.
Mrs. Rowe’s particular fondness for pie wasn’t lost on her biographer, Mollie Cox Bryan, who wrote Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook, a Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. That volume took years to write, and at times the effort resembled a battle of wills, Bryan said.
“She was someone who thought her story wasn’t much, and, of course, I was an outsider,” Bryan said.
The editor and author had moved to Waynesboro from the D.C. area when her husband, Eric, took the deputy director’s job at the Frontier Culture Museum. He’d hear stories from museum board member Mike DiGrassie, Mrs. Rowe’s son, and Mollie spotted the colorful narrative in the older woman’s life. The family was fine with a self-published biography, but the matriarch herself was hard to convince.
Bryan was determined to tell the story of this unusual and compassionate woman, and stuck to her subject like warm pie crust to a rolling pin. She was lucky enough to interview Mildred Rowe several times before she died at 89, so she captured a real-life sense of the woman that rings true in the cookbook. Eventually, the two women developed a mutual respect: “She said I was a hard worker,” Bryan recalls. She accompanied Rowe and DiGrassie to Rich Patch, the isolated Alleghany County community where the older woman was born, and heard firsthand the description of Rowe’s culinary development.
When Rowe died in 2003, the family asked Bryan to field the calls that came in. Over the years, Mrs. Rowe had become a roadside celebrity, thanks in part to her “discovery” of her restaurant by Jane and Michael Stern in their very popular book, Roadfood.
“I realized how much the news affected people all over the country who had stopped at Mrs. Rowe’s,” Bryan said. The author decided to expand on her biography to include the recipes that had made Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant a popular eating place for more than 50 years. “I had to re-work everything into a framework that could include the recipes,” Bryan said. Bryan and DiGrassie also decided to seek a commercial publisher, found a buyer in Ten Speed Press, and published the book in 2006. The second cookbook, focusing more narrowly on pie, has just been published by Ten Speed (now part of Random House) and is an Amazon best-seller among cookbooks of its type.
Pie is important: Mollie Bryan is certain about that. “I remember even as a child, how wonderful it was to sit down with a nice piece of pie,” she said. While talking about her new book, Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, the Waynesboro author found out she’s not alone. The very mention of pie is a trigger for memories, a symbol – not just of mom’s cooking – but of comfort and reassurance, whatever it is we miss when we miss the past.
Writing and promoting the latest book has immersed Bryan in a world of pie. She started running during this period, although she says pie is not entirely responsible for the added exercise. She can now talk pie with anyone, and has done so in print and broadcast.
Bryan, a poet, freelance writer and commentator who also writes on parenting and a variety of topics for magazines, newspapers and radio, said Mildred Rowe had a natural advantage when it came to pie crust, which requires a certain amount of skill and practice: “She said her hands were always cold, so of course the dough was easier to work with.” Bryan, who has a busy life with two young girls, wants to reassure people with warmer hands or more hectic lives who want to try baking one of Mildred Rowe’s pies: “I think it’s fine if you don’t have time to make your own crust, to use these recipes with a frozen crust. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from enjoying a wonderful pie.”
Find Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies at Stone Soup Books in Waynesboro, at Amazon.com, and at other local bookstores. Mollie Cox Bryan will make a number of local appearances:
June 27: Bookworks, Staunton, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
July 11: Stone Soup Books, Waynesboro, 12 noon-2 p.m.
July 18: Barnes & Noble, Charlottesville, 1 p.m.
July 25: Augusta County Library, Fishersville, 3 p.m.
Aug. 1: Cantos Booksellers, hosting at Twists & Turns, Roanoke time to be announced
– Story by Theresa Curry