While trying to impress a fellow pie lover with my pie eating credentials, I started telling her about Char’s Café in Peever, South Dakota. I asked google to find something and was happy about this wonderful article/love letter from South Dakota Magazine. However, I quickly became alarmed when I got to the end and discovered that Char’s burned down last October.
Both of my grandmothers frequented Char’s over the years, generally with a group of ladies, as is the proper way. Is there anything better than sitting with your friends, drinking coffee, eating pie and gossiping? As the article points out, Peever is a tiny town, under 250 people, but Char’s felt like a part of a larger community. It was certainly the heart of Peever and you might could argue it was also the heart of Roberts County. It was a place where everybody knows your name, or, at least, your grandmothers’ names.
People drove from all over, especially for Pie Day on Wednesdays. Coffee was 10¢ a cup and you served it yourself, putting your dime in a can. The pie was spectacularly incredibly out-of-this-world good. I never tried anything other than rhubarb or blueberry, but it’s a safe bet that all the many other types were amazing. The crust was perfection, light and flakey, but structurally sound enough to withstand any filling. The flavor of the crust was mild with just a touch of saltiness and enough blessings from the pastry gods to add a counterpoint to rhubarb, blueberry and whatever else Char chose to put in there. Let me take a moment to gush about the rhubarb pie, which is completely different from the one I make. Instead of straight rhubarb and sugar, Char made a rhubarb custard pie with meringue. I’ve looked online for recipes and found them, but I’ve always been a little intimidated. Now, I’m going to have to get over that and just try to make one.
The last time I was there was July 2010. I was in Sisseton with my mom and kids, ostensibly on a working vacation to take pictures and capture family stories for my Creative Renewal book. Mom said she’d watch the kids so I could zip over to Peever. It was lovely, although strange, to go by myself. The server asked me about “my people,” and was happy to talk about my late Grandma Nigg. A man I didn’t know encouraged me to take his picture after seeing me photograph the menu and my pie.
Before that, the last time I’d been there was during the family reunion the summer before Grandma Nigg died. When we arrived, Grandma was greeted warmly and asked by our server to introduce each of us. The wonderful small-town-interconnectivity way of introducing people ensued: “This is Jaq, Gale’s daughter…her mom is Jane George from Sisseton…Marie and Jimmy’s daughter…” (the appropriate response: “Oh..yah…yah…”) Most of our menfolk had remained at the lake to fish and have some time without all the hustle and bustle of kids. We asked to buy whole pies to take back to them and were denied. We could, however, purchase eight individual slices of pie. For some reason, I loved that. Rules are rules.
I was only ever a tourist at Char’s Café, but I took it for granted, thinking it would always be there. I should have learned a lesson from all of the businesses in Sisseton that have shuttered and are gone forever: nothing is permanent. I wish I had tried other pies, taken more pictures, talked to more strangers.