By Jay Jones, Special to Tribune Newspapers
1:00 AM EST, January 31, 2014
Virginia Lam would gladly drive three-quarters of an hour in a blizzard for a slice of apple pie.
In fact, she has done just that — more than once.
It was during her work at the health center in tiny Talkeetna, halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, that Lam discovered the palate-pleasing pie during a meal at the Talkeetna Roadhouse.
"That pie was my 'crack,'" the nurse practitioner joked. "It's really good. The crust is a killer."
Lam owes her feigned addiction to Trisha Costello, the owner and manager of the combination diner and hostel. During the long winter months, she shares her recipes during Saturday afternoon baking sessions.
"Roadhouses were places spaced out along a road, a river or trail basically a day's journey apart. They were kind of like an old-time Motel 6 along the interstate," she explained. "Travelers could stop in the evening, get a meal and get a fresh start in the morning."
"Everyone that gathered for the evening meal usually sat at big long tables and ate pretty much whatever was put before them," she continued. "They swapped their stories of travels on the road."
While modern-day guests order hearty plates of food from a menu full of temptations, the atmosphere remains much the same.
"We have big tables here at the roadhouse," Costello said. "Chairs migrate. Sometimes you'll find a table that looks like it has a hundred chairs around it. We tell people just to grab a seat. Any empty chair will do."
In its early days, the Talkeetna Roadhouse, which opened in 1917, provided refuge for everyone from laborers building the Alaska Railroad to prospectors who would tie up their dog sled teams out back.
During the summer, Talkeetna (population 876) now serves as a base camp for tourists seeking outdoor pursuits ranging from fishing to "flightseeing" over Mount McKinley.
In winter, though, what the locals call "beautiful Downtown Talkeetna" is largely deserted. The region's resorts are shuttered. Most tourists steer clear during the season that witnesses weeks on end of below-freezing temperatures, an average of nearly 10 feet of snow and days when the hours of daylight dip to just five.
Costello said she began her wintertime pie-making classes as a way to generate some extra income.
"We're a little desperate (in winter)," she conceded with a jovial laugh.
Many of the visitors to the warm, aromatic kitchen arrive by train. It's a three-hour journey from Anchorage, and the Alaska Railroad offers a "Talkeetna Pie-Making Package" each October through March.
Lam came to the class in a different way. After repeatedly ordering apple pie for dessert, she learned of the class from a roadhouse employee. As the sun set on a December day, she and 14 others gathered to hear Costello share her recipes.
"I show them some interesting techniques of peeling and cutting up the apples," she said. "Then we learn how to make pie dough, all hands on. I share a few different methods. I also talk about the different applications, because we use our dough not only for our pies but also for our homemade pasties and our quiche."
After the pies cool for a couple of hours, the amateur bakers are invited back to pick up their oversize, deep-dish souvenirs.
For Lam, who has ventured into town even in blinding snowstorms for slices of fresh-out-of-the-oven pie, it seemed logical to share with co-workers.
"They cleaned it up," she said. "Within a couple of hours, it was gone."
If you go
Pie-making classes at the Talkeetna Roadhouse (13550 E. Main St., Talkeetna; 907-733-1351; talkeetnaroadhouse.com) are held at 3 p.m. most Saturdays October through March. The price is $45 per person.
The Alaska Railroad weekend package is priced at $209 for adults, $147 for seniors and $64 for children (2-11). That includes round-trip transportation, overnight accommodation and the class. The train departs Anchorage on Saturday morning and returns Sunday evening. For reservations, call 800-544-0552.
Further information about Talkeetna is available talkeetnachamber.org.
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