Smoke gets in your pies

At a Colorado intersection, meat, mushrooms and pastry build a personal and cultural bridge

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Smoked vittles: (Left) Blue oyster mushrooms and sirloin steak on John Shaffner’s chuckwagon grill.
John Lehndorff

I went down to the crossroads in Mead ready to exchange my mortal soul for a slice of smoked pie. I was outside The Merc, the combination store, deli and butcher shop near the intersection of I-25 and CO-66.

I had hit the road March 19 based solely on a social media post advertising mythical “smoked pies.” 

When I arrived with the roar of semis in the foreground and made-for-selfie peaks in the distance, I realized that the gathering had a theme. 

The Merc’s second annual Meat-In was advertised as “a celebration of agriculture in Colorado.” It was in response to Governor Jared Polis’ declaration of March 20 as “Meat Out Day.” 

While the inclination to support plant-based eating and lessen the environmental and health impacts of carnivorous dining is admirable, Polis’ poorly named event miffed the meat-raising folks of the state. The day wasn’t billed as pro-plant, but rather as anti-cow during a time when the pandemic had made agriculture just that much harder to do. That time also focused our attention on the serious value of having food produced locally without supply chain issues. 

“This started as a big F-U to Jared Polis, but it’s become a good way to get the local farm families together,” noted one attendee. 


Smoked blueberry and strawberry rhubarb pies from Tastes of Travel World Bakery.

The menu served at picnic tables in the parking lot offered diners either chicken strips or Rocky Mountain “oysters,” fried breaded slices of calf testicles. The first 200 people got a free hamburger, and the meal included iced tea and a portion of mixed berry, peach or tart cherry cobbler from pastry chef Brittany Deutsch of Milliken’s Tastes of Travel World Bakery. 

I told Deutsch I’d tasted pies that included smoked ingredients but never a whole smoked pie. She said she had seen pies, especially cobblers, baked in smokers in Kentucky. On a whim, she had the pit boss put blueberry and strawberry rhubarb pies into a hot smoker. 

The result was amazing. I tucked into a slice of blueberry-packed pie in a buttery graham cracker crust that had been smoke-baked and dished with Deutsch’s signature frozen whipped heavy cream laced with honey “from my Dad’s hives,” she said. 

Frankly, it was a moving taste experience that made a lot of sense once it was in my mouth. It was like eating smoked brisket and fruit cobbler on the same paper plate… without the brisket. 

Surprisingly, several people in line said they had served smoked pie. The sensible reason was that when your smoker is hot and smoking anyway, you might as well use it to cook everything you’ve got.  

Deutsch and her husband also offered some of the baked goods she sells at The Merc and at farmers’ markets and festivals, including bourbon- and bacon-infused cheesecake, and a double cherry pie with a flaky crust made tender with black pepper vodka and vinegar. 

I enjoyed talking to all sorts of people at the event. John Shaffner was standing in front of his working chuckwagon in a well-worn cowboy hat. He was expertly grilling massive sirloin steaks over hardwood charcoal. This literally wasn’t Shaffner’s first rodeo, since he has cooked at roundups, reunions and Western events for years. He said he had never heard of smoked pie, but I told him to try it and he really liked it. 

Zach Hedstrom had never sampled smoked pie either. He manned a booth offering beautiful blue oyster mushrooms from his Boulder Mushroom farm in north Boulder. He talked about the medicinal and healing properties of fungi and his work with locals, like Mark Guttridge at Longmont’s Ollin Farm, to use mycology to help regenerate farmland, but also fire-scorched mountain terrain. Hedstrom was invited to the Meat-In because his gourmet culinary mushrooms are sold at The Merc. 


Working the grill: Zach Hedstrom of Boulder Mushroom grills Blue Oyster mushrooms at The Merc.

I prompted Hedstrom to meet John Shaffner, which is how he came to rub some blue oyster fungi with vegetable oil and salt, and grill them in the smoke next to slabs of juicy rare to medium-rare beef. Farm folks took notice, asked for a bite of the fungi delight and bought a pound to take home. 

The Meat-In wasn’t a fundraiser; it was a gettogether, all about social solidarity. Politics were not on the menu, at least from what I could see or hear. There was one beef banner but nothing political on the many pickup trucks. 

I’m sure I could have ruffled some feathers by asking what the farm and ranch families thought about plant-based meats, but I was there for the pie and to appreciate the profound power of food to build suspension bridges over our great social, religious and political canyons. 

Local food news

Boulder’s Eric Skokan (Black Cat Farm Table Bistro) heads-up an all-Colorado cast of finalists for the James Beard Awards in the Best Chef: Mountain category that includes Dana Rodriguez (Work & Class), Jose Avila (El Borrego Negro), Cody Cheetham (Tavernetta) and Caroline Glover (Annette). 

Words to chew on

“What happens at the table is among the most important activities in civilization. It is about intimacy, convivium, creativity, appetites, desire, euphoria, culture, and the joys of being alive.” —Bill Buford 

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming at kgnu.org.)

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