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So many people visited the Sea Gull Restaurant all those years ago. I don’t regret moving on with my life but I do miss the friends and the people I worked with and … the pies. When I entered into the “tough” negotiations with Martin and Marlene Hall, I was a mere 26 years old, still wet behind the ears, fresh out of graduate school where I studied economics and statistics. It was no preparation to run a restaurant. I had an interest in food but little experience in the kitchen. The one thing I did know, however, was that I loved Helen’s pies. Everyone did.
When I first arrived, Martin Hall was at his house behind the Sea Gull grating the fresh horseradish he grew in the garden. Grating and preparing fresh horseradish is nasty business. Your eyes burn, your nose runs, you sneeze. Calamity is always just around the corner. Martin was well into the process. Looking at him, I quickly determined that fresh horseradish was not worth the trouble.
Martin also grew potatoes. He grew them under straw so you didn’t have to dig them up when they were ready. They were much easier to deal with. What most fascinated me, however, was the bed of fresh rhubarb. I’d never really tasted rhubarb before.
“What do you do with the rhubarb?” I naively asked.
“Oh, that’s for Helen. She makes fresh rhubarb pies when the crop comes in.”
I soon discovered that Helen’s pies were the most popular item on the menu. The owners of the Little River Inn and the Heritage House dropped by in the afternoon for pie and coffee like many locals including Dora Doolittle and the folks from Mendosas. Hippies, rednecks and tourists–they all loved the pies. We sold whole pies to go. People snapped them up. They also bought jars of pickled kelp from Antioch Ranch and coffee cups designed by artist Martin Schmidt.
In the Fall we could count on “Pinky” Tubbs to bring in jars of fresh local huckleberries. He did the pesky work of picking and cleaning them. Helen transformed them into pies. The high school kids would bring baskets of fresh blackberries they picked on the bushes all around town. Helen turned them into pies.
The waitresses and cooks sometimes found Helen difficult to work with. She was adamant about keeping her baking corner in pristine condition. At night the cooks used a rolling pin to make the cracker crumbs we used to bread the fish. If, by mistake, they used Helen’s rolling pin and she found cracker crumbs gumming up the gears the next day, there was hell to pay.
She had a few silly jokes she loved to tell. When she walked into the kitchen to put a pie into the oven, she would call the scrambled eggs “crazy mixed up kids.” Sometimes, trying to make casual conversation, I’d start a sentence with “Well, …” She would respond with “that’s a deep subject” before I could finish the sentence. She took home the rendered blood from the meat we thawed to give to her plants. “But, I don’t give the pork blood to the wandering jews,” she’d say with a smile.
When Helen retired after a long and successful career, Gary Lyte who was managing the kitchen at that time, stepped in to make the pies. Later Jeannie Sullivan became our dessert chef and was responsible for the pies as well as our popular coffee cake, chocolate moose, and other items including quiche
I know the Sea Gull impacted many people, some living here on the coast, some far away. Occasionally I discover an article or a letter or a picture that reminds me of those wonderful days. I’ll end this post with a story by Leah Eskin, food writer for the Chicago Tribune, that I recently discovered online. She visited Mendocino around 1972.
We stayed in a cabin. One room where we all slept, plus a tiny kitchen. When it rained we worked macrame, pinning strands of sisal to a spongy board, tying the lumpy cord into the lumpy potted-plant holder. It was, after all, Northern California.
Compliant children, we sat cross-legged on the floor, patiently securing the square knots.
Otherwise, we were rarely indoors. We spent our days roaming the rocky coast, which was windy and wild and would have laughed at bikini or beach novel. We untangled ropes of seaweed caught in the crags. Damp salt-scented kelp, with its bulbous float and girl-long trailing stem, makes a fine microphone, handy for broadcasting the vacation morning news. The forecast: buoyant.
We collected rippled shells and smooth stones and brought them back to the cabin. Some were speckled with tiny holes; these we saved to tie up in the macrame.
Evenings we walked into town to watch “The Perils of Pauline,” silent but for the organ. Invariably the villain tied Pauline to the tracks. Probably with square knots. One night on the way home we bought a pie at the Sea Gull Inn. It was low-slung, dense and golden. In the tiny kitchen we passed out the tin plates and sliced a tumble of sticky sweet apricots, brilliant as the seaside sunset. The next night we walked back for another.
Eventually, we had to return the cabin keys. We packed the car, densely, with our half-finished macrame, our rocks, our heaps of damp sweaters. And one apricot pie.
It was vacation; the sort where children get to act like adults and stay up late watching old movies. The sort where adults get to act like children and, while driving, stick a tin fork in the pie. Miles down Shoreline Highway, we all missed Mendocino. We doubled back for one more sunset pie.
HELEN’S APRICOT PIE RECIPE
(per Leah Eskin and Marlene McIntyre)
Helen Kiefer, of Ft. Bragg, Calif., baked the Sea Gull Restaurant and Inn’s famous apricot pie. Now 90, she has relinquished her apron and her recipe. This version re-creates her masterpiece from memory-my own, and that of Marlene McIntyre, general manager at the now-defunct restaurant and current owner of the Sea Gull Inn Bed & Breakfast in Mendocino. “All Helen’s pies were excellent,” says McIntyre. “She just didn’t make a bad one.”
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup sugar, plus a bit
1 1/2 pounds ripe apricots, pitted and sliced into 1-inch wedges
Prepared pie dough, recipe follows
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Toss: Whisk together cornstarch and 1 cup sugar in a large bowl. Add apricots and toss to coat. Let sit while you roll out the dough.
- Fit: Roll out the larger round of dough on a lightly floured surface and fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Refrigerate while you roll out the smaller round of dough.
- Fill: Spoon apricots and any accumulated syrup into the dough-lined pie plate. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust and crimp the edges. Brush with half-and-half and sprinkle with a little sugar. Use kitchen scissors to snip a starburst vent in the center.
- Bake: Set pie on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 450 degrees. Lower heat to 375 degrees and bake until golden and bubbly, about 40 minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm.
DOUBLE CRUST: Whisk together 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Cut in 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter and 1/4 cup cold vegetable shortening with a pastry blender until lumps range from kidney bean to pea-sized. Stir together 6 tablespoons ice water and 1 tablespoon cider vinegar; drizzle into dough, tossing with a fork, until damp enough to clump. Turn out dough. Smear a lump across the counter with the heel of your hand to work fat into flour. Repeat a few times. Gather up and divide into 2 portions, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour.