Reflections from Fran: The Legend of Leon’s Pies

Leon Garnet & Rosy Hunter, circa early 1940’s. (Historical tidbit: the windshield of the car swings open from the bottom!)

What was the name of that older gentleman that made pies for Wolff’s back in the day? That is a question I still get to this day; I actually had a customer just ask me that about two weeks ago. The answer: Leon Garnet. And this usually leads to some fairly standard follow up questions: …Wasn’t that the best apple pie you ever had? …HOW did he do it? …Do you have the recipe? And my answers to those three questions, respectively are “Yes!”, “I have no idea!” and “Well, technically, yes” (more on that later.) Leon Garnet worked as a farmhand at Wolff’s Orchard from the late 1920’s through the early 1970’s, doing a little bit of everything. As he got older, he gave up most duties except one…his true calling…creating the perfect apple pie, and I mean perfect! These pies were legendary. (He made them in a big, old oven out of his home. He lived on Barren road, directly across from Penncrest High School. The house still stands there today.)The pies were big, deep, sweet, and heaped with apples, with a texture that just melted in your mouth — all this was shrouded in a crust that was inexplicably flaky and moist at the same time. In the mid-70’s they retailed here at the market for $5.75. (After referencing an on-line inflation calculator, that comes to $25.17 today – and we couldn’t keep them on the shelves!) He also made peach, strawberry-rhubarb, and a deluxe 5-fruit pie. And his culinary expertise didn’t stop at pies. Leon also made (completely from scratch, of course) the most incredible corn fritters imaginable. He had a special way of slitting the kernels on the cob and scraping the corn out so that he didn’t get any of the hulls of the kernels. Little nuances like that is what made everything he cooked not just good, but great. And Leon had an unwritten rule about his corn fritters: If we took him ears of fresh corn on the cob, he would transform them into his world class corn fritters… always fried to perfection, and always enough to share!

Leon in 1978 at his home where he made his legendary pies, age 77

And Leon did more still than just cooking and baking. He also was famous (possibly notorious?) for making his own liquor in his home. He would use any/all types of fruits and plants – peaches, raisins, cherries – whatever was “in season.”  He delighted in sharing it, letting my older siblings (I was too young) have a little when we would come to visit. His vessel of choice to serve it in was old Mason jelly jars. No doubt to make it seem more like “Moonshine” – Leon had a flair for theatrics and all of this was part of his presentation. Further still, he would invariably give us a knowing wink out of the corner of his eye and say “close the curtains so the law can’t see what I’m making.” This quirky and fun-loving habit no doubt sprung from the fact that he grew up in the era of prohibition.

 

Now, back to the recipe…Do I have the recipe? Technically yes. Leon was more than willing to give out the recipe, but in the grand tradition of any true artist, it was hard for him to articulate the artistry he created. (I imagine it would be akin to asking Da Vinci to write down precisely how he captured Mona Lisa’s smile.) Leon’s handwritten recipe contains phrases such as “use 3 good size pads of butter, “sugar (lots)”, “go easy on the tapioca”, and for the cooking time it says “1 ½ hours, and then check every now and then”. That in itself is a daunting task to try to re-create. But, the final nail in the coffin turns out to be an ingredient called “Fluffo”.  Yahoo Answers helped me with this one… It’s a butter colored shortening like Crisco that’s last known availability was in an IGA store in CA in 2002.  So there you have it, cryptic amounts, vague directions, and non-existent ingredients –nothing to it — that’s all you need to reproduce the best apple pie I’ve ever had! Alas, it seems this “Holy Grail” of pies may only be able to exist in my memory!

Leon carrying chicken feed back to the original Wolff barn, circa early 1930’s

As I mentioned, Leon worked at Wolff’s for decades, just over 50 years, doing everything under the sun! He tended the chickens which entailed collecting eggs and catching and butchering them. He made himself a special pole with a loop on the end to make it easier to catch the chickens. He waited on customers for years and in the summer, sorted all of the corn that was brought from the field to the Market. Ever the tinker, Leon made a special tool which he used to open the end of each ear to look at it and decide if it could be sold as a “first” (best quality) or needed to be reduced and sold as a “second”.

 

Leon was born 1901, and spent his whole life in and around Media. Remnants of his childhood home can still be seen today. Inside of what is now Ridley Creek State Park, on the 5 mile multi-use loop trail, there is the foundation and some walls of a house next to the dam for the old Sycamore Mills. That is the house where he was born and raised. As a boy, he went to the old Lima School (where Pilot Freight is today, near the intersection of 352 & 452, in Lima.) The school is the namesake of the nearby street, Lima School Court.  We celebrated his 90th birthday at my brother Peter Wolff’s house in 1991, with close family and friends.  Leon passed shortly after that.

Leon bringing a basket of apples to the Market, circa late 1930’s

So, the name of that older gentleman that made pies for Wolff’s back in the day? Well, that would be Leon Garnet. But to me and my entire family he was so much more than just that. He was a fixture on the farm for over half a century and was a consistent and present influence in our lives growing up. He was a warm, gracious, insightful soul in the body of a hardworking and down-to-earth man. And, to every Wolff, he always felt like family!

 

*A VERY special thanks to my mom, siblings and cousins, for helping me with names, dates, and more.

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