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Here: Off Interstate 80, Venango County

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Photo by Steve Mellon ~ Story by Bob Batz Jr.

Click photo for larger image.

America's worst apple pie is made by a Clarion County woman named Betty Best. She makes them for the Plaza Restaurant at the Emlenton Truck Plaza off Exit 42 of Interstate 80 in Venango County. She makes pies three days a week, sometimes dozens at a time, and this 24-hour operation still sells out.

The restaurant first put up billboards along I-80 advertising "America's Worst Apple Pie" back in 1989, and Americans -- being Americans -- have been pulling in eager to try it ever since.

The gimmick was the idea of Hubbard, Ohio-based truck stop developer Ed Yasechko Sr. He kicked off the promotion with a pie-baking contest at the restaurant and didn't copy it at his other properties. "Seemed like it fit there."

"Here" is a weekly feature produced by Post-Gazette photographers and writers who roam the region to capture close-up slices of life here.

Past stories are indexed Here.

It certainly attracted attention. Earlier this year, a crew from CBS's "Sunday Morning" show stopped in and did a "Roadside" segment, part of which has been shown on "60 Minutes," and that has brought in more curious travelers.

The signs -- including the big one over the pie case inside the restaurant -- describe it as "America's Worst Best Apple Pie." But if anyone asks, and folks usually do, manager Gary Cribble tells them to expect the worst. "That way if it is bad that day, they can't say much."

Problem is, the pie isn't bad. And it got much better about two years ago when the restaurant hired Betty Best. She switched from using canned filling to making her own with flash-frozen fruit. The crust she makes completely from scratch, with flour and salt and shortening and cold water, the way her mom taught her when she was 13.

"Oh, that was back in the old days," says Best with one of her quiet laughs. A resident of nearby Kissinger Mills, she'll be 70 in February. She'd made a lot of pies, at home as well as at other restaurants before she came here.

"I ad-lib a lot," she says over the fans in the Plaza kitchen, using her hands to mix a big stainless steel bowl of Golden Delicious slices with sugar, corn starch and so much cinnamon that they turn a dark and fragrant brown.

She hand-measures her dough, too, liberally flouring a round of it before rolling it out with a pin as long as her arm. Then she tucks the soft white pastry into an aluminum pan as if she's making a baby bed.

In go the apples, and with a finger she wets the rim of the bottom crust, and then she rolls out the tops, marking each -- with the handle of a teaspoon -- with a big "A" so her colleagues will know they're apple.

The pies are frozen and baked as needed, which is often, since apple is the best seller. It's Best's favorite flavor, too, and she's not all worried when her friends come in to try it. "They always say they like it," she says, laughing again. "Of course, that don't mean they meant it."

She makes making it look easy, and it is, in terms of the recipe.

But, as those who shrink from this task may know, there's more to making pie than that.

"If you're upset or you're not in the right mood, you've got a problem," she says. "If there's something on my mind, it doesn't turn out right."

She's a little self-conscious about how her A's hardly ever wind up in the centers.

But no good pie is perfect -- not even America's worst.

Steve Mellon can be reached at Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.

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