Forum Cafeteria baker Olen G. Shelton. Star Tribune file photo.
The Forum Cafeteria was famous for its pies, due in no small part to the career-long labors of baker Olen G. Shelton.
In 1973, Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan profiled Shelton, and it's a charming and fascinating read. “He retired as chief baker after 46 years with the company,” Flanagan wrote. Shelton's first job with the company was as a pan cleaner at the Forum chain's Kansas City, Mo. outpost. He transferred to Minneapolis in 1930 and baked “those luscious pies” for the next 43 years.
Shelton learned how to bake pies as a boy growing up in rural Missouri, watching his mother, a master of her wood-burning stove. Shelton also told Flanagan that he ate a piece of pie every day at lunch during his 46-year career at the Forum. He declared lemon meringue pie to be the city’s favorite. “Years ago it was apple,” he said, “but nowadays soft pies sell best.”
Shelton rattled off other popular flavors from his vast baking repertoire: cherry, blueberry (“Including for breakfast,” he said), prune chiffon (“Surprisingly popular, day in and day out. Young people call it the ‘old folks pie,’ but I notice all ages eating it.”), pumpkin (“Not seasonal any more but a year-round favorite”), fresh strawberry (“One of our best and again a year-round favorite because now we get winter strawberries from Mexico”) and custard (“A specialty of mine, I love to bake custard pie”).
In the Forum’s 1950’s heyday, when the restaurant was reported to routinely feed 8,000 people a day -- this was before the masses were turning to McDonald’s, Subway and Chipotle for quick, inexpensive sustenance -- Shelton said he and his crew baked 700 pies every 24 hours. By the time Shelton retired in 1973, the restaurant had slowed considerably, feeding roughly 1,000 people a day, with daily pie consumption down to about 150 pies. “I think people worry about dieting nowadays and don’t eat as much pie as they used to,” he told Flanagan.
It doesn’t appear as if the Forum ever published a cookbook -- few restaurants did back then. Fortunately, Taste’s “Reader Exchange” column -- the print version of a sort-of pre-Internet chat room, where readers shared recipes with one another -- came to the rescue in 1981. F.D. Mizes wrote in to ask if anyone had a copy of the Forum’s famous Prune Chiffon Pie. A few weeks later, Lillian Rood of Minneapolis responded by submitting the following recipe. She said she received it from the main office at the Forum many years earlier.
One final note: Shelton met his bride at the Forum. She was, naturally, a pie cutter. They raised four kids, and in 1973 were grandparents to 13 grandchildren. When Flanagan dropped by Shelton’s Northeast Minneapolis house, he had just pulled a pair of apple pies out of the oven. “For company tonight, he said. “But would you like to try a piece?”
FORUM CAFETERIA PRUNE CHIFFON PIE
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Adapted from the April 8, 1981, edition of Taste.
6 oz. dried pitted prunes
1 c. hot water
For prune mixture:
1/4 c. (scant) sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. water
1 tbsp. butter
1/4 c. water
1/3 c. plus 1 tbsp. sugar
11/2 tsp. cream of tartar
3 pasteurized egg whites
1 baked pie shell
Freshly whipped cream for garnish
To prepare prunes: Wash prunes thoroughly. In a medium bowl, soak prunes in 1 cup hot water for 12 hours. Strain prunes, reserving liquid. Place prunes in a steamer over gently boiling water, cover and steam for 75 minutes.
To prepare prune mixture: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine reserved prune liquid, sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Add steamed prunes and mix well. In a small bowl, dissolve cornstarch in 2 tablespoons water and stir mixture into prunes. Continue cooking until mixture becomes thick, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, stir in butter and let prunes cool to room temperature.
To prepare chiffon: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisk together water, sugar and cream of tartar and bring to a low boil, stirring until sugar and cream of tartar dissolve. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, in a bowl of an electric mixture fitted with a whisk attachment on medium-high speed, whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Slowly add sugar-water mixture to egg whites and whip until stiff (but not dry) peaks form.
To prepare pie: Carefully fold meringue mixture into prunes. Pour prune chiffon into prepared pie shell. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Garnish with whipped cream and serve.