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Bumbleberry pie: The story behind the legendary improvised dessert

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you're the chef in your house, then you already know Thanksgiving is often the most carefully planned, most high-stakes meal of the year - you're telling me. But sometimes cooks have to improvise at the last minute, and the results can be amazing. That's what happened at a small bakery just outside Zion National Park in Utah, where a mysterious dessert has become a tourist attraction unto itself. David Condos with member station KUER tells the sweet story.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Inside the Bumbleberry Bakery, a steady stream of tourists walk up to get a taste of local history. Visitors Calum and Amanda Nelson, from California, picked two pieces of pie a la mode. The ingredients of this gooey, purple filling are classified. But after scooping up a bite, Calum takes a guess.

CALUM NELSON: It's like black currant and blackberry and something else.

AMANDA NELSON: (Laughter) The mystery ingredient.

NELSON: The mystery ingredient. Yeah, yeah.

NELSON: (Laughter).

CONDOS: This secret recipe started by accident in the mid 1960s, when the restaurant was run by Grandma Constance Madsen. Here's how her granddaughter, Melanie Madsen, tells the story. One day, a big bus of tourists rolled in unexpectedly, and Grandma didn't have enough of any single pie filling to feed the hungry crowd.

MELANIE MADSEN: There was never such thing as being closed. If there was someone who came and hadn't eaten, it didn't matter if the stove had been turned off and the oven had shut down. She would go fix something.

CONDOS: So Grandma bumbled together a combination of whatever berries were on hand and served the pies. Melanie says word spread quickly from one tourist bus to the next. By the end of that summer, bumbleberry pie was a thing. It even had its own song.

MELANIE MADSEN, RICHARD MADSEN AND HOLLY ROWLAND: (Singing) Have you been to Bumbleberry Valley?

CONDOS: Melanie and two of her siblings, Richard Madsen and Holly Rowland, remember their grandma would call them over to sing it for customers while they ate. They were young kids back then, between ages 4 and 6, but they could still tell their family's restaurant was a big deal, with long lines out front and visitors from all over the world.

M MADSEN, S MADSEN AND ROWLAND: (Singing) Once you come to Bumbleberry Valley.

RICHARD MADSEN: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

MADSEN: That's been a long time.

CONDOS: But the business didn't stay in the Madsen family forever. Stan Smith's family took the reins in 1972, and he takes his work as guardian of the confidential berry blend very seriously.

STAN SMITH: When somebody asks what a bumbleberry is, a bumbleberry is a burple (ph) and binkle (ph) berry that grows on a giggle bush.

CONDOS: There's a fanciful story that goes with it, too - cartoons of little creatures who harvest the burple and binkle berries from those giggle bushes. Now some customers get frustrated that he won't reveal the ingredients, but Smith says they're missing the point.

SMITH: It's magic. I mean, you know, especially nowadays, in the world where everything's so chaotic and people are so spiteful and hateful - what's a little joy?

CONDOS: A lot has changed in the five decades since his family bought this place. Visitorship to neighboring Zion National Park has jumped fivefold, and the bumbleberry business has boomed. Smith says they've gone through up to 13 tons of berries in a single year. But the pie? That's the same as always.

SMITH: The recipe does not change.

CONDOS: No matter how big of a celebrity the bumbleberry becomes, for Melanie Madsen and her family, it'll always be a reminder of Grandma. Each year around the holidays, they still get together and bake the pie.

MADSEN: It's tradition.

MADSEN: Yeah.

CONDOS: They've tried tweaking the recipe...

MADSEN: Yeah.

CONDOS: ...But in the end, she says nothing can top grandma's original.

HOLLY ROWLAND: So many good pictures.

MADSEN: Pictures.

(LAUGHTER)

CONDOS: For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Springdale, Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Condos
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