‘Miss Ruby’ Whips Up Pies To Die For
BY KEN BECK
Learning to sink your teeth into a piece of scrumptious homemade chocolate pie? You know, like grandma used to make from scratch with the meringue fluffed up a mile high above the sweet chocolate goodness that waits below.
Or how about some taste bud tempting banana pudding, crampacked with vanilla wafers?
Well, why are you still standing there? Cruise into the Pleasant Shade Restaurant where such delightful desserts are yours for the asking. (Don’t get there too late ’cause they might run out.)
While you’re chowing down in this village that sits in the midst of a triangle formed by Carthage, Hartsville and Red Boiling Springs, you may meet Ruby Mai West, the Dessert Queen, who has been baking these sweet treats for most of her 80 years.
Don’t expect any great revelations from the country cook that most around here call “Miss Ruby.” Her secret to a great pie?
“I dunno. I just put the stuff in there and cook it,” says West. “I’ve got a recipe book, but I don’t use it. Mostly I guess at it.”
She doesn’t use a timer while her pies cook in the oven but goes by appearance. “I just know it’s ready,” she says matter of factly.
Her ingredients for chocolate pie are the basics: sugar, eggs, milk, butter, vanilla flavoring, chocolate. The meringue contains sugar, egg white, vanilla andcream of tartar.
“The tartar keeps it firm so it won’t run when you take it to a dinner,” she divulges.
West doesn’t brag on her cooking but others will.
“Ruby makes the best pies in the world. I can promise you that,” says Sheila Burns, who runs the Pleasant Shade Restaurant with husband Steve. “She works her pies to death. She stirs it so there’s no lumps. And everybody knows about her fried pies” (Unfortunately, West rarely makes fried pies commercially at the restaurant but she bakes those from home and gives them away to fortunate family and friends.)
Her banana puddings are also legendary in these parts. She probably makes 100 a year at home. Those she carries to church luncheons, benefit auctions, families facing an illness or the funeral home when neighbors are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Born to Flossie (Chaffin) and Johnny Woodard in 1933 in the Russell Hill community of Smith County, West grew up on a farm with two brothers and five sisters. It was no easy childhood during the heart of the Great Depression. “My mama was sick a whole lot when she was younger,” recalled West, who started cooking at 10 on a wood-burning stove. “Mama and Daddy both taught me how to cook, mostly Mama.”
Her chores were not only performed in the kitchen. “I worked. Did anything that come along. I plowed tobacco with a mule. Me and Daddy used to log and it wasn’t no chainsaw neither.”
These days she mostly puts herself to use in the kitchen of the Pleasant Shade Restaurant, which is “over the hill” about eight miles from her house in Defeated Creek.
“She makes egg pies, chocolate pies. She does banana puddings and helps with the chocolate cakes and coconut cakes,” observed waitress Glenda York, who lives in Willette in Macon County. “She helps with the dishes. She’s a multi-tasker. She can do anything she puts her mind to.”
Steve and Sheila Burns, who moved from Murfreesboro to the community in 2009, consider themselves blessed to have Miss Ruby putting her deft hand to work in their eatery.
“I’ve known Ruby since we opened the restaurant four years ago. She came in every Saturday night to listen to the bluegrass music and to eat tater tots,” Sheila recollected. “I told her, ‘You got to eat more than tater tots.’ She agreed to eat a piece of fish.
“One day I looked out and she was sitting in her car in front of the restaurant. I could tell something was wrong. She had worked for one of the little country stores as a cook for many years and was let go. I went out and said, ‘Ruby Mai, what are you doing?’ “‘Oh, nothing,’ she told me. ‘I worked all my life. I don’t know anything but to work. What am I going to do?’
“‘Well, Ruby, why are you sad? I’m tickled to death. Will you please come over here and make desserts for me?’
“She agreed and cooks desserts two days a week, usually Fridays and Saturdays. She is one of the sweetest, kindest people you ever could hope to meet,” Sheila said.
“On Sunday she comes over for dinner after church, but before church she stops and brings cookies and fried pies. She says to me, ‘You let them girls have those cookies. These fried pies are for you.’ “She’s such as pleasure to me. It’s like working in the kitchen beside my Mama,” said Sheila.
West has outlived three husbands and has three children: Maxie, Ricky and Melissa; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“She’s a hard-working Christian woman, honest to a fault. She raised us when our father died in 1972. She was the janitor at Defeated Elementary School from the ’70s almost to the ’90s,” said son Ricky West, who lives in Pleasant Shade.
“During the summer we worked in tobacco and push-mowed [lawns] about eight years for people,” he says recalling the lesson in work ethics he learned from his mother. But she also taught her offspring about compassion.
“My mama always had a soft spot for the less privileged. She’d give money to kids who had less money than we had. We didn’t know we were poor. She’llmake a banana pudding to take it to the family of those who have had a death.”
As for her way around the stove, he sums it up saying, “She’s just an old-timey, down-home Southern cook. And she’s never made nothin’ bad.”
Miss Ruby went to work at 18 in the early 1950s at the W.E. Stephens pants factory in Carthage, where for about 20 years she operated a machine that put snaps on the pants and rivets on pockets.
“I braided one of them things through my finger one day,” she recalled. “I went to the doctor and about two hours later was back at work.”
A woman with a green thumb, West keeps a yard full of flowers and plants. She has a small front porch, where in nice weather she enjoys her breakfast, and talks to her outdoor cat Pretty Pretty that meets her at her car door and walks her to the porch.
“I’d rather cook as anything. I enjoy making pies,” says the member of the Russell Baptist Church, who stops at the restaurant to eat her Sunday dinner. She’s partial to fried chicken, cream potatoes and green beans and normally passes on the sweets.
As for her current culinary gig, the Dessert Queen of Pleasant Shade, a real sweetie pie herself, says, “I love it. They’re good people. I work two days a week at least. I don’t stop much.”
Pleasant Shade Restaurant and General Store
Address: 725 Pleasant Shade Hwy. (Highway 80)
Hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday- Thursday; 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
Phone: (615) 677-0000
Directions from Lebanon (approximately a 45-minute drive): Take I-40 East to Carthage Exit 258. Go north on Highway 53 through Carthage and take Highway 25 west. Go about 3 miles out of Carthage and turn right on Highway 80 North and go 7.5 miles to Pleasant Shade