Chief Deputy Joe Koetter

Red Willow County Sheriff's Office, Nebraska

A Chief Deputy, the “Pie Guy” and Santa all walk into a sheriff’s office, wearing the same shoes...

Recently Charlie and I were in McCook, Nebraska, at the Red Willow Sheriff’s Office. It was here that I experienced the best pie crust I have ever eaten. Mind you, I have eaten a lot of pie, so I consider myself an expert on this.

The crust was consistently light and flaky, from the base to the top and the oh-so important edge. You know, the part that gets burned, too thick or too dry. Oftentimes this is the one part of the pie I leave on the plate (because Mr. Manners demands that something is left). The pie had the perfect ratio of rough-cut sugar sprinkled on top and it had me going, “M’m! M’m! Good!”. Now, let’s talk about the filling: a gooseberry cream that was equal parts tart and sweet – like the best kind of Sour Patch Kid. One that begs you to eat just one more.

You are probably thinking that great pie baking like this is from an older woman who learned her craft from her mother or grandmother or, at the very least, from the famous red-and-white-checked Betty Crocker Cookbook. Ha! You couldn’t be further from the truth. This amazing pie crust came from Chief Deputy Joe Koetter of the Red Willow Sheriff’s Office – aka the “Pie Guy.”

Joe’s pie baking and crust perfecting began back in the ’80s when he was laid up for about a month after being busted up by a horse. Since he was unable to work, he decided to help his wife by taking on some of the household chores, including cooking. On one memorable occasion, he cooked a pie for dessert with pretty miserable results. His crust was so thick it took up most of the pie, and his wife – like all good spouses would do – laughed at his crust. Joe was inspired to try again. And again. And again.

His crust became good, so good that his wife was no longer laughing at it and he was known in McCook for having, hands down, the best pies in the county. His ingredients for the fillings are all from scratch and, oftentimes, from his own garden. For example, the gooseberries in the pie he shared with us were from his garden. If growing the berries wasn’t enough work to deter most of us, gooseberries aren’t the easiest thing to pick, as I understand it, because they have thorns that can really tear you up. In fact, there are instructional videos on YouTube with titles like “How to pick Gooseberries without the pain.” And then they take a lot of time to wash and clean to ensure all the thorns are removed so those of us enjoying the pie don’t inadvertently end up with one in our throats.

Joe’s pies became good — so good that people began asking him for them and he was dubbed the Pie Guy. He doesn’t charge for his pie; if you have a cause, he will give you one in support. He donates two gift certificates of a dozen pies each for the annual silent auction at the local Catholic church, St. Patrick’s. Since he can only bake two pies at a time, he found himself in a bit of a bind one year at Thanksgiving due to heavy demand. He already had a bunch of pies to cook for others, as well as for his own family, when one of the people who had won his gift certificate requested six different pies. He found himself pulling an all-nighter after working his shift on patrol in order to fulfill everyone’s requests. Now he limits the requests to only two pies – of the same type –at a time. Joe bakes so many pies that he can’t even give you a ballpark figure on how many he makes each year. But he can tell you he easily goes through a large Crisco container each month.

Which brings us to his secret. Or at least one of his secrets. Early on, he exclusively used Crisco for his pie crust, but in 2007 trans fats were removed from the iconic brand and Joe found himself back almost to square one. He found himself trying to recreate his famous pie crust with other fatty options —trying and failing, trying and failing. Finally, he landed on his new “secret” to the perfect crust. It was Crisco – with a small amount of vegetable oil. Joe readily shared his secrets with us, as he knows it’s not just the ingredients and proper measurements that make a perfect crust, but the person mixing it together, his or her expertise and ability to adjust according to how the crust is coming together.

As if Joe doesn’t do enough with all his pie donations, he has another secret that sees him swapping out his Chief Deputy K-9 uniform for a red suit. Now, if you live in McCook and you don’t want to potentially ruin any of the magic of Christmas, you may want to stop reading now. For the rest of you…

You guessed it, most of the time during the year, Joe is a happy family man, pie maker, and Chief Deputy, but with a bit of magic at Christmastime he becomes Santa. And Luna, his faithful K-9 and Chief Christmas Helper, becomes a reassuring presence to kids. In fact, Luna is known to upstage the man in red, and kids oftentimes will completely ignore Santa as her large brown eyes and calm demeanor pull them her way. Santa and Luna help to entrance the children of Red Willow County with the magic of the season.

Photo courtesy of the McCook Gazette 

Photo courtesy of the McCook Gazette 

And next year, when you are setting out cookies for Santa, just remember one jolly old elf will be busy baking pies. And that twinkle in his eye? It’s because he’s baking in support of his community.

Story by Tricia Simmons, Photos by Charlie Simmons and once again, thank you to our wonderful volunteer editor, Kevin Frazzini