If you’ve read about my sulfite misadventures, you can guess I’d be in need of comfort food for sustenance. And what’s more sustaining than a good old fashioned apple pie? Especially when it’s Mom’s Apple Pie. So that’s why I took myself up the road to the little town of Sebastapol. Not to see my mother, but to see the real Mom behind Mom’s apple pies.
This Mom is Betty Carr and, while you might expect her to be a comfy Mrs. Buttersworth type of pie-baking mom, this Mom is a tiny energetic Japanese lady. Betty’s been selling pies from her roadside stand off the Gravenstein Highway since 1983. I’m sure she’s been baking pies a lot longer, as anyone in these parts will tell you, there’s no one who makes them better. She’s probably got a dozen pie making secrets — then there is that “thumbprint” crimped crust. But there’s one thing Mom Betty insists on for her apple pies. She bakes them with the local — and increasingly endangered — Gravenstein apples.
The Father of American Horticulture, another local boy, Luther Burbank said: “If the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” I’m with Luther on this. I usually find apples boring, but I drive nearly an hour for a Gravenstein. This sweet, tart, crisp and aromatic apple is equally good for eating, sauces and pies. Burbank also incorrectly suggested that the Gravenstein only existed in this part of Sonoma County, since it needs the cool evening fogs that balance out the hot days. As far as anyone knows, the Gravenstein, as a distinct apple, originated somewhere in Denmark, although there is some evidence it traveled up from Italy. (Then again, all apples have been traced back to an area of Asia Minor.) But back in the 1600s in Jutland, we find the first mention of this particular apple, as distinct from other varieties. Ours showed up in Sonoma, some theorize, with the Russians who established a fort and a Gravenstein apple orchard on the coast at Fort Ross in 1811.
The Gravenstein is also known to thrive in Nova Scotia and Oregon. But thrive is a relative term for the state of the Gravenstein apple. Although Sonoma Gravensteins provided the bulk of the apple sauce for U.S. troops in World War II, those were the last days of widespread fame for the Gravenstein. The apple is completely unsuited to modern agribusiness. It’s a delicate apple with a short stem — so it falls easily from the tree and it doesn’t take to being boxed and bagged and shipped long distances, reducing its value in the eyes of the big supermarkets. It’s also not an apple that keeps very long, so traditionally, people around here have eaten it raw in season, then cooked and preserved the bulk of the harvest for pie and sauce making later. At this point, Slow Food USA has named the Gravenstein Apple one of America’s endangered heirloom food items.
Sebastapol is doing its best to keep the Gravenstein in the public eye with the annual Gravenstein Fair. Mom Betty Carr is in the front lines, one pie at a time. I showed up at Mom’s place at the tail end of fresh Gravenstein season (it’s usually a summer apple, but all harvests have been late this year due to our late spring.) There were plenty of pies to be had and I just caught sight of Mom’s apron strings as she bustled through the kitchen and out the door on one of her frequent quality control checks. Mom’s staff may have expanded, but every pie is handmade, freshly baked and approved by Mom.
My pie was worth the drive. And, incidentally, those reports of Gravensteins not traveling well? At least in the form of a Mom’s Apple Pie, mine stood the test.