There’s no use putting this off any longer; now is as good a time as any to tackle one of the most controversial topics of all. No, we’re not talking about capital punishment or global climate change; we’re talking about pie making.
August in Sonoma County is pie-making days. Our Gravensteins are ripe. Berry vines are full of ruby, raspberry and purple colors. Local peaches and cherries have mostly come and gone, but lots of them got put up in jars and freezers with thoughts of future pie baking in mind. We bet more pies get baked in August than in any other month around here, except maybe all those November pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving.
Much of Sonoma County’s pie heritage can be traced to the Gravenstein apple, now declared an heirloom and heritage fruit by Slow Food USA. Russian fur traders first planted Gravenstein trees at Fort Ross in 1812. Nathaniel Griffith, a contemporary of Luther Burbank, is considered the “Grandfather of the Gravenstein” for planting the first successful commercial-sized orchard on his Laguna de Santa Rosa property in the late 1880s. Between the two world wars, Sebastopol and western Sonoma County was the world’s largest producer of berries, cherries and other fruits that were freighted from coast to coast. Wherever you find that much fruit, you are going to find a mess of pies.
What’s the easiest way to start an argument? Just ask who makes the shortest pie dough and find out. Pie talk can get very partisan very fast. Isn’t it true that everyone’s mother or grandmother is or was the world’s greatest pie maker? Lard or shortening? Stop arguing and use both, plus lots of butter. We hate it when someone keeps his or her pie recipe a secret, but almost everybody is willing to share. One thing’s for sure: the best pie recipes are the ones on tattered index cards written many years ago and still tucked inside a Betty Crocker or Joy of Cooking cookbook.
What’s your favorite pie? Apple is probably the popular top choice, but some people will walk almost a mile for a peach or cherry pie. Of course, not all pies are made with fruit. There are cream pies, custard, mince, pecan and ice cream pies. Then there are humble pie and shaving cream pies. We all know someone whose favorite pie is the one placed in front of them at the moment.
The best pies are full of tradition and can hearken old memories of past summers, church picnics and family reunions. Modern pies are okay so long as they have some character. Pies are great for flavoring table conversations. Pies probably don’t fit in well with social media moments and it’s probably true that pies connect people to one another better than the internet can.
Pies make people happy, even a pie with an uneven crust or messy middle. Maybe there’s no such thing as a perfect pie, but then again, maybe every pie is a perfect pie. After all, all pies nourish both our bodies and our souls if eaten with the proper frame of mind.
Sonoma County is home to several pie landmarks and many can be found along the Sonoma County Farm Trails at family farms and farm stands. Everybody knows about Mom’s Apple Pie, located between Sebastopol and Forestville on Highway 116. Betty Carr and her family have been making pies there since 1984. Nearby is the Kozlowski family farm where mother Carmen started making pies in 1952 with her daughters and helpers. The kitchen store is now closed but the legacy of the Kozlowski pies lives on thanks to Will Seppi and Costeaux Bakery that is now baking the Kozlowski pies for local grocery stores.
We hope we don’t lose the pie source at Healdsburg’s Downtown Bakery & Creamery that it is now for sale and needs new owners. Our world is full of troubles right now; one thing we don’t need is fewer pies.