Does Your Mom Make the Best Pie in America?
In our November 2011 issue, editor Scott Mowbray posed the question: Does your mom make the best pie in America? Not surprisingly, the answer was a resounding, “Yes!” In fact, we got so many wonderful letters about people’s pie memories, we thought you might enjoy them, too. Here are a few of our favorites.
Happy Birthday Pie
Growing up in Northern California the youngest of 6 kids, we never celebrated birthdays with the traditional birthday cake, we had birthday pies. And when you are feeding a family of 8, that means my mom had to make two. Which meant that, as the birthday girl or boy, there might be a left over piece the next morning with your name on it (That is, if my dad did not hide it or gobble it down as a late night snack!) We never celebrated birthdays with the traditional birthday cake. We had birthday pies. And when you are feeding a family of 8, that meant my mom had to make two pies. Which meant that, as the birthday girl or boy, there might be a leftover piece for you the next morning. (That is, if my dad did not gobble it down as a late night snack!) As I got older and went to childhood birthday parties, I remember thinking, “Oh wow! I get to try a real birthday cake.” The store bought cakes seemed so exotic by comparison. They weren’t. But some how they seemed like the thing to have and there wwere a few times when I thought about asking for a cake, but usually when my birthday rolled around, there was no question that I would always have pie for my birthday. My mom, rest her soul, was a master pie maker. When I make my pies for my family now, I always remember the love and kindness and great birthday memories that were created when we all sat down together and enjoyed her wonderful birthday pies.
—Annette Kosterman Ewanich
My mom’s pies were so good that my boyfriend in high school (now my husband) stole her pie slices from my brown bag lunch. Her pies were so good that when I went to work at a firm in Philadelphia, my co-workers took her pie from my lunch and left money. (I thought this was odd, but my sister who had worked at the same firm before me told me that this had happened to her as well.) Her pies were so good that when she became a cook at a retirement home, residents would wait outside the kitchen door on Wednesday (pie day) to find out what kind of pie Connie was making. She taught me to make her crust when my husband and I became engaged so I could take pumpkin pie to my future in-laws’ dinner. After several tries I learned her secret of a light hand, and her secret ingredient was... well, if I told you it would no longer be a secret. Thank you for igniting a wonderful memory.
My mother, Dorothy Saxton, wasn’t much of a cake baker, but she sure made the best pies. The secret to a perfect crust was, according to her, a brand of shortening called Spry, which, to my knowledge, is no longer available (I remember it came in a red can). For her lemon meringue pies, she swore by a brand of pudding called My-T Fine. Actually, my mother didn’t enjoy baking that much, and only made her pies around Thanksgiving time—an apple, a pumpkin, a lemon meringue, and a cheesecake. (I also remember her spending hours peeling chestnuts for stuffing - what a pain!) Anyway, somewhere around the mid-1970s, my parents, sisters, and I made our annual trek from New Haven to Hartford to celebrate Thanksgiving at my aunt & uncle’s house (and in those days, the 45-minute drive was considered a major road trip. Halfway there, it began to snow—hard. By the time we got to Hartford, the snow was quite deep, and the plows hadn’t yet gotten to my aunt & uncle’s street, so we had to park at the end of the block and trudge through the snow with the pies. The scene was a bit like those war movies where you see soldiers wading through swamps holding their machine guns up over their heads. The mission was to protect the pies at all costs. One slip and fall in the snow and it would be all over, and as much as our relatives loved us, we were afraid they might not let us in if we didn’t come bearing my mother’s pies. In the end, we made it with all pies intact, and Thanksgiving was saved. My mother, now 81, now lives in Florida and cares for my 86-year-old father. Needless to say, her pie-baking days are behind her now. My sister and I have tried to keep the Thanksgiving pie tradition going, but neither of us have approached our mother’s status as pie queen of the family. But we’re happy to let her keep the crown.
Oops! Forgot to Bake the Crust
In my first year of my first marriage, in 1969, I decided to make my new husband his favorite pie, Chocolate Cream. Since I didn’t have a clue as to how to make a crust, I purchased a frozen one. I carefully cooked the pudding, put it in the pie shell, whipped the cream and put in the refrigerator to set. After calling my Mom, I told her about the pie and how great it looked. She replied, “You baked the crust, didn’t you?” The pie didn’t look great after I had to dump the pudding and cream into a bowl to bake the crust. After that, it took me many years to bake a pie from scratch, which was about five years ago.
As American as Tanzanian Apple Pie
This June, my sister Maggie, set out on the journey of a lifetime. After graduation from college last spring, she decided to take a year off to volunteer in Chipole, Tanzania to teach English and be an active member of their almost entirely self-sustained community. Since she has been in Chipole, she has been keeping a blog. Last week, when she sent this post, we (being my mother and I) couldn’t help but share a rather wonderful story, about, you guessed it, apple pie. Here is an excerpt from the original post from 11/1/11.
“…So, on Saturday, we made apple pie. Though there are many delicious fruits here—papaya, bananas, tangerines, and mangoes—apples are difficult to find in Tanzania, since they must be brought in from Zimbabwe. This means that the process of making the pie began with tracking down ingredients in Songea, forced practice in Swahili, and eventually finding a new friend who was able to speak English when our Swahili proved inadequate—all an adventure in and of itself. But find the apples we did, and with pride and excitement, brought them to the bakery to attempt our pie. To say it was a success would be a gross understatement. Perhaps the lack of variety in food here has left us with less refined palates, or perhaps the flavor was made sweeter by nostalgia and memories of home. In any case, it was the best apple pie we had ever tasted. We shared with our friends at the bakery, all of whom gave rave reviews and excitedly attempted to translate the recipe into Swahili.
—Julie and Rachel Niebur
Cannon Fall, MN
Of Pies and Tractor Pulls
One of my best friends entered her apple pie in the contest at the International Goat Days in Millington, Tennessee. Her pie was AWESOME!! It ended up winning first place and she won first place in the tractor pull!!
Solving a Pie Mystery
I wish I could say there was something extremely unique about my mother’s pies, but I would say the only unique thing I can imagine is that they were all—yes, every single flavor she makes—just as good as the next. While I’d love to determine a favorite, there are just too many to choose from. It probably wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I learned the most important thing about my mother’s pies.
My mother has been a great baker. Our house was always filled with cakes, cupcakes, bars, pies, or cookies and I always had some home-baked morsel of goodness packed in my lunch each day. Now that I’m an adult, I bake quite a bit myself and believe that I’m pretty good at it, only because my mom did a great job of teaching me how. I’m not afraid to try new recipes and always appreciate the joy my baking brings to those who partake of my goodies.
Of all the things I enjoyed that my mother made, I would have to say that I loved her pies the best. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as “store-bought crust” because she always made her crust from scratch, lard and all. All of her pies had the perfect amount of sweetness and even the most difficult to make always came out exactly the same—perfect!
A few years back, I remember asking my mother about her favorite kind of pie. I fully expected her to respond that her favorite was Lemon Meringue or Fresh Strawberry. I also thought there was a good possibility that it could be Coconut Cream. I remembered her making all of these quite often and these were three of my favorites, too. I remember watching my mother consider her answer and wondering why it took her so long to figure it out. And then, when she finally gave her answer, I remember being shocked. My mother’s favorite pie is plain and simple, Cherry Pie. While I wasn’t shocked because of the simplicity of the pie, it was rather because I never remembered her making a Cherry Pie.
As I pried a bit further into what I felt was a pie mystery, I wondered why my mother had never made this favorite of hers. Her answer came plain and simple, just like a Cherry Pie. No one in our family liked them and she made pies for others to enjoy, putting her own enjoyment aside.
Her answer hit me like a shot to the heart. Of course, this is just like my mom to put others before herself in everything, even in her pie making. To this day, I still don’t think my mother makes Cherry Pie, but I take time to guarantee that she’ll enjoy at least one every year. The day I learned her favorite pie, I decided I would make my mother at least one Cherry Pie each year. While I remind her about it in her birthday card, it doesn’t always come on that day. I instead wait for a day when there are a few other cherry pielovers around so they can all indulge together. I must say that even though I wouldn’t say that Cherry Pie is my favorite, I do always eat a piece, just because I know it’s my mom’s favorite and I love enjoying it with her after all of the pies she’s made for me to enjoy over the years. Besides, she’s also taught me to make a pretty mean pie myself. I even take the extra time to make a lattice top... just because I know she'll think it is extra special (and it's actually really easy to do). Thanks for the lessons mom. I look forward to sharing many more cherry pies with you in the years to come.
—Kristy Joy Kehl
You inspired me to write my pie story, which I will write someday. But in the meantime, I like to ferret out poetry within writing. Here is yours:
Sadly there is:
Crust like leather
Filling like glue
Did they lack skill
Pie primacy requires both.
I’m with you; it is all about the crust. No filling is good enough to be a “benchmark” pie without a delicous crust. I have fond memories of eating pieces of leftover dough baked along with a pie. I live to crimp pie edges. Thank you for the inspiration.
San Rafael, CA
This Pie’s the Pits
When growing up, a birthday cake was a traditional way to celebrate one’s birthday. In 1968, I married into a “pie family.” My darling petite mother-in-law was nicknamed PeeWee and pies were her specialty, so pies became my husband’s favorite treat. When our sons were born, we celebrated their birthdays with cherry pie. Of course in the early 70’s, canned cherries were not totally without pits. When our boys were in elementary school they decided whoever got a pit in their cherry pie deserved a quarter; in junior high they decided to up that to a dollar.
Our son Jim’s best friend’s parents, the Marusichs, were in our church bridge group, and they knew about our cherry pie pit wager. In the spring of 1986, a co-worker gave me a batch of frozen cherries that she and her daughters had pitted from their cherry trees in their back yard. I used those cherries to make two pies for our annual church bridge social. Of course, home-pitted cherries had the high likelihood of having some pits left in. The Marusichs were eager to choose a piece of cherry pie and get a pit so they could claim a dollar from my husband. Barb starting eating a piece, got a pit, gave it to my husband John and received a dollar. She went back and continued eating, got another pit, gave it to my husband and received another dollar. When she went back to finish her piece of pie she got another pit and received another dollar. Her husband James was eating his pie very, very carefully and was disappointed not to have had a single pit in his piece.
Fairfield Glade, TN
I have been a pie baker since early in my marriage. My husband loves pie. One time I was trying to come up with a really special pie, something really different, and I remembered that my grandmother had occasionally made concord grape pie, so I called her for the recipe. Long story short, that pie has become the family favorite—even of my adult children. As a result, every September I go grape picking, de-seed the pulp, cook with the skins and freeze in pie-size packages to last the rest of the year. I also get quite a few compliments on the crust, which is a simple canola oil, flour, salt, and water recipe. Thanks for letting me share!
As a new bride in 1958, I decided to make my new husband an apple pie. I had seen pictures of lovely deep-dish pies that looked as if they were packed full of wonderful fruit filling, and I decided that is what I wanted to create. I piled the apples into my pie as high as I could and put the crust on. When I took the pie out of the oven, it looked just like the pictures I had seen. I was so excited and could hardly wait to cut into it at dinner time. I could not believe what I saw when I placed that first piece of pie on my husband’s plate. The top crust had remained in place right where I had put it, but the apples had shrunk down so much that there was only a thin layer on the bottom of the pie. This beautiful piece of pie looked like it had its mouth wide open waiting for someone to put something into it.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pies
A number of years ago I went to the Netherlands for an annual conference. I was going to spend a few days with a friend there before the conference. She loves American pies and asked if I could make a pecan pie for her. I thought about carrying the ingredients but realized how difficult it would be. So I decided to make my chocolate pecan pie and bring the finished product with me. I made two pies; one was left home with my family for Thanksgiving, which I was missing. The traveling pie was packed simply in a plastic bag that I could easily hand carry on board. These were the days well before heightened airport security. Each step of the way, the aromas of the freshly baked pie traveling from Oklahoma to the Netherlands drew interest and greedy comments. We all really enjoyed the special traveling pecan pie! I still make and enjoy this pie every winter, especially when I have small, sweet Oklahoma native pecans.
Miami Beach, FL
A Pie That Takes the Cake
In August, my daughter was married in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She and her husband shared vows by a river with the majestic Teton Mountains as a backdrop. The wedding barbecue held at a local park was a pure dirt-kicking, blue grass-stomping hoedown. Friends shared potluck sides to accompany beer drunk from recycled mason jars. Elk sausages piled high with toppings were dispensed from a food truck with margarita slushies to wash them down. Fancy wedding cake and blue grass music somehow don’t pair well. Ubiquitous cupcakes are too trendy. Instead, the wedding dessert was pie and lots of it. The newlyweds cut a homemade apple pie baked in a cast iron skillet by the groom’s dad and the bride’s mom. Posed among the heart shapes, a tiny skiing couple represented the happy couple and their love of the mountain life. A traditional apple pie was the perfect dessert for a wonderful non-traditional wedding. Just remembering the event makes me want to clink my Mason jar and yell, “Howdy!” Pie does have that affect on people.
San Rafael, CA
The $150 Pie
My mom’s chocolate pie has to be the best pie in not only the U.S., but probably the world. When she takes it to church as a dessert, there’s always two or three slices missing before it gets set out on the table. It is then the first one completely gone from the host of pies brought. In a pie auction a few years ago, it went for $150 while the next highest priced one was at $30. Needless to say, one pie isn’t enough when her 4four boys and their families come to visit, so she makes two. She will often have some of the chocolate pie filling leftover and then we enjoy that in a bowl like chocolate pudding. Anyway, my mom lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and she is the best pie maker there is.
My mom made the best pie. Not sure where she learned the crust recipe, but it was made with lard (yes, lard) and milk soured with apple cider vinegar. It was great. Through the years I used several pie crust recipes with butter or veggie shortening in an attempt to make a healthier version. Although they were good, they were not the same. While my mother was in a nursing home in her last weeks, I made her an apple pie with lard and sour milk. She could tell in the first bite it was made from her recipe. A glow came over her face like she found an old friend. I guess food has a way to transport you back in time. I’m so glad I was able to do that for her. She has long since passed, but her pie lives on.
Slice of Life
First and foremost, I must say, that I am a mom, plain and simple. Yes, I had worked in the corporate world, became a stay-at-home mother and raised two girls, and am now active pursuing my hobbies: Cooking, walking, and knitting. I am not a writer, so please excuse my imperfections.
Pie.... When I hear that word, it reminds me of my father. My mom passed away from breast cancer when I was only 10 years old. I remember that she was a baker...mostly cakes and cookies...and one of my favorites, snowballs with fudge sauce (Mmmmm). My father grew up very poor in Richmond, VA, in the 30’s. Everything he ate when he was a child was prepared and served with love to the Nth degree. Growing up, each family get together was highlighted by what kind of pie my dad was going to make—apple, blueberry, peach, chocolate cream, strawberry rhubarb. It was the constant at each meal; it didn’t matter if we ate turkey, chicken, or even spaghetti, we always had pie.
Fast forward... my dad retired and was spending half the year at home in Highland Park, IL, and the other half in Tucson, AZ. The first year that he and my step-mother were not going to come “home” for Thanksgiving, my older sister and I started asking each other, “Who is going to make the pie?’ At first, we joked around with each other. Could it actually be that we would not be having “Papa’s pie?” (By this time, we were all married, had children, and he was now referred to as Papa). We were not the pie makers, only Papa was. That first Thanksgiving was lonely, my soul was not complete. Fast forward a few more years... My father passed away in July ‘06. That first Thanksgiving after his passing, I took my children to Tucson, AZ, to be with family. My step-mother kept asking me, “Can you make the pie?” I am the most like my father in many ways. At this point, I had not attempted a pie, but I agreed to make the pies under one condition: That my step-mother give me my dad’s rolling pin. She didn’t want to give it to me...perhaps she thought that she would learn to cook? LOL. Anyway, I must say, I begged her, really begged her. Who else could possibly make the pie besides me? I’m the most like my dad! She finally agreed. The rolling pin was then passed down to me. I danced. I smiled. I twirled. I had my dad’s rolling pin! His hands had touched it. His love went from his soul, through his hands, and into the crust. I would be able to make the pie!
That year, I made the most outstanding apple and pumpkin pies. The family couldn’t rave enough about the pies. Upon leaving Tucson to go to my new home of Santa Fe, NM, I carried the rolling pin with me on the airplane. There was no way that I would even consider placing it in a checked bag.... Now, I am “the pie maker.” I have remarried, and now have a whole new family to learn what a real pie tastes like. Upon a western drive from my brother and sister in law from the Chicago, IL, area, to California, they spent the night at our home. I had made an apple pie for dessert. They had never sampled my baking before! As soon as they walked into the house, Barry saw the pie, and asked immediately for a fork. Would you believe that he ate half a pie standing right there, two minutes after walking into our home? Ever since then, Barry has asked for apple pie. Last September, my husband, Dick, flew to Chicago to see his aging mother. We asked Barry to pick Dick up from the airport, and Dick was going to have a surprise for him. I made two pies for Dick to bring to Chicago—one for the family, and one just for Barry. When Dick got into the car, he showed Barry what I made. Barry couldn’t stand the wait. He pulled over on the Chicago highway, and just sat there and ate an apple pie! That brings such a smile to my face, in my heart, and in my soul. My father is a part of me, touching the people I love.
Santa Fe, NM
Growing up my grandmother always made homemade pies for family get togethers. She would lemon, chocolate,and coconut among others. She had seven kids and of course each would have their favorite so you can imagine the variety of choices when it came to pie. My grandma has been gone for a few years and I miss her and the big family gatherings. Now my mom makes raisin pie...a true raisin pie not the kind with custard but a "mile high" raisin pie. It is so good. She makes my brother and sister birthday cakes for their birthdays but for me...she always makes me raisin pie.
Bald Knob, Arkansas