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June 10, 1999
As American As Apple Pie
It was the fall apple season and I was a newly arrived foreign student from India, trying apple pie for the first time in a college cafeteria. I'd heard a lot of glowing praise about this American classic such as, "You haven't had a dessert until you've tried a good apple pie."
Now I was surprised to find that the crust was a cardboard, the fruit cloyingly sweet and bodiless, the overall taste icy cold to my palate and there was no aroma of any sort. The plate was cold too. It had been sitting in the refrigerator. I took an instant dislike to apple pie.
The next week when my hand reached out for the allotted dessert in the cafeteria line I found another pale piece of plastic pie. I quickly withdrew my hand, hoping nobody would notice.
"You don't like apple pie?" Mabel, the food service worker, 200 pounds of flesh and frown, barked out loud enough for everyone to hear.
Her question was the answer. Without a response, I moved on with my tray.
"And you neither?"
The Chinese student just behind me was edging past her.
"Must be a commie plot," Mabel stated flatly.
Let me tell you that this was before the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Communists were still making noise, though one would think not in this little town in Illinois.
I didn't touch an apple pie for years, refusing as I did a farm-house splendor, a country fair blue ribbon winner, even a French woman's glazed apple tart. My own baking skills improved. My key lime pie would vanish quickly at potluck and a writer friend praised my pecan pie as being poetic, but for years I put off making an apple pie, afraid I didn't have the skill or taste for it.
Then I got married to a man who had grown up in the apple country of Michigan. He spoke of Mom's apple pie, recited names of varieties of the pie apples -- Northern Spy, Granny Smith, Gravenstein -- as if they were old school chums. He was willing to drive 30 miles to a country bakery for the real thing. I knew I had to learn to make an apple pie, not just an ordinary one, but a superlative one.
Recipes were a-plenty in newspapers, magazines and sugar packages and I made many of them. My husband would eat them, his face unchanged and I could tell they weren't the best he'd ever tasted. I kept trying.
Then I hit on a several days old San Francisco newspaper with a story by Louis Szathmary about a woman, a Mrs R, whose pie was a star. The paper had been used as a wrapper and some of the print had been wiped out by water. Just reading bits of it I knew it was a good recipe. I reconstructed it.
Finally I had an apple pie. There it stood, a rich brown dome with slits through which a warm sweet smell emanated to fill the kitchen. But what did it taste like? I felt I had to have my husband decide. After all, I didn't like the stuff. He had just returned home after a hard day at the office when I was cutting a piece.
"Not such a big piece for me," he said.
One bite and I noticed how an expression of delight hung on his face. He dug into the pie. And now I tried a bite myself. The crust disintegrated in my mouth; the apple crescents held their character as my teeth sliced them. I had served it warm. A meal couldn't have been more filling or more pleasing. "R" in the recipe creator's name, I decided, stood for "real cook."
By then I was a convert. I turned out apple pie after apple pie with changes to the recipe, of course, such as lowering the amount of butter and sugar and adding a few of my own baking tricks. Halfway through baking, I turn the pie around so it's evenly heated. I prefer tart apples rather than sweet, and before serving leftovers I always reheat.
The recipe takes time. So I slow down as I roll the dough, shake the cinnamon jar and inhale its fragrance, remembering the old school days in Illinois and my very first apple pie eating experience.
I even wonder what Mabel would think of my apple pie.
Bharti Kirchner, based in Seattle, is the author of two novels, Shiva Dancing (Dutton, 1998) and Sharmila's Book (Dutton, 1999) and four cookbooks, The Healthy Cuisine of India and Indian Inspired, both by Lowell House and The Bold Vegetarian and Vegetarian Burgers, both by HarperPerennial. Her articles and short stories have appeared in Food & Wine, Metropolis, Vegetarian Times, The Land of Nod, Fine Cooking and Eating Well magazines.
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