It’s time to celebrate July 4th! Hot dogs! Hamburgers! Ribs! Watermelon! And apple pie — the most American of all dishes, as American as mom, baseball and apple pie. Which, of course, isn’t especially American at all.
Turns out, apple pie is a British dish, passed on along by the folks we defeated in the American Revolution. And at first, in the English tradition, apple pie was eaten as a breakfast dish, usually with cheddar cheese, a habit that’s been replaced in latter years with ice cream — apple pie a la mode, a bit of linguistic nonsense that means nothing but “in the manner.”
English apple pie recipes go back to 1381, to the time of Chaucer, when it was made with apples, figs, raisins and pears—which sounds pretty good to me. And by the time of the settlement of America, recipes for apple pie were being brought to our shores by not just the English, but the Dutch and the Swedes as well.
If we’re a nation of immigrants, apple pie is the essence of immigrant food. Even our apples had to be imported, with trees brought in from Europe — our only native apple tree is the crabapple, which makes a pie, but not a great one. Johnny Appleseed had his work cut out for him in the New World.
And apples definitely found a home here, as did apple pie.
By World War II, soldiers heading for Europe would declare they were going “for mom and apple pie.” A car commercial said that American values were defined by “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.”
Maine may argue that their pie is blueberry. And in Florida it's key lime. But for the country as a whole, it was, and it remains apple pie.
Here in Southern California, apple pies abound at every imaginable price point. A high-end pie shop in West LA sells their pies for $45. The pie at Costco costs less than $10 — and it’s both massive, and massively good. Bake shops may offer every type of filigreed and ornate pie and tart.
But for those of us who want to celebrate the Fourth in proper fashion, only an apple pie will do. Preferably with a lattice work crust, and lots of big chunks of apple. Ice cream atop is good. But it can obscure the flavor. I like my pie au naturel. And no cheddar cheese either.
If you’re craving a slice, here are some great places to look:
2640 Lomita Blvd., Torrance, 310-891-1020; 14501 Hindry Ave., Hawthorne, 310-727-0403; www.costco.com
As I said, the prices for Costco apple pies — along with all their pies, including the sublime pumpkin pies — is reasonable, especially when you consider not just the quality, but also their size. They’re twice as big as any other pies on the market.
I’ve always wondered if the apple pie is a loss leader, since the amount of apples alone would seem to be barely covered by the cost of the pies. That said, they’re a wonder, and a joy, the very quintessence of apple pie.
I’ve been known to sit with a fork, and eat the apples out of the crust. This does not make my family happy. But it makes me ecstatic.
Hermosa Pie & Cake
33 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach; 310-374-2323; www.hermosapieandcake.com
The website for Hermosa Pie & Cake speaks volumes about apple pie, which is clearly their pride and joy, proclaiming that they “carefully select” pie apples under the following criteria: Must be non-GMO, barn apples (not warehouse apples), from the Pacific Northwest and in-season. “Our apple pies are big fat and juicy. The crust is golden flaky and buttery with just the right amount of sugar. We have fresh baked apple pie daily and you should try one of our old world apple strudel during the weekends, straight from the Bavarian hinter lands into your TUMMY!”
The pies come both large and mini, $30 for the former, $4 for the latter, but all follow the Hermosa formula. This isn’t just an apple pie — it’s the beginning of a movement: Better living through apple pie.
2383 Lomita Blvd., Lomita; 310-257-9454; www.patisseriechantilly.com
As you might expect at a French-Japanese bakery, the apple pie at Patisserie Chantille isn’t so much a pie as it is orchidaceous, somewhat-over-the-top, too-beautiful-to-eat tart/cake creation. This isn’t so much a bakery as it is a tribute to the aesthetics of truly beautiful pastry. Their apple pie equivalent is as much for admiring as it is for eating. It’s one of dozens of creations on display, museum like, at this Lomita destination.
It’s called the Pommier, a lovely thing filled with caramelized Fuji apples, over a bed of more caramel, atop a cinnamon-spiced pate chou. You may not be able to bring yourself to eat it. You may simply take it home, put it in the fridge, and admire it, the way you might a Picasso. Or…you’ll just gobble it down. Unlike Picassos, there are always more.
1341 El Prado Ave., Torrance; 310-320-2722; www.torrancebakery.com
Amidst the many cakes and other pastries at the Torrance Bakery, you’ll find three pies — cherry, pumpkin and our pie of choice, apple, packed with crunchy, juicy fruit, in a near-perfect crust, a joy to behold, and even more of a joy to gobble.
And what’s better than following the apple pie with a cherry pie and a pumpkin pie chaser? Can you ever have too much pie? I’ve spent my life trying to find an answer. To date, I’m leaning towards no.
M.F.K. Fisher wrote you can never have too much caviar. On that, I disagree. But pie as good as you’ll find at Torrance Bakery — never.
15466 S. Western Ave., Gardena, 310-516-9595; 21211 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, 310-540-9696; 1030 N. Western Ave., San Pedro, 310-832-4559; www.mariecallenders.com
There are four apple pies sold at Marie Callender’s, though not necessarily all at one time. There’s a the classic apple pie, not huge, but certainly big enough. There’s the French apple, topped with cinnamon streusel, which I suspect I like more for the crunch of the streusel than for the pie itself. In season, there’s a sour cream apple pie.
And there’s a “no sugar added” apple pie, which is a reminder that apples all by themselves are sweet enough to make this a fine pie.
There’s more than a little competition for the title of Apple Capital of America, with the top contenders being Wenatchee, Washington, and our own Julian. But I’ll wager (though not a lot, mind you) that when it comes to holding the title of Apple Pie Capital of America, it’s Julian that takes the crown. If for no other reason than California bakers are hard to beat, impossible even.
So, if you feel in need of a pilgrimage, pack the kids in the SUV, promise them all the pie they can eat, and head for lots of pie in scenic Julian at:
• Apple Alley Bakery, 2122 Main St., Julian; 760-765-2532
• California Mountain Bakery, 4367 Hwy. 78, Santa Ysabel; 760-765-9756
• Candied Apple Café, 2128 4th St., Julian; 760-765-2655; www.cacafe-julian.com
• Julian Pie Company, 2225 Main St., Julian; 760-765-2449; www.julianpie.com
• Mom’s Pie House, 2119 Main St., Julian; 760-765-2472; www.momspiesjulian.com
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.