We have about two more weeks to partake of the gorgeous harvest of apples here in the midwest. If you haven't gone to an orchard yet, people, you're running out of time. For the love of God go pick some apples.
This is a story about apples, and other things.
Aloke really, really likes his wife's apple pie. So he texted her excitedly last week about a poster he saw on the north side. "What's he talking about?" thought Katarzyna (let's go with Kate), blowing it off and continuing her work. She is a mom whose third child has just started preschool, and her two uninterrupted hours in the morning are unspeakably delicious.
She's just started an internship which involves researching grant opportunities, and no, this is not work you can do with a three-year-old around.
Then the phone began to ring. "You have to do this!"
"You're crazy! Forget it!" Back to work.
My friend Kate is not much of a cook. That's not to say she's a bad cook; she just doesn't like it, and does the minimum necessary amount to feed her family. It's boring, it's tiresome, it's repetitive, and then everyone's too picky to eat it--who responsible for feeding a family has not felt all of these things?
But there's one thing Kate loves to cook. Apple pie. And no one at her house ever turns up his nose at apple pie.
I asked her if she would share her apple pie recipe. "Well sure." Pause. "But I don't use one. It comes out a little different every time. I can tell you what I do though. In Poland my grandmother made this sort of apple strudel thing. And the way they do the apples there, they cook them to death, it's practically applesauce that they roll up in the dough. And here--your typical American apple pie--you just dump a bunch of raw apples in a pie pan and of course they're not going to cook evenly, on the edges they'll be cooked and in the middle they're still crunchy. I hate that." She wants a happy medium. So she cooks the apples a little before filling the pie, mixing more and less cooked apples together. "And I put a little cinnamon in my crust."
Her 11-year-old son Kaylan usually mixes up the filling when they make a pie--down to slicing the apples just so, and knowing by smell if the spices are just right.
And this is why, after her husband called her "a million times," she finally broke down and registered as a mother-son team for the 7th Annual Bucktown Apple Pie Contest.
She just squeaked in at the last minute when her wait-list spot became an official-entry spot about four days before the contest. Now another trip to an apple orchard was in order, and the weekend would be devoted to pie.
On Sunday I drove to Holstein Park to see her family and her pie, to check out this contest, and assess the state of the apple pie in this little corner of America.
The place was jammed! I think the entire North Side of the city attended. Outdoors there was a band, pony rides, face painting, pumpkin painting, and hot dogs; indoors were the pies, pies, pies.
Each entrant had to make two pies, one for overall looks and one for tasting; at the end of the judging the pies were sold, piece by piece at 3 bucks a pop, to the thousands in attendance. I talked to two of the organizers, Beth Allen Tiernan and Ed Pennington, who said there were 145 bakers this year. "The bakers are the heart and soul of the event," said Allen Tiernan, who should know, since she's been involved at all levels--as a baker, then a volunteer, and now the Judges Coordinator. New this year was a professional baker category which drew 16 entrants. A whole pro pie could be yours for $25 each. Cheap Tart clinched the victory here.
The contest, a fundraiser for Holstein Park, raised $12,000 last year; this year their goal was $16,000. It's to renovate the fieldhouse, which will be 100 years old in 2012. Classic Chicago Park District place. Gorgeous, quirky, creaky, used by the whole community, and in need of some love.
The crowd skewed white, young and I thought oddly (go ahead, call me sexist) male. I suppose it's not that weird; actually I don't really know any guys who don't eat pie. And this was, fundamentally, a place to eat pie. The pies were beautiful.
Who knew apple pie could come in so many different incarnations? Lots of lattice tops, apple-shaped pastry decorations, apple cut-outs, egg washes, sugar tops, pine nuts, color--even a Chicago flag.
I have to say my friend's pie was unique. The tall domed top hadn't suffered the fate of several pies, wherein the apples cook down so low that the top crust towers above, empty, soaring like a tiny Gothic cathedral ceiling. It was packed with apples all the way up. The cinnamon-inflected pastry had a nice color to it, and was decorated with one large red apple. Tiny holes were evenly sprinkled across the top of the pie. They named their creation iPie, and you can see it in the middle of the photo above.
As soon as we spoke she blurted out, "We didn't win. They've chosen the finalists and we weren't among them." Kate had been through all the phases these things bring out in one: worry, perfectionism, and a frantic competitiveness in preparation; relief and otherworldly calm upon arrival with warm pies in hand; disappointment, resignation, and acceptance of her fate when the finalists were determined and she was not among them. Her son, who had been cool throughout the process, couldn't conceal his disappointment. I fought my way to the table and nabbed a piece of iPie.
It was delicious beyond all reason. Shoot, I thought, if this wasn't even a finalist, how good can the finalists possibly be? Kate was at my side. "It was the bottom crust--too soggy, too slimy, I don't know." I nodded knowingly. That bottom crust--quite tricky. I myself had stumbled on the slimy bottom crust conundrum many times.
But the apples--the apples! The filling was perfect and I made sure Kaylan knew that I, an outside observer, thought so. Indiana Fujis and Jonathans--that's what they had used.
They were just right, they shouted that midwestern autumn flavor of fresh orchard apples that really only comes once a year, all blue sky, tartness, snap. Apples this bright are really only once-in-a-very-good-apple-year. I finished my pie and we wandered outside where the boys could play on the Holstein Park playground. Aloke still believed his wife's pie was the best. We soaked up what had to be the last of our October sun as the afternoon stretched into shadows, sipping coffee out of official Pie Contest mugs. Kate sighed and said, "My grandmother would know exactly what I need to do differently. I could tell her what the problem was and she could tell me what the fix was. But she can't tell me anymore."
This pie. It was upholding quite a lot. This day it showed itself to be a foundation, a place of accord, of convergence. It was a meeting point of three generations, two immigrant cultures, and one family. A beloved grandma still back in Poland who couldn't pass on her baking expertise to her grandchild. A common ground for two diverse, yet no longer fully embraced, cultures--Indian and Polish. And a mama and a boy in the kitchen, creating a new piece of their family's fabric; a husband and dad roaring his support; two brothers watching with anticipation. And plans to do it all again in a year--a little differently, a little better. Ribbon-worthily.
We went back inside to see about the judging, and found ourselves just in time to hear the winners announced. First prize went to an elated Alison Summy ("like 'yummy,'" she told me). She said she'd been in the contest every year but one: a finalist each time, a 5th place finisher, a 3rd place finisher. "Last year I didn't enter at all because the prior year I wasn't even a finalist. I had to take a break." Pie competing--emotional and exhausting. She praised the Wisconsin Cortlands she used. I asked her what was different about her pie this year. She didn't hestitate. "Well I always make the same pie. It's just that this year--I've gotten better with the crust." Of course. No soggy bottom crust here.
The last thing Kate and I did was buy one more slice--this time of a finalist pie, which the organizers finally opened up for general eating.
Of course we asked for the winning pie, but alas, it was all eaten up by the time we reached the table. I pointed to a pretty pie and they cut us a slice. Well Kate's pie had been delicious, memorable. This pie went well beyond that. We picked apart its fine qualities as we ate. "Look--see?!" she demanded. "Check out this crust! It's so...crusty!" And the filling was lovely. Nothing tricky happening here, nothing fancy. Just plain old wonderful apples in a plain old wonderful crust.
I feel very good about the future of apple pie. I totally want to enter this next year. And I think it's high time for a South Side pie contest. Anyone care to organize it?
photo credit: apples, table 13, half-eaten pie, Kaylan chopping apples by Katarzyna Agarwal 2011