These are excerpts from How D’ya Like Them Apples? by Michelle Turner, originally published in The Monthly, June, 2003. Reprinted by permission.
Taste tests have become something of a tradition here at The Monthly. Last year, we happily sampled barbecued pork ribs, and since passions run high about barbecue and how it should be prepared, it turned into a very lively forum. This year, when it was decided that fruit pie would be on the menu, I thought, well, pies are nice, but ho-hum.
Who would’ve thought that pie – sweet, friendly, innocent pie – would inspire such heated debate?
Turns out pie is indeed controversial. Everyone, it seems, has very clear ideas about what should go in the middle of a pie shell. Our first tangle was over type. The fruit had to be in season for both our April tasting and for our June publication date. That eliminated cherry, berry, and peach.
We settled on good old apple. Although primarily harvested in winter, apples are easily stored and available year-round. Apple pie can be found in most bakeries and, unlike, say, strawberry-rhubarb, everyone at least likes apple pie.
Apple pie occupies a special place in American culture. We’ve all been endlessly reminded of its partnership with other icons of Americana – baseball, hot dogs, etc. – but, really, where pie is concerned, the cliché is apt. Baseball may leave you cheerless, hot dogs may turn your stomach, but everyone can get behind dessert.
Still, loving apple pie wasn’t enough. We needed an authority, someone who could speak expertly, not just loudly, on the subject. Alan Tangren, one of the pastry chefs at Chez Panisse, graciously agreed to step up to the plate, as it were, and serve as our resident pie expert.
He and our 11 volunteer judges were in for some surprises.