There were no apple pies at the first Thanksgiving.
There might have been some pumpkins -- more likely as stew rather than as today's custard pie -- at that first harvest celebration. But unlike pumpkins, apples are not native to the United States. Plymouth settlers brought apple seeds with them, and by 1632, apple trees were growing in what is now New Jersey. Cooked apples were soon a staple of Colonial-era meals.
Apple pies, similar to those made in England since the 1300s, probably were first concocted here in the mid-17th century. They have been a mainstay of Thanksgiving ever since. But not in my family. We are more the sweet potato pie set. My paternal grandmother cooked on a wood-burning stove until at least the late 1950s, but I don't remember her making an apple pie.
My Aunt Lillian, the best cook on my mother's side, specialized in cakes, including great white fruitcakes. I don't remember apple pies at any of the many dinner-on-the-grounds church homecomings or family reunions I attended. Any apple pies I ate growing up came from small north Georgia cafes and were made with Stayman Winesap apples, which are still my favorite.
So when I set out to find great apple pies worthy of a Thanksgiving feast, I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions. I just wanted a wonderful pie that tasted great, and if it evoked something of that over-the-river-and-through-the-woods feeling, all the better.
For the past six weeks -- aided by my ravenous colleagues and my husband, who ate a lot of apple pies growing up in Pennsylvania -- I have been sampling pies gathered from bakeries, orchards and farm markets from Alexandria to Baltimore and Galesville to Front Royal, exploring many new places at readers' suggestions.
Together, we consumed more than two dozen apple pies. A few seemed little better than mushy supermarket specials. There was a handful of absolutely wonderful pies. And there were a lot of very good pies, with tasty apples and flaky crusts like I wish my grandmother had made.
My sentimental favorite is the pie from West River Market & Deli in Galesville. The market has been in Galesville, a small waterside community in southern Anne Arundel County, for 150 years, and the creaky floors, weathered front porch and double wooden screen doors put me right back in the country store outside Covington, Ga., where my paternal grandparents lived.
The pie maker is Susan Ulrich, a former corporate sales manager for Citicorp Diners Club who bought the place in 1998, after her life seemed to fall apart. She and her fiance had planned to buy and run a bed and breakfast in the Shenandoah Valley. Then he "fell over and died" before her eyes, she said. Friends invited her to spend the Fourth of July with them in Galesville, the store was for sale and "nobody could tell me not to buy it."
"This place saved my life," Ulrich said last week.
Ulrich, who said she had always cooked for crowds at holidays, now turns out hundreds of pies and opens up Thanksgiving morning for what has become the annual Pie Run, a motorcade of hot rods and vintage cars that makes its way from upper Anne Arundel to pick up pies at the market. For some, it rivals that other Thanksgiving day parade, in New York. Folks drive in from as far away as Leesburg to gather around the old kerosene heater and talk cars -- and pies.
Ulrich's apple pie is country-store good, with a sprinkling of sugar atop a melt-in-your mouth crust and not-too-sweet apple filling nicely accented with cinnamon and other spices.
She wouldn't divulge her recipe, except to say the apples are Granny Smiths and her secret weapon in keeping the bottom crust crisp is a pizza oven. Ulrich said she uses a regular oven for the nine other kinds of pie she bakes but finds that the pizza oven, which came with the store, allows her to bake 10 apple pies at once and gives them a fabulous bottom crust.
The crust is also the star of the spectacular apple pie from Vienna's Pie Gourmet. Bits of pastry are cut into leaf shapes, which are overlapped atop the heaping apple filling to form the top crust. Owner Joe Merenda called it the bakery's "cookie cutter crust" and said the pie is the favorite among the 65 varieties offered by the 15-year-old shop.
The pie is at least three inches high and yields at least eight servings, even considering Thanksgiving-size appetites. The Pie Gourmet beauty tastes as good as it looks. It has a rich apple flavor that is nicely complemented, not overpowered, by cinnamon and other spices.
The Pie Gourmet will open Thanksgiving morning for last-minute purchases.
The apple pie from Wagshal's Bakery and Catering in the District is nearly as deep and makes a stunning presentation when cut, revealing layers and layers of thinly sliced apples. This pie evoked the widest range of comments: Most tasters either loved it or hated it. It wasn't as sweet as other pies, and the apples seemed a bit undercooked to me. But others raved about how the great apple taste wasn't masked by too much sweetness.
The bakery is just behind Wagshal's Butcher Shop and Wagshal's Delicatessen, where the pies are sold. Sylvia Alexander, manager of the six-year-old bakery, said the Granny Smith apples for the pies are peeled and prepared right there.
Mom's Apple Pie, based in Sterling, is one of the largest specialty pie operations in the area, with four retail locations -- in Sterling, Leesburg, Occoquan and Herndon -- and sales outlets across the District and close-in Maryland suburbs. Family-owned, Mom's was established in 1981 and employs four generations.
The pies are baked at the Sterling bakery and delivered daily -- or, if needed, several times a day -- to the stores.
All the apples for Mom's pies come from the Shenandoah Valley, and right now the company is using York apples, a hardy variety, grown in Winchester. The apple pie has a flaky crust, baked to a deeper golden brown than most, and the filling has pleasantly firm apple slices that retain their shape during baking. It's a good pie that could pass for homemade.
Some of the best apple pies come from the area's Amish markets. The two in Montgomery County are operated by families who live in Lancaster, Pa., and come here for part of the week. They sell a variety of pies, including several kinds of apple, my favorite of which is the caramel apple walnut, available at both markets. It has a deeper, richer flavor than the regular apple, and the nuts give the pie a nice texture. Moses Fisher, who operates the bake shop at the Germantown market, said apple is the most popular there.
Dangerously Delicious Pies is a small storefront operation near downtown Baltimore whose pies are also sold by Dean & DeLuca in Washington. Dangerously delicious is a good description of these creations of owner Rodney "Pie Man" Henry, who also is the front man for a rock band.
The apple pie looks and tastes as if your grandmother made it. The crust isn't quite perfect; it is lumpy, just like the perfectly cooked and seasoned filling inside. But it is oh-so good.
My helpers and I tasted apple pies from all of these places, and any of them will make you proud on Thanksgiving day.
Dangerously Delicious Pies, 2400 Fleet St., Baltimore, 410-522-7437. www.dangerouspies.com. Place orders for Thanksgiving by Sunday. All pies are $20. Also sold at Dean & DeLuca, 3276 M St. NW, Washington, 202-342-2500, which will have an assortment of pies but is not accepting more Thanksgiving orders. Pies are $28.
Dutch Country Farmer's Market, 15624 Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, 301-421-4121. No advance orders. Next week the market will be open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. All pies are $7.95.
Happy Baker's, inside the Montgomery Farm Woman's Cooperative Market, 7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 240-645-7591. Place orders by today. The apple pie is $8.
Lancaster County Dutch Market, 12613 Wisteria Dr., Germantown, 301-916-3881. No advance orders. Next week the market will be open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. All pies are $8.95.
Raulin's Bakery, 10476 Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville, 301 937-9595. Thanksgiving orders must be placed by Monday. Apple pies are $8.29 for regular and $11.49 for large.
West River Market & Deli, 1000 Main St., Galesville, 410-867-4844. Place orders by Monday. The market is open on Thanksgiving day for some pickups. The apple pie is $10.
Wagshal's Bakery and Catering, sold through Wagshal's Butcher Shop, 4845 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, 202-363-0777, and Wagshal's Delicatessen, 4855 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, 202-363-5698. Order by Monday. The apple pie is $14.99.
Amphora Bakery, 403 Maple Ave. W., Vienna, 703-281-5631; 1151 Elden St., Herndon, 703-925-0505; 294 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon, 703-964-0500. www.amphorabakery.com. Place orders for Thanksgiving by tomorrow. The apple pie is $10.95.
Apple House, 4675 John Marshall Hwy., Linden, 540-636-6329. Thanksgiving orders must be placed by Monday. The apple pie is $7.99.
Brenner's Bakery, 1512 Belle View Blvd. (at Fort Hunt Road), Alexandria, 703-765-4688. Place orders by Sunday. The apple walnut pie is $13.95.
Eclectic Gourmet, 1 Royal St. SW, Leesburg, 703-777-5985. Also sells at the Manassas farmers market. Place orders for Thanksgiving by Tuesday afternoon. There is no classic apple pie, but there's a very good French-style apple tart with sliced apples for $14.
Gold Crust Baking Co., 501 E. Monroe Ave. ( just off Route 1), Alexandria, 703-549-0420. www.goldcrust.com. Place Thanksgiving orders by Monday. All pies are $10.
Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, 2150 N. Culpeper St. (at Lee Highway), Arlington, 703-527-8394. www.heidelbergbakery.com. Place Thanksgiving orders by Tuesday. All pies are $9.95.
Hill High Orchards, 35248 Harry Byrd Hwy. (Route 7), Round Hill, 540-338-7173. Hill High bakes 38 varieties of pies. Place Thanksgiving orders by Saturday. The apple pie is $7.99; caramel apple walnut pie is $9.19.
Little Apple Pastry Shop, 23217 Meetinghouse Lane (just off Route 50), Aldie, 703-327-2500. www.hotapplepie.com. Because of the demand on this mother-daughter operation, the deadline for placing orders has passed. But more pies should be available for sale. The apple pie is $10.
Market Salamander, 200 W. Washington St., Middleburg, 540-687-8011. www.market-salamander.com. Thanksgiving orders must be placed by today. We tasted a French apple tart, $20. There are no apple pies on the Thanksgiving menu, but pumpkin and pecan pies are available.
Mom's Apple Pie Co., 22510 S. Sterling Blvd., Sterling, 703-471-6266; 317 Spring St., Herndon, 703-481-5959; 126-A Commerce St., Occoquan, 703-497-7437; 220 Loudoun St. SE, Leesburg, 703-771-8590. www.momsapplepieco.com. Place Thanksgiving orders by tomorrow. Pies are also sold at the Takoma Park Co-op, Silver Spring Co-op, Bethesda Co-op, Chevy Chase Safeway, Chevy Chase Supermarket, South Royal Street Safeway in Alexandria and Sam's Farm Market in Falls Church. The apple pie is $10.99.
Pie Gourmet, 507 Maple Ave. W., Vienna. 703-281-7437 or 800-387-9319. www.piegourmet.com. No more orders are being accepted for pies to be picked up Wednesday, but check with the bakery for pies that can be picked up Monday, Tuesday and Thanksgiving day. The apple pie is $21.95.