Steamboat Springs It's important, every now and then, to pause and reflect on the finer things in life. And for my money, a beautifully baked fruit pie is on the list. So I set off to Hayden and the Routt County Fair last week in search of the perfect pie.
My gene pool runs deep when it comes to pies my grandmothers were capable of turning out blackberry and peach pies served at midday to a hungry bunch of Oregon hay hands. Here's the clincher they baked the pies in wood stoves. There was no dial on the stove to allow preheating it to the desired temperature, and no timer to buzz loudly when it was time to take the pie out of the oven. Pie making in the days of the wood stove was a higher art form than it is today.
When I arrived in Hayden, I found Dorothy Perry and Charlene Barnes, who served as superintendents of the baked products competition over at the exhibit hall. Dorothy and Charlene know a couple of things about pie. They can carry on a lively debate about whether you should use any butter at all in your pie crust. Or, if the crust comes out flakier using only Crisco, eggs, sugar, flour and a touch of vinegar. So I asked this pair of experts if they'd ever heard of anyone attempting to bake a pie on a wood stove. Goodness, gracious, they most certainly had!
It turns out their own grandmothers were pie artists just like mine. Charlene's grandma Mattie Summer lived near Hayden and grandma Gertrude Whitham moved to the Hayden area from Vermont.
"They were good bakers," Charlene recalled. "My grandmothers had no other stoves than wood stoves."
Dorothy's grandma Margaret Roope came to Routt County from Maine. She had developed an acute sense for when it was time to put the pie in the wood stove.
"She would put her hand in the oven how long she could hold it in there, would tell her if it was the right temperature," Dorothy said.
Grandma Summer baked a wide range of fruit pies, including raspberry and strawberry pies from her own garden. She also loved to bake lemon pies when she could get her hands on some citrus. The "pudding" for the lemon pie didn't come from a little box it was made from cream skimmed from the milk provided by the Summers' dairy cow and eggs from their own flock of chickens.
Grandpa Summer made sure his family was self-reliant. They canned their owned vegetables and dill pickles and even put up their own sauerkraut. They made it through the long Routt County winters on canned meat.
When you stop to think about it, those are the very same pioneer traditions upon which the home arts contests at the Routt County Fair are based.
So, I'm more than a little disappointed there were fewer than a half-dozen beautifully baked pies among the bar cookies at the fair this year. In fact, I'm saddened to think that a generation of young Americans are growing up believing that pie crusts come from the freezer section of the grocery store and whipped cream comes from an aerosol can.
I was lucky to be raised by a mother who bakes the best strawberry-rhubarb pie on the planet. And my own spouse knows how to put out a blue ribbon pie crust. Fortunately, she doesn't bake pies often, because she knows I've never eaten just one piece of pie.
Still, I'd chop a cord of stove wood just to get my teeth into one more of my grandmother's huckleberry pies.
Huckleberries are a tiny, sweet blueberry that grows in the Pacific Northwest. You can find them in Idaho and Montana, but I prefer mine to come from the slopes of Oregon's Mount Hood.
Nobody can bake a huckleberry pie like Mildred Ross used to, and the smell of warm pie crust still takes me back to her kitchen.
If this column strikes a chord with you, consider baking a pie this week for the sake of tradition. I'm going to attempt it myself. Gas ranges and electric ovens are acceptable.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.