One slice at a time
Nov./Dec. 2008 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
Betty Carr's famous homemade pies have become a Sonoma County institution.
Knack for survival helps pie maker adapt
Betty Carr, aka "Mom," began selling apple pies in the 1980s at the urging of her late husband, Harry, to supplement income from their Sonoma County apple orchard and roadside stand.
The locals call her Mom, and her famous homemade pies have become a Sonoma County institution.
Betty Carr, owner of Mom's Apple Pie in Sebastopol, insists there is no secret recipe or special way in how her pastries are made, and she will never claim her slices of Americana are as good as anybody's mom's.
But she does like to pay lip service to the Gravenstein apple as her baking apple of choice. The all-purpose apple with a unique sweet and tart flavor had a long and celebrated tradition in Sonoma County agriculture, before the region's orchards were plowed under to make way for rolling vineyards.
Carr's pie shop and café, aptly located on Highway 116--known as Gravenstein Highway by locals--is a reminder of that tradition and a symbol of survival against all odds. Her 7-acre orchard in the back still supplies much of the apple crop she uses for her pies. But it is her pies that have kept her apples from rotting.
Originally from Japan, Carr, 77, did not come from a farming background when she immigrated to the United States in 1953. It was her late husband, Harry, a Virginia native, who was the farmer. They moved to Sonoma County because he wanted to have a chicken ranch.
"In those days, Petaluma was the egg basket of the world," Carr said. "That's how I got into this farming business."
By the early 1960s, their 5-acre, 400,000-chicken ranch was already considered too small to be profitable. The price they were getting for their eggs was far below their production cost, so her husband decided to cut out the middleman and retail their own eggs.
They opened the Egg Basket, the typical mom-and-pop store of the day that sold a variety of produce and, of course, their eggs. But Harry Carr's heart problems prompted the couple to close the store in the early 1970s. Since they still had their ranch and all their chickens, they set up a roadside stand to sell their eggs while running a drive-in eatery.
"I became known as the Egg Lady," said Carr. "You wouldn't think we would make it, but we did."
In the late 1970s, when the surrounding landscape of Sonoma County became predominantly vineyards, it was clear that their chicken ranch was no longer a good fit with the wine country's posh image. They eventually sold their 5 acres to a gourmet mushroom operation and got out of the egg business altogether.
They traded in their chickens for apples in 1979 when they acquired the current property, formerly a farm equipment repair shop. At the time, it was a simple roadside fruit stand called Hilltop, which Harry Carr later expanded into a deli. The orchard was too small to be productive and compete with the bigger farms, so to add value to their agricultural commodity, they used the apples to create their own product, Carr said.
"Harry said, 'Oh Betty, you make a great pie. Why don't we sell it?'" she said. "That was how we were able to survive."
They officially changed the name of the business to Mom's Apple Pie in 1984. Carr insists that her husband, who died in 1992, was the driving force behind the roadside pie shop and deli.
"So he really was Mr. Mom," she said.
When she lost her husband, Carr could no longer take care of the orchard and had to sell all their farm equipment. Today, her organic orchard is maintained and harvested by hired help. For her pies, she uses her own Gravensteins when they're in season and Granny Smiths and other varieties from elsewhere thereafter.
Longtime customers Dawn Hyde, left, and Alan Joseph, who say they've been going to Mom's Apple Pie for 25 years, share some slices of Americana with "Mom" Betty Carr.
Although she laments the growing extinction of apple orchards in Sonoma County, she also acknowledges she has been able to reap the benefits of the region's wine tourist traffic.
"We sell a lot of apple pies at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair," she said. (The fair, in Santa Rosa, is held the first weekend of October each year.)
Today, Mom's Apple Pie sells a variety of 16 fruit and cream pies. Carr has expanded the pie shop to a café that serves a lunch menu that includes soup, chili, sandwiches and salads. Her pies are still made fresh by hand using an old recipe she learned in home economics class in college. She claims it's a very basic Betty Crocker recipe.
"I learned it from Mrs. Ervin," Carr said of her home economics teacher. "She believed in pies. No cakes, no cookies because they have no nutritional value. 'They're empty calories,' that's what she used to say. Cakes and cookies are nothing but flour and sugar. But pies have the fruits."
Wearing her red-and-white checkered apron and looking around her café, Carr humbly marvels at the longevity of her business, adding that it is something she wants to leave "for the next generation of people who work here and the community." Her three adult sons are already cemented in their careers. One is a doctor; the other two are in law enforcement.
With a sigh, Carr added, "So here I am, I'm still doing the same old thing. My husband used to say, 'Man, you're stubborn.' I said, 'No, I'm determined.' This is a story of survival."
Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Gravenstein: an apple near extinction
Long before it became the quintessential ingredient in Betty Carr's popular apple pies, the Gravenstein apple had been a much-celebrated part of Sonoma County's agricultural heritage.
The slightly irregular-shaped fruit, often speckled, with waxy greenish-yellow skin and streaks of red, may not be much to look at, but its distinct sweet-tart flavor and crisp, juicy flesh make it a versatile apple for eating and especially cooking. Connoisseurs, home cooks and chefs alike swear by the Gravenstein for making the best applesauce, pies and cider.
It is believed that this apple originated in Denmark or Germany and made its way to North America in the early 1800s, with some of the earliest plantings at Fort Ross in northwestern Sonoma County. Nova Scotia is also well known for its production of Gravensteins.
In the United States, the apples are grown primarily on the west side of Sonoma County, specifically in the town of Sebastopol, often called the Gravenstein apple capital of the world and home of Gravenstein Highway, Gravenstein School District and the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair (www.farmtrails.org).
And while the region used to be a top supplier of the beloved fruit, with 15,416 acres in 1937, that number has dwindled to 904 acres in 2007. Today, there are fewer than 10 Gravenstein growers left in the county.
Global competition has led to a steady decline in Sonoma County's apple production of all varieties, but the Gravenstein in particular. Many orchards have been replaced by vineyards and urban housing.
Other marketing challenges are also driving the near extinction of Gravensteins. They have a short season, ripening in late July to early August. They're hard to pick because of their short stems, and apples on the same tree ripen at different times. They also bruise easily and do not keep well in storage.
Despite these drawbacks, the Gravenstein's appeal has not diminished. These days, it has achieved a status as an important heirloom fruit to be preserved and cherished. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity added the Gravenstein apple to its "Ark of Taste" list as an almost forgotten food that's threatened with extinction and worth protecting.
Mom's Apple Pie is located at 4550 Gravenstein Highway North in Sebastopol. For more information, visit www.momsapplepieusa.com or call 707-823-8330.
Mom's apple pie