As we count our blessings here in the Garden State on the auspicious occasion of the United States’ 242nd birthday and revel in truly kicking off the long-awaited summer season, what could be more all-American than eating apple pie on the Fourth of July?
Well, the only thing I can think of is eating apple pie on the Fourth of July in your favorite New Jersey diner (wearing your best red, white, and blue T-shirt, of course).
“Diners are more American than apple pie,” declared Herb Enyard, the president of PMC (Paramount Modular Concepts) in Oakland. Enyard is one of the Garden State’s last golden-age diner builders—the era when diners were crafted as factory-built, modular, prefabricated structures; world renowned stainless steel icons of American industrial design in the 20th century. He has designed and built well over 300 classic diners.
Preparing to do a comprehensive feature for this blog spot required a rigorous amount of research and fieldwork. Frequent visitors to Jersey Bites know that this dedicated reporter goes to great lengths to get more pie into his diet.
Full disclosure: While I certainly have eaten more than my fair share of apple pie over the years, it isn’t my favorite pie. Peach pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, and plum pie top my list, followed by apple pie, blueberry pie, and lemon merengue pie—depending on the setting and season. Second, I’ve never baked an apple pie, or any kind of pie. The process sounds way too intimidating, so I tip my hat to all the skillful, courageous pie bakers in New Jersey—and everywhere. You have my undying admiration.
In order to tackle this top-secret assignment (codename: “Apple Pie on the Fourth of July”), I visited the Summit Diner, the Park West Diner, the Lyndhurst Diner, and the Montclair Diner—all wonderful establishments. And just to be extra sure I wasn’t overlooking anything, I even ventured outside of the diner realm and purchased an apple pie at The Pie Store in Montclair, a lovely shop steeped in British culture. Every bite of pie from these five places was delicious.
“What’s the secret to baking the perfect apple pie?” I asked the attendant in The Pie Store, hoping to catch her off guard. “Keep it simple,” she answered, obviously dodging my question and unwilling to reveal any trade secrets. (It was worth a try.)
Pie that’s the Real Deal
Speaking as an honorable pie consumer, I’ve developed some personal checkpoints for judging pie. With any kind of fruit pie—apple or otherwise—I want to see and taste the actual fruit in the pie I’m eating. I don’t like homogenized, mush-filled fruit pies. The authentic texture of the real fruit heightens the pie-eating experience. So if I’m eating apple pie, I want to see and taste real apple slices. If I’m eating peach pie, I want to see and taste real peach slices. (OK, you get the idea.)
Crust is an extremely important category for assessing a good slice of fruit pie. The crust should be light and flaky; definitely not thick and chewy. Regarding pie flavor, the taste of the fruit should shine through. I don’t like pie that’s too sweet, and when it comes to apple pie I’m not fond of a cinnamon overkill. A small pinch of cinnamon is more than enough. And please, don’t even think about adding nutmeg or cloves.
What’s the ideal serving temperature? A slice of pie should be served at a moderate, ambient temperature: not too hot and not too cold. (Just channel your inner Goldilocks.)
And what about a desirable topping to complement a slice of pie? This may be controversial, but I recommend that you choose whipped cream rather than ice cream. Aesthetically speaking, whipped cream allows the server to make an artistic statement when the slice of pie is served.
Apple of Your Pie
As for the type of apples that should go into a pie, there are lots of recipes. Martha Stewart (Nutley High School, Class of 1959) suggests using Cortland, Rome, or Granny Smith apples. I graduated from Nutley High School in 1971. I trust Martha. I’ve also know many people prefer using McIntosh apples. The choice of apple involves the inherent balance of tart and sweet.
A Bit(e) of History
A Nov. 8, 2016 story posted on theCultureTrip.com reports that “by the late 14th century, sweet and savory pies were already an important part of the food culture in England.” And when it comes to American apple pie history, an article from Smithsonian Magazine, posted May 12, 2017, points out that the concept arrived in the “New World” with European settlers. The story cites the existence of apple pie recipes from the Netherlands that date back to 1514.
Apple pie is the perfect dessert to help us celebrate the Fourth of July, inside or outside of a diner. Serve it and enjoy it however you like. So who, in my humble opinion, makes the best apple pie in New Jersey? Why, my mother-in-law, of course! (That’s the safe answer.)
540 Riverside Ave.
Lyndhurst, NJ 07071
613 Valley Rd.
Montclair, NJ 07043
Park West Diner
1400 U.S. Route 46 West
Little Falls, NJ 07424
The Pie Store
100 Watchung Ave.
Montclair, NJ 07043
1 Union Pl.
Summit, NJ 07901