Ode to a (Local) Apple Pie

Fall in DC means tourists, chic sweaters, and a plethora of pumpkin-flavored foods.

It’s finally fall, and for me that means apples. And by apples, I mean pie. Hey, everyone has a weakness, right?

I’ve been perfecting my apple pie recipe for about four years now. Each time, I switched things up—adding a little more nutmeg, maybe an extra squeeze of lemon juice. One time I threw in a dash of cayenne pepper. My invitation to compete on Top Chef is in the mail, I’m sure.

But my dedicated search for the Ultimate Pie Ingredient has never been truly fulfilled. Each time, it feels like there’s something… lacking. Despite this, when the Baking Gods beckoned yet again, I dutifully followed their call down to the grocery store to pick up some apples.

The produce section greeted me warmly and after a little browsing, my eyes fell upon the Gala sign: sale, 99 cents/lb. Done! Picking one up, my eyes skimmed down the sign: Conventional. Product of Washington. Washington as in Washington State

Inconveniently, my mind followed those apples’ journey from a big orchard outside Spokane through a harrowing cross-country journey in the back of a bumpy, gas-guzzling 18 wheeler that had seen better days. They waited in the heat at rest stops, got loaded and unloaded into different crates, were sorted and measured and dumped places and bruised until they finally came to a rest in a basement Whole Foods days later, only to be picked up by me.

I realized that I was still standing in the middle of the produce section, looking horrified at an unassuming little apple. Putting it back amongst its equally disgruntled brethren, I hurried back outside. No wonder my pies still didn’t taste right: they were filled with exhausted apples.

Did I feel overly dramatic for leaving a bag of fruit? Of course. But the journey between DC and Washington is around 2,840 miles. And for once, I just couldn’t ignore that and its implications on the world. Too often we feel helpless as people proselytize about sustainability, responsible food choices, and the like. On a limited college budget, making responsible choices seems near impossible. But this was one decision I could make.

As I wandered down the road, apple-less and at a loss, it seemed that the evening was going to be baking-free. Then I nearly toppled over the Farmer's Market sign.

Foggy Bottom Farmers Market

As a Sustainability minor, farmer’s markets should be my mecca. Yet I’m embarrassed to say that the weekly practice, found less than a block away from Whole Foods, had utterly slipped my mind. Embracing the serendipitous occurrence, I wandered in and found—lo and behold—a farmer selling exclusively apples.         

Crates of apples? Don't mind if I do.
Crates of apples? Don't mind if I do.

He came from a little town in Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half drive away, and his apples were stunning. A tidy crate of Braeburns boasted that they were “great for baking.” All right then, Braeburns. I bought a bag.

With my bounty under my arm, I went back to my dorm and set to work. After my beautiful pie was in the oven and the flour was cleared off the counter, curiosity made me pull up the website of the baking Braeburns’ farm. It was 70 miles from DC, which meant it was in the 100 mile radius that defines food as ‘local.’ They had driven here in a pickup truck, a 2012 model that gets 17 miles to the gallon. That meant their trip cost about 80 lbs. of carbon.

Comparatively, the typical tractor-trailer gets 7.5 miles per gallon, so the apples’ journey from Washington probably used about 7,421 lbs. Wow.

The Final Pie
The finished, delicious product.

That was a difference of around 7,340 lbs. of carbon – enough to power a home for a year. You would need to plant 313 trees and let them grow for 10 years to take back that much carbon dioxide.

Around this time, the apple pie decided it was ready. The ruddiness of cinnamon, the darker tang of the homemade caramel sauce I pour on top, and the apples’ mellowed tartness went swirling through the kitchen. Naturally, I didn’t wait for it to cool and piled a big glob of hot pie into a bowl.

It was unquestionably the best I have ever made. Maybe it was the freshness of the apples. Maybe it was the clearer conscience. Or maybe it was the sudden empowerment I felt in making my own decisions on food, and knowing that they actually made a difference. Cheers to that.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.