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[whitespace] apple pies Sweetness incarnate: Betty Carr's apple pies are a Sonoma County institution.

Michael Amsler

Platefuls of motherly love from Mom's Apple Pies

By Marina Wolf

SLICES OF MOM'S Apple Pies are practically a fifth food group at the annual Harvest Fair, where "Mom," aka Betty Carr, has been serving up flakey pieces of Americana for the past 12 years. Before Thanksgiving, more than a thousand of those juice-dribbled pies--baked in frenzied all-nighters with the help of her three adult sons and one hired assistant--will be boxed up and sold at 10 bucks a pop from their rambling roadside cafe on Highway 116 just south of Forestville.

Betty's pies hold a place in the hearts and stomachs of residents countywide. But the owner of Mom's Apple Pies still ducks her head like a little girl when talking about the word of mouth that has made her pastries a local institution.

"I don't like to advertise and get people's hopes up," Carr says, her brown eyes twinkling. "If I ever don't meet expectations, I'll feel terrible."

Seems odd for her to worry. As Mom, Carr has been baking and selling pies for almost 15 years. She freely admits that her husband, Harry Carr, who died in 1992, was the driving force behind Mom's Apple Pies and the couple's other projects, a Sebastopol egg farm, the Egg Basket store in Fulton, and Carr's Drive-In in Forestville.

But Betty's pies, with their simple fillings and tender crusts, put Mom's on the map.

And it was Betty Carr's city roots that kept them from migrating even further north, possibly all the way up to Oregon. "I didn't want to be so far away from [San Francisco's] Japantown. ... I'm a city girl, I'm not really a country person," says Carr, who had been born and raised in Nagoya, Japan, and had been living in Oakland at the time of her marriage.

But Carr adapted to life on the five-acre ranchette that they bought in the middle of the 500-acre Frei orchard in 1970. She recalls learning to drive stick-shift on an old pickup truck to get their farm's eggs to a warehouse nine miles away in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square. "Mr. O'Toole--well, now it's Michael's Garage--Mr. O'Toole could hear me grinding. 'Oh, there goes Betty!' "

O'Toole, Frei, Walker ... the familiar names of west county families are scattered through Carr's reminiscences like butter in dough. Though many folks are still around, others are fading into street-sign obscurity. Carr notes each passing with a resigned shrug. She gets the dish from the farmers who come in and make their own coffee in the mornings, but of course she's the first to notice when her sources get dug up for carefully wired rows of chardonnay.

Still, there are plenty of neighbors to help supplement the crop from the Gravenstein trees on Carr's seven-acre property. Gravensteins aren't good keepers--they turn mushy sooner than many other varieties--so it's a good year when she can get cold-storage Gravensteins all the way through the winter holidays. Then Carr has to work with pippins or Granny Smiths from elsewhere.

This year the crop has been particularly limited owing to El Niño's moist spring and also Carr's switching over to organic growing methods on her own apple trees, which she says has improved the flavor but has substantially reduced the crop. "I will definitely be using fresh Gravensteinsthrough the Harvest Fair," says Carr, "but after that it's availability only."

Truly the celebrated local apple makes an outstanding filling, with just enough inherent sweetness to minimize the need for added sugar. But whether there are Gravensteins or Grannies between them thar crusts, the fans come year-round. In response to popular demand, Carr is putting some Mom's Apple Pies T-shirts in the dusty showcase out in the narrow hall. On the whole, however, she is not inclined to innovate.

She keeps the crooked little complex with its ancient trailer add-ons neat as a pin, and bakes her pies from the same recipes she learned in her home economics courses at a small Illinois college in the '50s. She says nothing has changed, but deflects a request for baking hints. "Everybody has their own taste," she demurs. "Some use more shortening, some more spice. But I really don't do anything special.

"Well," she pauses, "you shouldn't handle the crust too much. It gets tough."

The Harvest Fair on the weekend of Oct. 2-4 runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, in Santa Rosa. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for kids ages 7-12 and, on Friday only, for seniors; kids under age 7 get in free. Discounts must be purchased by Oct. 1. 545-4203.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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