You'd think this fight would be a slam-dunk KO, given that Riverfront Times just declared that Mills Apple Farm produces the Best Pie in St. Louis. But, well, we at Gut Check really love to eat pie. Plus we were inspired by this article in the New York Times Magazine about PieLab, a community organization that is bringing hope, change and good design to a depressed Alabama town.
We must admit we were also inspired by this clip from The Three Stooges, which demonstrates the power of pie to level class differences and enliven a stuffy dinner party. (Which is sort the goal of PieLab.) And also: No matter how many times you see a pie smack someone in the face, it never stops being funny. This is the magic of pie.
And so we set off across the river one mild October afternoon to Illinois, land of pie, in search of the very best. First stop: the defending champion Mills Apple Farm. Second stop: the challenger, the "Foot-Hi Pie" at the Blue Springs Cafe. If we found community, hope, change and good design, so much the better. If we got one in the face, that would be OK, too. As long as the pie tasted good.
The Contenders Mills Apple Farm Mills' address says it's in Marine, Illinois, but really it's way out in the middle of the country. On weekends a tractor takes you from the parking lot out to the orchards, where you can pick your own peaches and apples. There's a set of plastic playground equipment for the kids to play on. It's quiet. It's bucolic.
The bakery's inside the barn. It smells like apples and vanilla and cinnamon and sugar. If there is a Heaven, and if, once you get there, you can engage in unbridled gluttony without getting fat (cf. the Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life), this is what it would smell like. If not, it's the tormenting aroma of Hell.
It is not, however, the smell of pie. It is the smell of freshly fried apple-cider doughnuts. (We must admit, we diverted from our pie mission and tasted one. It was sublime.)
But the pie! Mills sells apple pie in two forms: whole, with a streusel topping, and as a turnover. The turnovers sometimes have caramel mixed into the filling. They were quite tempting. But, in the interest of maintaining the purity of this exercise, we decided to go with a whole damn pie.
We'll evaluate it on the basis of five categories: crust, filling, topping, overall taste and smashability.
The crust was buttery, flaky and crisp. The filling was a mixture of sweet and tart with an aftertaste of cinnamon sugar. The apples had clearly come from a nearby tree and had not been baked into mushiness. The topping was buttery, with bits of nuts and a nice crunch. The crust, filling and topping complemented each other nicely. All were good on their own but were better together. (There! That's community! That's pie!)
A Mills pie probably wouldn't smash too well. The apples are a bit too firm and, since it lacks a creamy topping, it wouldn't look very funny stuck to your face. The streusel would make a nice mess, though.
Blue Springs Cafe The Blue Springs Cafe is an outpost of Diamond Mineral Springs, a former health resort, which boasts that it has been serving up fried chicken since 1892. (Maybe back then fried chicken was considered healthy.)
The "Foot-Hi Pie" is a relatively recent innovation, developed after the current owners took over Diamond Mineral Springs in 1979. Blue Springs' address is in Highland, but it's really nestled beside I-70. Inside it's quaint and old-fashioned, filled with antiques and homemade crafts, and the oak tables are covered with blue-checked cloths. It's the kind of place where you sit down to have supper, as opposed to dinner.
We really should have realized, before we drove all the way out here, that it would be kind of difficult for an apple pie to be "foot-hi", considering that apples shrink when they're baked. And indeed, Blue Springs makes no concession to the season and serves the same three pies year-round: chocolate, banana and lemon meringue. All three come with a heap of meringue on top, hence the name (though at their tallest, the pies are probably only about three inches hi -- we measured our take-home slice and then added an inch or so to compensate for loss of meringue).
This kind of threw a monkey wrench into our battle -- you know, apples to apples and all that. This was like matching a heavyweight with a featherweight, but we resolved to soldier on. It's the least you can do when you're faced with a chocolate pie.
The crust was flaky but also a little soggy. Which is not an unusual problem when you're making an icebox pie and have to bake the crust in advance and then pour in a creamy filling. But, frankly, we expected more from pie professionals. And maybe we would have been more forgiving if the filling tasted good. But it didn't. It was watery and tasted almost chalky, suspiciously like the kind of pudding that comes in industrial-size containers that resemble paint cans.
The glory of this type of pie, though, is the meringue, and the "foot-hi" topping was a thing of beauty: white and fluffy, topped with beautifully caramelized peaks. Its richness enhanced the flavor of the filling and nearly made up for the soggy crust.
All of which means one thing: This is a pie made for smashing. Just looking at it makes you want to growl "Why you...," and smack someone with it, right in the kisser.
The Winner Never again will we question the wisdom of the "Best of St. Louis." Mills Apple Farm wins by a knockout. It's the sort of pie that, if we all gathered to eat it together, would dissolve our differences and lead to a better, happier world.
But if we ever need to gather ammunition for a pie fight, we're heading straight to Blue Springs.
Mills Apple Farm 11477 Pocahontas Road, Marine, Illinois; 618-887-4732
Blue Springs Cafe 3505 George Street, Highland, Illinois; 618-654-5788