Of Oregon’s cult, secret food world dealers—mushroom hunters to sea urchin divers—no one matches the mythic cachet of Susan Christopherson, the one-woman show behind Old World Apples. “Her apples are like no other you’ve ever seen; so much of a departure from grocery store varieties,” raves Lauretta Jean’s pie master Kate McMillen. Sweedeedee mastermind Eloise Augustyn dubs them “the most beautiful.” The list goes on. Serious apple trackers—from candy makers to bakers—say they owe their tarte tatins, jams, and caramels to Christopherson’s sometimes ancient trees.
It seems Christopherson, a sprightly 76-year-old with wispy white hair in an updo and an impeccable farmstead aesthetic, has been following apples around her entire life. Born in South Dakota during World War II, she remembers an apple tree outside her childhood window—Stayman Winesaps, perhaps—and two 19th-century crab apple trees her mother, Agnes, turned into “legendary” pie at church functions. “That’s where I learned that apple pies are essential to life,” says Christopherson.
Her exploits could fill a 12-part Ken Burns documentary: traveling solo as an avid trekker and mountaineer through Pakistan and Nepal; climbing Denali at a time when “such things were not done.” Her one constant has been the symbolic fruit—from Massachusetts to Calgary, she always made her home nestled among apple trees. It wasn’t until the ’80s that Christopherson found her current grove, five acres atop a hill in Ridgefield, Washington, overlooking the Columbia River to the west. “I said, ‘This is it. I’m going to spend the rest of my life here,’ Christopherson recalls. “And here I am.”
True to her word, she’s devoted the last 30 years to planting more than 700 rare, Old World trees (i.e., pre-industrial-era mass-produced apple varietals, their fruit often imperfect and blemished), harvesting and hauling boxes of Belle de Boskoop and King David to the Saturday Portland Farmers Market, bakeries, and restaurants. For some of Christopherson’s oldest patrons, her apple stand is a time machine, thawing fruit from a pre-Walmart ice age. Says Rachel Barron, one of Christopherson’s volunteers and a former Portland chef: “She’s an example of an entrepreneur, a farmer, and a woman who is working into her mid-70s. It reminds me that we can get older, but we don’t have to lose our passion for food, to work, and to just be a vibrant part of the community.”
And that legendary pie? We persuaded Christopherson to share it with us. It’s got a bang-up, no-frills crust, but the real trick is a diversity of tart, pectin-rich, flavor-concentrated apples. Use at least three different types, says Christopherson. Her favorites? Cox’s Orange Pippins, Belle de Boskoops, Calville Blancs, Bramley’s Seedlings, and Gravensteins. And don’t be afraid of the ugly ones. Says Christopherson with a smile: “I won’t bake a pie without at least one worm in it,” she says, noting she cuts out the worm itself but leaves its hole. “Helps ’em ripen.”
Agnes’s Apple Pie
Makes one 12-inch pie
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- ½ lb (2 sticks) frozen, salted butter, plus 2 tbsp for the filling
- 5 tbsp cold water
- 4 lbs (about 12 medium-size) Old World apples
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp dill seed
1. Place a box grater and medium metal bowl in the freezer. Core the apples, slice into ¼-inch wedges, and cut into ½-inch pieces. Drizzle 2 tbsp of lemon juice over the apples to keep them from browning.
2. Preheat the oven to 330 degrees. Remove grater and bowl from freezer. Pour flour into bowl, and grate 2 sticks frozen butter using the side with the largest holes. Fold butter into the flour using a pastry cutter or fork until well combined. Slowly drizzle in water, mixing with a fork, until the dough just barely comes together.
3. Prepare a 12-inch pie plate. Set a pastry cloth on a cutting board and lightly dust with flour. Turn out half of the pie dough onto the pastry cloth and form into a rough disk. Roll out dough until 1⁄16-inch thick and just over 12 inches across. Using the pastry cloth, roll the dough over the rolling pin and unfurl over the pie plate.
4. Dump the apples into the pie shell and distribute evenly. Sprinkle white and brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and dill seed evenly over the top. Roughly dice remaining 2 tbsp butter and distribute evenly over the top.
5. Roll out the other half of dough, drape over apples, and crimp edges with your thumbs. Poke the top a dozen times using the tines of a fork. Bake for roughly an hour and a half, or until nicely browned and bubbling around the edges. Let cool at room temperature before serving.