Rose McCulley is known for her secret apple pie.
The Nanaimo-area retiree recently won best in division for her double-crust pie at the Vancouver Island Exhibition and in more than two decades, has used her recipe hundreds of times to raise donations.
She’s peeled so many apples, the fingers on her right hand are thick and knobby and the floor varnish beneath her feet is worn gray.
Each pie she makes with love and care, she says, and a secret, cinnamon-scented filling that oozes caramel-coloured sauce.
“This is the magic,” she said, placing a spoonful of the thickly-coated apples into an empty pie shell. “This is what sells pies.”
The recipe has been a not-so-well-kept secret among the legions of volunteers that have helped McCulley peel and cut apples, and prepare pastry.
Her rule has always been that those who help in the kitchen get the recipe. Everyone else is just told no.
“If they want the recipe, they have to work for it,” she said.
It took the 68-year-old pie maker three years of practice to get the apple pie filling just right.
It was crafted to please her then seven-year-old son in 1984. She, a military wife of four children living in Victoria’s Belmont Park, had just pulled an apple pie out of the oven as her son Jimmy came through the door. She put a slice in front of him, with ice cream and a glass of milk and after it disappeared, asked him how it was.
“He said, well mom, it tasted good, but it was awfully dry. Could you make me an apple pie one day out of a can of canned apple pie filling?”
He doesn’t remember that now, she said with a chuckle, but at the time it hurt. She set out to make a homemade apple filling with the consistency of canned filling but without that tinny taste.
“I wanted to create an apple pie filling that would please my seven year old, that he would enjoy, that wouldn’t be dry and that’s how it evolved,” she said.
When she found an apple tree heavy with unpicked fruit at the Royal Scot Hotel and Suites where she worked, she asked management if she could have the apples if she made pies for charity. She got permission, and asked her husband if he could see if anyone at CFB Esquimalt would be interested in buying a $5 fresh-baked pie if she’d donate the proceeds. He came back with 99 orders.
That year, and for about 11 after, money from sales went to the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre to help pay for counseling for women who couldn’t afford it. Dollars have also gone to Nanaimo Family Life Association, Chase River Elementary School and John Barsby Community School.
Pies are now sold unbaked for $10. Apples are donated, left in boxes on her porch, and volunteers, family, friends and neighbours come to help create the pies. Last year 32 high school footballers and their parents filled McCulley’s kitchen and living room; using any surface they could to peel apples.
“Oh the mess, you wouldn’t believe,” she said, smiling. “There was apple juice everywhere…”
These days it’s a lot harder to find volunteers to help with the pie-making and she’s getting tired.
She’s thinking of going to Nanaimo’s Haven Society and asking if they’d like to take over the fundraiser – recipe included – but this year at least she’ll continue to raise money from pie sales.
As for the secret recipe?
She’s ready to share it publicly for the first time.
But, she warns, it might be difficult to get it right without a hands-on lesson.
And for that, you have to volunteer.