Seeking an excuse to eat some apple pie this fall, I decided to write about one of the things that’s been a mystery to me since moving to Vermont about a decade ago: cheddar cheese on apple pie. I had no idea that investigating this custom would be a headfirst dive into a pool of stark division.
People have strong feelings about cheddar cheese on apple pie. In a recent, very unscientific poll I conducted among my own social media followers, 45% of responders said they’ve never had cheddar cheese on their apple pie—and they never will. Meanwhile, 21% said they love it, and 30% said they’ve never had it, but they’re curious.
Cheddar cheese on apple pie is one of those things you hear about in Vermont a lot. A friend told me she thinks it’s an “old-school Vermont thing.” Her dad used to tell her about mom-and-pop diners that served apple pie with a wedge of cheddar on the side. Though I’ve never seen it on a menu myself, I’ve known by word of mouth that it’s a long-held tradition. Another friend told me she’d never heard of it until she moved to Vermont eight years ago. Since trying it, she said, she’ll never have apple pie any other way.
As it turns out, cheddar on apple pie isn’t really a Vermont thing—it’s bigger than that. “Though fans of apple pie with cheese exist everywhere, they seem to be concentrated in the American Midwest, New England, and parts of Canada and Britain,” says a 2017 Gastro Obscura deep dive on the topic. Meanwhile, Southern Living argues you will never find this in the South: “If you serve a Southerner a slice of warm apple pie topped with a wedge of sharp cheddar cheese, prepare for confusion, or at the very least: ‘Where’s the ice cream?’”
The tradition of cheese with apple pie—and its accompanying motto, “an apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze”—purportedly have English roots. Though I’d always seen apple pie with a slab of cheddar on top, this Paul Hollywood recipe for Apple and Wensleydale pie puts the cheese inside the pie itself and then sternly tells us not to put anything on top of the pie at the end: “The pie is delicious hot or cold and needs no accompaniment.”
Paul Hollywood may not offer a handshake to Vermonters in this regard. A Vermont law relating to the state pie (apple, obviously) demands that purveyors make a “good faith effort” to serve pie alongside either a cold glass of milk, a slice of cheddar cheese weighing a minimum of 0.5 oz., or a large scoop of vanilla ice cream. It doesn’t say what to do if there’s already cheese in the pie.
Though I found American recipes that put cheddar right in the pie (and in the crust), this recipe from Cabot says you should serve the cheese on the side, and that’s what I’d always heard about, so that’s what I decided to do for my own venture into this debate.
My husband joined me for this taste test; as I moved to the kitchen to slice the cheddar (I used a brick of Cabot’s Seriously Sharp), he grew uncharacteristically quiet. “Are you…scared?” I asked. He said “scared” wasn’t the right word, but that I should cut him a small slice. “I just don’t see how this could possibly be good,” he added.
His hesitation surprised me. In our years of togetherness we’ve done plenty of traveling, eaten plenty of new foods, and had plenty of terrible meals. He once got a lobster in Montauk that was so old and chewy it would have had gray hair and walked with a cane had it been alive, and he still ate it. Cheddar cheese on apple pie, though, was throwing him for a loop. And to be honest, I was feeling some nerves too. How were two foods I knew I liked but felt like polar opposites going to taste once they were together?
The pie was the perfect temperature: warm, but nowhere near hot. The cheese was cold and freshly sliced off the brick. I’ll admit I took a bite of pie sans cheese first, wondering if that would be the only bite of this dish I’d enjoy. Then I went for it. A forkful of gooey, spiced apples, pie crust, and hard, steadfast, dependable cheddar.
It was delicious. The cheddar cut through the sweetness of the apple pie in a way that I found totally transformative and surprising. In that sense, apple pie with cheddar is, to my mind, a totally different dish than apple pie on its own, or apple pie with vanilla ice cream. It’s one I’ll come back to, though it won’t be my default. In my world, two distinct options will now present themselves. I have apple pie, and I have apple-pie-with-cheddar.
As for my husband, his worst fears didn’t exactly come true. “I’m indifferent,” he said. But he kept eating nonetheless.