No matter how you slice it, Santa Cruz is a major exporter of superb pumpkin pie.

Let's face it, pumpkin pie is as American as, well, apple pie. According to well-documented legend, the Europeans who made it to the New World in the mid-1600s provided themselves with comfort food in the form of roast pumpkin and spices. An English cookbook of 1671 vintage urged home cooks to spice pumpkin with thyme, rosemary, parsley, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and cloves. This volatile blend was beaten together with eggs, sweetened to taste and then fried. Hmmm.

Eventually, pumpkin pie matured as a staple in North American kitchens, especially at holiday time—which just happened to coincide with pumpkin harvest time. And the classic pumpkin pie emerged as a spice-laden variation on custard pie. The ingredients of cream, eggs, pumpkin, sugar and spices are required. The amounts vary, however, as do eclectic additions such as cognac, molasses or ginger.

As Thanksgiving looms, our collective craving for pumpkin pie expands to almost addictive proportions. I've personally witnessed more than one consumer meltdown at the ominous words, “We sold out of pumpkin pie an hour ago.” And from where I sit, the good news is that the Santa Cruz area is heavily strewn with cafes, bakeries and restaurants well-stocked with fine pumpkin pies. Good news, except when calories are an issue. And calories should never be an issue, much less a talking point, during the winter holidays.

I accidentally ran into three slices of very, very good traditional pumpkin pie last week, and being forced to sample each one to the point of completion, I arrived at several conclusions worth sharing. Remember that one's taste for desserts, e.g., pumpkin pie, has been firmly established at childhood. Hence, the pie you crave is the pie your mother (or aunt, or grandmother, or godfather) made. That style is your automatic default. So in assessing the three slices of pie I had to acknowledge my childhood template, the flavor/texture lens through which I taste favorite foods. Here are my findings.

The slab of heavy, dense, spice-balanced pumpkin pie I consumed at Kelly's  ($4) was outstanding. Rich flavor, flaky crust, firm tooth, utterly satisfying in every way. And looking back, I have to admit it was made exactly as my memory believes my mother made her pies, pies so good (even to her palate) that she and I shamelessly ate pie for breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving (and Christmas, and New Year's).

Another slice, much thicker in size/shape, from Gayle's ($3.50) proved more moist and custardy (i.e., eggy). It was excellent, with a delicious crust and fine balance of spices, slightly sweeter (very slightly) than Kelly's. This pie tasted like the pies I used to make from scratch (roast the organic pumpkin, then add half and half, extra spices, etc.) And the final slab of pumpkin pie I sampled (not all in the same day, mind you) was from The Buttery ($3.25). I detected more assertive spices, and a texture somewhere between the firm (Kelly's) and the custardy (Gayle's). The thin crust allowed the pumpkin filling to show off, although I might have liked a bit more salt in the dough. Yet, this too was a righteous piece of pumpkin pie. Righteous. Better than righteous.

So I've learned that (1) I prefer a firmer, less sweet pumpkin pie—but again, based on the childhood template; (2) I loved all three pieces of pie, each one worth the money in terms of deliciousness, expertise and value; and (3) great pumpkin pie is alive and well in Santa Cruz. But I have miles more pie tastings to go before I sleep. Stay tuned.