There’s no doubt that many Thanksgiving menus this November will have apple pie, the dish most associated with the United States.
Although it has become a staple of patriotic celebrations from Independence Day to Thanksgiving, apple pie’s roots aren’t in the United States. A cursory examination of its background reveals that this dish has come to represent the United States primarily through revisionism; furthermore, in the process, we may have neglected the historical and cultural factors that have created its place in the American narrative. Therefore, it begs the question: should apple pie be considered a national symbol at all?
Apple Pie: A Bit Of History
Apple pie as we know it today didn’t start in the good old U.S. of A.; rather, it evolved in England, influenced by cuisines from France, the Netherlands, and even the Ottoman Empire. Until Europeans arrived, apple trees didn’t even exist in North America. The only type of apple native to the American continent was the crab apple, which was too little and tart to be utilized in any kind of pastry.
Many of the additional ingredients required to make an apple pie really originate from countries other than the United States. Wheat was first cultivated in the Middle East, whereas lard and butter were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus. However, essential spices like cinnamon and nutmeg come from faraway places like Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Pastry-making, like many other European culinary traditions, grew out of a fusion of many styles and techniques brought to the continent by immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe.
Apple pies, in various forms, had been cooked by the British and the Dutch even before the Declaration of Independence or the first Thanksgiving. Apple and other fruit-based pies were common dishes in Britain, even though most pies were savory. One of the earliest English apple pie recipes was published in The Forme of Cury by Samuel Pegge in the 14th century.
How, therefore, did apple pie, a food enjoyed long before the birth of our nation’s first president, come to be seen as a sign of patriotism?
Early Methods for Making Apple Pie
A version of the meal featuring the domesticated apples brought to North America by European settlers made its way to the colonies. The popularity of the dish increased rapidly. The original American cookbook, written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796 under the title American Cookery, included not one but two apple pie recipes. The dish, which dates back to the colonial era, was popular throughout the 19th century and even survived the American Civil War. According to John T. Edge’s Apple Pie: An American Story, “both Union and Confederate troops scavenged for apples and commandeered the hearths—and flour bins” of white farmers and black tenants in order to bake pies during the war.
Apple pie, which was originally from England, became a standard in American cooking in the 18th and 19th centuries because it was cheap, versatile, and simple to make. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, when the dish was converted into a nationalist emblem by a new, inaccurate narrative fueled by advertising, journalism, and conflict, that the term entered the cultural lexicon.
Typical American in every way
It was also during this time that the now-iconic phrase “as American as apple pie” started appearing, but its provenance is murky at best. Advertisements for “New Lestz Suits that are as American as apple pie” first appeared in the Gettysburg Times in 1924. A 1928 story in the New York Times referred to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover’s cooking skills as “as American as apple pie or corn pone.” The phrase “as American as apple pie” began to spread, and by the time author Frank Shay used it to describe lynching, any references to corn pone or any other equally American cuisine had been omitted.
Apple crumble pie is symbolic of the immigrant experience, which is ultimately the most uniquely American story. As much as a Greek immigrant running a burger joint, a Chilean refugee founding a fashion label, or a Puerto Rican woman serving in Congress transcend national and cultural boundaries, so too does a fruit that originated in Kazakhstan, starring in a British pastry, and beloved by people all across the United States. The United States is home to a wide variety of peoples and cultures, each of which has contributed to the tapestry that is American culture.