As American as apple pie
Ever heard the phrase “as American as apple pie”? Chances are you have. But how “American” is apple pie, really? And furthermore, when did McDonald’s begin serving them? How could Ritz crackers be a substitute for the apples? Why would Ralph Waldo Emerson ask what pie was for? The answers to these questions and more lie in the pages of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, edited by renowned food historian Andrew F. Smith. In honor of Independence Day, I present the “Apple Pie” entry from that very volume. Have a safe and happy 4th, everyone. -Lauren Appelwick, Blog Editor
The typical American pie made from uncooked apples, fat, sugar, and sweet spices mixed together and baked inside a closed pie shell descends from fifteenth-century English apple pies, which, while not quite the same, are similar enough that the relationship is unmistakable. By the end of the sixteenth century in England, apple pies were being made that are virtually identical to those made in America in the early twenty-first century.
Apple pies came to America quite early. There are recipes for apple pie in both manuscript receipts and eighteenth-century English cookery books imported into the colonies. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) contains two different recipes for apple pie, one flavored with rose water or wine. The anonymous New American Cookery, published in 1805, contains a recipe for dried-apple pie.
Apple pies can vary in many ways: the type of sweetener used, if any; the type of fat; the type of crust, whether solid or made of crumbs; the use of such extra ingredients as raisins, lemon juice, or almonds; and the choice of spices. While the most common apple pie in America is the two-crust pie, there are other versions as well, including one-crust pies and pies with bottom crusts and crumb toppings. One-crust pies have been found in the United States since at least 1820. Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife (1824) contains a recipe for Baked Apple Pudding, which is an apple pie variant that has already-baked apples, butter, sugar, eggs, and lemon rind baked further in a one-crust pie shell.
Apple pies rapidly became an iconic part of the American culture, witnessed by the cliché “as American as apple pie.” In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men (1886), one of the first things Jo teaches her niece Daisy to cook is an apple pie. Even imitation ones were devised. In the 1930s, a mock apple pie recipe, which used Ritz crackers instead of apples, was printed on Ritz cracker boxes. In 1968, McDonald’s added an apple pie dessert to its menu.
Apple pies have been eaten not only as a dessert. In the nineteenth century, apple pie was also a common breakfast food among Yankees and people in rural communities, prompting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s alleged comment, “Well, what is pie for?” The use of pie as a breakfast food had declined by the end of the nineteenth century.
Although homemade apple pies were most common through the early twentieth century, bakeries and grocery stores in urban settings started offering apple pies for sale in the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, a woman by the name of Mrs. Smith, who baked pies which her son then marketed, turned her pie company, Mrs. Smith’s Pies, into a mass-market industry, still in existence in the early twenty-first century. By the mid-twentieth century, frozen apple pies became available.
Apple pies are often served with a topping. The two most common are vanilla ice cream, first served with the title “à la mode” in the 1890s, and cheese. The poet Eugene Field in the late nineteenth century praised the latter combination in a poem asking “the Lord to bless me with apple pie and cheese.”