The Art of the Tart
America’s melting pot gave us melt-in-
your-mouth apple pie
By Noah Salt
Every year, as surely as leaves fall and the temperatures drop, my wife the baker goes into serious apple pie—making mode.
Quite rightfully she’s known for her spectacular cake- and bread-making prowess. But in terms of creative kitchen fun, making apple pies for the holidays is her annual autumnal passion. Every year, it seems, she comes up with a new twist on this American classic, selected from her tattered and bulging notebook of proven pie recipes or — more likely of late — dug out of a vintage cookbook and updated with her own clever touches. Some of the best apple pie recipes, she says, come from the grandmothers of friends, bakers who passed their pie-making knowledge and expertise down through the generations.
So, as the weather turns (or so goes the phrase), all of this raises a question: Is there anything as quintessentially American as apple pie? Probably not — but maybe not for the reasons you may think.
Apple trees, in fact, are native to Europe and Asia and were brought to North America by an Anglican priest, William Blaxton, in 1625 in the form of seeds that were planted and cultivated across the Massachusetts colony. A century later, as immigrants pushed west into the North American frontier, apples traveled with them, becoming a versatile staple of life that was consumed raw or dried and preserved for use in cooking. Some, of course, were made into cider, brandy and applejack, useful backcountry trading commodities. Two centuries after the Pilgrims arrived, something like 14,000 different varieties of apples were being grown across America. The vast majority of these heritage varieties are long gone, but several hundred survive and are being brought back into circulation by heirloom growers who value their connection to our national cooking traditions.
As for the hackneyed phrase “As American as apple pie,” as food historian Libby O’Connell wryly notes in her terrific book The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, “the phrase is only misleading to those who forget that, except for American Indians, we are all transplants on this continent, just like apple trees.”
Whatever else may be true, the first American pies bore more allegiance to the rural cooking of the British Isles than anything that turns up at the Thanksgiving table or on the Fourth of July picnic table today. Pies of the Colonial era tended to be far more savory than sweet, featuring a thick, chewy, tasteless but highly durable crust made from suet, rough flour or cornmeal that created a vessel for simply transporting the ingredients. Tellingly, Brits referred to these largely inedible crusts as “coffyns.”
It wasn’t until French immigrants and chefs introduced butter to baking recipes in the late 1700s that pie crusts became light and flaky and flavorful, a quantum leap in American pie-making. Ditto sugar and cinnamon, which were often prohibitively expensive to procure until the early 19th century. Food historians also note that the use of fresh fruit and spices by Dutch and German cooks elevated the pie to its beloved status today.
Food blogger Kimberly Kohatsu points out that by 1860, “the phrase ‘as American as apple pie’ was already in use, though cooks seemed well aware of the pie’s foreign roots. In her 1869 novel Oldtown Folks, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that ‘the pie is an English tradition, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.’’
As the modern pies grew more popular and elaborate, she says, “a 1902 newspaper article proclaimed that ‘No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished,’ part of a marketing campaign by apple producers, whose efforts also popularized the phrase ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away.’”
Other apple-loving phrases soon evolved. During World War II, soldiers who were asked what they were fighting for commonly replied “for mom and apple pie,” which in turn gave rise to the cliché “as American as motherhood and apple pie.”
Regardless of how it entered our taste buds and lexicon — even if it isn’t truly a North American native — apple pie remains America’s favorite pie by a wide margin, according to numerous consumer studies.
That’s certainly the case around our house come the holidays, where there always seems to be a new and slightly different version of this great American classic coming hot and bubbly from the oven, ready for a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, which most Americans inaccurately believe was also invented in America.
In fact, 18th-century Quakers brought ice cream to this country, simply proving that our national diversity is as all-American as a slice of my wife’s apple pie.h