Shouldn’t we all be able to make a passable apple pie for July Fourth?
It’s the food that’s supposed to define our patriotism and the thing we claim to be: “As American as apple pie.”
Except that we aren’t, really. The American-apple pie connection has holes as big as the Grand Canyon.
There are no apples that are native to America. There were no apple trees growing here until European settlers planted them. And they mainly planted them to make cider, not pies.
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Oh, those Americans knew apple pies, all right. The earliest recipe for apple pie – pears and apples flavored with saffron – dates to 1381 in England. A Dutch version of apple pie was printed in 1514. And the French, of course, have long had a well-known dish called tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie baked in a crust-covered skillet and then flipped over.
So how did the apple pie get so hooked into the image of America? First, once apples were planted here, they thrived and quickly became a staple in areas like New England. Unlike the crisp, dry apples grown in England for cider, the apples grown in America tended to be sweet.
Second, apples also fit in with the American view of ourselves as a no-nonsense, farm-centered people. In “Apple Pie: An American Story,” John T. Edge quotes Henry Ward Beecher: “Of all fruits, no other can pretend to vie with the apple as the fruit of the common people.”
Those common people, though, delivered quite a blow to the apple farmers of America when Prohibition shut down cider-making in the early 20th century. According to some sources, the Apple Marketing Board of New York stepped in to start the campaign to get people to make pies with apples as the American thing to do.
Other sources say the first reference to apple pie as a definition of American values was in 1921, when a Chicago opera singer, Alice Gentle, was raising money for an opera that she said would be “as American as apple pie.” Fifty years later, the idea had become so entrenched that everyone understood the significance of Chevrolet’s catchy and kitschy advertising jingle, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” (If you’re old enough to remember 1971, it will probably take awhile to stop humming that.)
And all of that brings us back to the Fourth of July. Even though apple season is a few months away, the apple pie is still considered the traditional dessert, the perfect thing to go along with all those hot dogs.
Not exactly apple pies
American ingenuity could never be satisfied with something as simple as apples. Our apple pie history includes:
Mock apple pie. Thrifty cooks who didn’t have access to apples made “apple” pie using soda crackers mixed with butter, sugar and water. According to “The American Century Cookbook” by Jean Anderson, the original version dates to the late 19th century. In the 1930s, Nabisco developed a version using buttery Ritz crackers flavored with lemon juice and cinnamon.
Zucchini apple pie. If you’ve got too much zucchini, especially the big ones, peel them, scrape out the seeds and slice them into semicircles to use instead of apples. With enough sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, it tastes pretty close to real apples.
Hypocrite Pie. The apples hide under a top layer of custard. Beth Tartan, the 1950s-era food editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, popularized this recipe in her classic 1954 book, “North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery.”
Sweet or tart? We like tart for pies. They hold their shape without becoming mushy, and they’re higher in pectin, which helps thicken the filling. Our picks: Granny Smith, Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Rome, Jonathan or Golden Delicious.