How can apple pie be un-American?
Simple. Apples are immigrants like most of us except native American Indians. Apples have been around since the dawn of recorded time.
Experts believe that apples originated in Central Asia, probably the Tian Shan Forest in Kazakhstan, up to 10,000 years ago. According to Sam Kean in Science, “modern apples were first domesticated from wild Asian apples . . . with subsequent crosses with European crabapples.”
Seeds and cuttings were spread along trade routes predating the famous Silk Road, to places like the Caucasus Mountains, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Europe.
Grafting, seeds, and careful cultivation led to dwarf apple trees in ancient Greece, over 2,800 years ago. The apple was “king of the garden,” credited with powers of good and evil. The famous Greek poet, Homer, referred to apples in The Odyssey. Apples were part of wedding feasts – the bridal couple ate an apple before bed to bring “fruitfulness” or fertility to the marriage.
The Romans learned from the Greeks. They developed large, sweet apples by grafting – fusing two different trees by using buds or twigs at the root – to create new varieties. Apples became a favorite, spread throughout the vast Roman Empire.
Famous poets like Virgil, listed 14 varieties of apples. Romans ate them fresh, dried, as a relish, or cider. According to the New Nationalist, Roman armies carried apples across Europe, “planting pips [seeds] wherever they settled.”
Apples were considered symbols of good and evil, love and magic, superstition, folklore, and biblical stories.
Think Adam, Eve, and the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. Remember the Grimm Brothers fairytale about Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, and the evil queen’s poisonous apple? How about the apple that hit Isaac Newton on the head when he discovered gravity?
Apple pie was inevitable. It originated in England, using immigrant ingredients like wheat (Middle East) and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg (Sri Lanka and Indonesia).
The first printed apple pie recipe was in Englishman Samuel Pegge’s 1391 book, The Form of Cury. It was a far cry from what we eat today. Sugar was expensive so it was sweetened with figs, raisins, pears, and saffron. It was made in a pastry called cofyn, used as a container rather than a pie crust.
Apple pie immigrated to the American colonies with the English, Dutch, and Swedish settlers. It wasn’t very popular until the sweeter European apple varieties, brought to the New World, started bearing fruit.
The early settlers used apples mostly for cider. Recipes for two early apple pies appeared in America’s first cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons in 1796.
Then there was Johnny Appleseed.
Most of us love the legend of the man who spread apple seeds around America. Appleseed was a real man, born in Massachusetts in 1774 and named John Chapman. Chapman/Appleseed was a nurseryman who set up many apple orchards throughout the land. Most of his trees produced small, tart apples used for cider and applejack brandy. (see below).
By 1800 Americans were growing different varieties of apples that were sweeter, larger, and perfect for pie.
During the Civil War both Union and Confederate soldiers scavenged for apples. John T. Edge wrote in Apple Pie: An American Story, “wartime adversity fixed the taste of apple pie on the palate of generations to come.”
J.T. knew his pie.
In the early 1900s, apple pie became a symbol of American prosperity. During WWI the Boston Daily Globe claimed that a soldier’s craving for apple pie was the same as his “hunger for democracy.”
The misleading saying, “American as apple pie” soon surfaced. A 1928 New York Times even used it to describe the homemaking skills of First Lady Lou Hoover, wife of the President.
By WWII apple pie was associated with mom, home, love, and American democracy. The recipe for “Victory Apple Pie” was adapted to meet wartime rationing. Henrietta Nesbitt wrote in her Presidential Cookbook that Franklin Roosevelt considered apple pie an “All-American favorite.”
Like Stephen Colbert, Host of The Late Show said, “I’m more American than apple pie. I’m like apple pie with a hot dog in it.”
Today 36 million Americans say apple pie is their favorite too – with or without a hot dog – along with celebrities Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Julia Roberts.
There are over 7,500 varieties of apples. You can visit The Big Apple (NYC) or celebrate the annual National Apple Pie Day. Check out Amazon’s 5,000 results for apple pie or a cozy mystery like Meredith Potts’ Apple Pie with a Side of Murder.
That’s some side.
Have your pie warm or cold; dress it up with ice cream, whipped cream, or sharp cheddar cheese. Snuggle with a cozy apple mystery. Remember, an apple (pie) a day keeps the doctor away.