If America had a national dessert, it would be apple pie.
Growing up in our house, no holiday meal was complete without the fruit-filled pastry, and to this day it still has to be made with the recipe my mother learned as a young U.S. Foreign Service wife almost 50 years ago. You risk serious family scorn if you attempt to alter the ingredients in any way.
That sense of heritage surrounding my family’s attachment to apple pie got me thinking about America’s abiding love for the fruity tart.
A 2014 survey commissioned by the American Pie Council found that pie is Americans’ preferred dessert for special occasions, with apple pie taking the top spot when it comes to America’s favorite pie.
But America’s devotion to the baked confection goes beyond the delicious taste of flaky, buttery crust encasing sweet-tart, cooked, spiced apples.
“It’s just one of those symbols that captures what American life is,” said Chef Gary Welling, an instructor at the International Baking and Pastry Institute at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. “There’s something about it, it’s classic, it’s comfort, it’s a feeling of home. There’s a lot of nostalgia centered around apple pie.”
Apple pie has come to be associated with all things American, like baseball, the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam. And somewhere along the away, it also emerged as a symbol of American pride and prosperity.
American soldiers might have helped grow the myth during World War II. When asked why they were going to war, the stock answer they reportedly gave was, “For mom and apple pie,” which later morphed into the American expression, “As American as motherhood and apple pie”.
Despite apple pie’s ascension as a key symbol of Americana, there’s some disagreement about whether the beloved national dessert is actually, technically, well…American.
“Apple pie originated either in England or the United States, probably the United States because in England, they were still putting other fruit in there, pears, and various other things,” said Tom Nealon, a food writer and rare book dealer in Boston who specializes in old cookbooks. “As an expectation, that an apple pie would just be apple, I think it is definitely an American thing.”
Many would argue that apple pie hails from across the pond. The first recorded apple pie recipe was written in England in 1381, and included figs, raisins, pears and saffron, in addition to the apples.
When the colonists arrived in North America, they found only crab trees, so apple seeds had to be brought from England to be planted. A man named John Chapman, who later became known in American folklore as Johnny Appleseed, helped accelerate the spread of apples across America by planting extensive orchards.
Thousands of varieties of apples came of this effort. Consequently, while the earliest Americans were all making apple pies, the types of apples they used varied.
“It’s sort of this great allegory for America, you know, apples trees springing up and everybody was making apple pie and you could go anywhere and get apple pie with slight local variations,” said Nealon. “You have this giant mixing bowl of different apples…but you never hear anyone talk about it like that. I think it was just intuitive that everyone came to America, and planted apples and we all made pie.”
One of the earliest known references to apple pie in America came from a Swedish parson named Dr. Israel Acrelius, who settled in Delaware and described apple pie in a 1759 letter home.
The oldest American apple pie recipe Nealon has identified is from Amelia Simmons’ 1796 cookbook, American Cookery, which is widely viewed as the first American cookbook.
But maybe it doesn’t matter where apple pie originated. In America, at least, it’s really more about where apple pie has ended up.
“When you say that something is ‘as American as apple pie,’ what you’re really saying is that the item came to this country from elsewhere and was transformed into a distinctly American experience,” wrote John Lehndorff of the American Pie Council.
Whatever the symbolism and emotion associated with apple pie, the fruity pastry continues to occupy a cherished place in American culinary history.
While a good apple pie involves selecting the correct types of apples along with the right sweetness and mix of spices, Chef Gary Welling believes there’s another key ingredient that makes apple pie special to so many Americans.
“I know it’s corny to say, but I really think it’s the love that people put into it,” he said. “The apple pie is really quite basic, but it’s the love and the care that people put into it that makes it really good.”