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Apple Pie Is Not All That American

Neither apples nor the pie originally came from America, but Americans have made this dish their own

Today, apples are one of the most valuable fruit crops in the United States, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. (iStock)
smithsonian.com

Apple pie is a longstanding symbol of America, but the dessert didn't actually come from America, and neither did the apples.

Apples are native to Asia, and have been in America about as long as Europeans have.

According to Melissa Blevins for Today I Found Out, the early colonists of Jamestown brought European apple tree cuttings and seeds with them. The only native apple in North America was the crab apple, and the colonists found its tiny fruit “a poor substitute for Malus domestica.” Settlers primarily used the apples to make cider, which was preferred to water as a drink and easier to produce than beer, which required labor-intensive land clearing.

Later in America’s colonial history, planting trees was a good way to preserve a land claim; colonists who didn't "improve" their land in some colonies, like Virginia, could have it taken away from them.

It’s hard to say which varieties of apple first came to America, because there are so many. Apple trees are easy to cross-pollinate, meaning that deliberately producing new apple varieties is relatively simple. By 1800, writes Tim Hensley for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, American farmers were growing a mind-boggling 14,000 varieties of apple, many of which had been bred in the country.

The first apple varieties raised in the United States were intended for cider, not eating, which means they were more tart. But by 1800, writes Emily Upton for Today I Found Out, some of those 14,000 varieties of apple were a good fit for apple pie. Around the same time, John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed, had brought the apple to American folklore fame. “Chapman’s beloved apples became ‘American’ by association,” she writes.

The 19th century "was a time of unparalleled public interest in new fruit varieties," Hensley writes, "when apples, pears and peaches were critically reviewed and rated with the enthusiasm now reserved for Hollywood movies and popular music." 

Americans had made the apple truly their own. But the apple pie isn’t a uniquely American dish either, Upton writes. “In fact, the first recorded recipe for apple pie was written in 1381 in England, and called for figs, raisins, pears, and saffron in addition to apples,” she writes. There were other differences, too: early apple pie recipes generally didn’t include sugar, and their pastry crust was “coffin” pastry, which was intended as an inedible container, not a part of the pie. There are also recipes for Dutch apple pies as far back as 1514, she writes.

The actual genesis of the expression is harder to track, Upton writes. In 1902, a newspaper article wrote that “no pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.” A 1924 advertisement appearing in the Gettysburg Times promotes “New Lestz Suits that are as American as apple pie.” And by World War II, Upton writes, the association was cemented. American soldiers would tell journalists that they were fighting for “mom and apple pie,” Upton writes, giving rise to the expression “As American as mom and apple pie.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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