On Wednesday I talked about the peculiarly American concept of “Pie a la Mode” (well, that name’s peculiarly American, not the combination of pie and ice cream, which is seen the world over) and mentioned how the classic version of this is a combination of apple pie and vanilla ice cream. In fact, I pointed to the popular saying “as American as apple pie”. But does this really make sense as a phrase? I mean, quite a few other countries have apple pies.
Neither pies nor apples, at least in the way we think of them, are native to America and apple pie recipes over here long predate European colonists moving there. In fact, the earliest apple pie recipe in English appears in the earliest recipe book in English, the ever useful Forme of Cury, written around 1390. In this book, written by the Master Cooks of Richard II, the recipe is as follows: “FOR TO MAKE TARTYS IN APPLIS. Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel ybrayed colourd wyth Safroun wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.”
In America, apple pies do not appear in recipe books until 1796 when Amelia Simmons included two recipes in her American Cookery. Given that this is the first cookbook written by an American, though, this is still pretty early.
Apple seeds were brought to America by the early colonists, who found only crab apples growing there naturally, and they were part of the cargo on the Mayflower. However, in the absence of honey bees to pollinate the trees their orchards did not flourish until honey bee colonies were also brought over from England.
According to the Americans’ own folklore, apples were really popularised in the early 1800s by John Chapman, known popularly as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was something of an eccentric businessman known for planting apple nurseries across the American Midwest, mostly for making cider. He has become something of a pop history icon as a result. A missionary for the Swedenborgian New Church, Chapman thought that he would be rewarded in the afterlife with two wives.
So, by the 19th century apples and apple pie were a staple of the American diet, but where does the notion of being “as American as apple pie” come from? Some sources suggest the phrase dates all the way back to the 1860s, but it seems more likely to have been a product of the 20th century. The popular explanation is that it stems from the image of Second World War American GIs fighting for “Mom and apple pie” as an image of what is quintessentially American.
Ironically, apple pies have always been popular in Germany and may even have been popularised in America by the early German settlers. The Nazis may have been all about burning books, but had they conquered America they almost certainly wouldn’t have been burning pies. Indeed, the image of “Mom” at home baking pies for her strapping soldier son is awfully similar to the Nazi ideal of a woman’s life revolving around Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, the kitchen and the church).
Wikipedia even goes so far as to suggest that “as American as apple pie” may have been invented by the Apple Marketing Board. If only the Pumpkin Marketing Board had been more on the ball, we could be saying “as American as pumpkin pie”, at least squashes are native to North America.
What is it to be as American as apple pie, then? It’s about immigrant cultures importing the symbolism that makes them think of their own home and reconstituting it as an icon of their new world. These days America is the major producer and consumer of apples and apple pies. They may not have invented them, but it’s probably true that in this day and age nowhere loves apple pie like America.