It’s that time of year when Americans gather together for the holidays and eat pie again. Personally, that’s a big reason it’s my favorite time of year. And that got me thinking about the phrase we’re all familiar with: “As American as apple pie” which is usually employed to describe something that is absolutely, positively American, such as Jazz, or baseball. But a closer evaluation shows that apple pie didn’t originate in America at all, and only one of its ingredients – salt – could be found in America prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
To begin with, the key ingredient — apples – aren’t American. Apples, Malus sieversii, originated in central Asia. It’s believed that Alexander the Great first encountered them in Kazakhstan and brought them with him to Macedonia in 328 BC. From there the Romans, during the expansion of their empire, introduced them to England, and from there, 500 hundred years later, the pilgrims carried them with them to the New World.
But these early American apple orchards weren’t very productive. Before an apple tree can produce an apple its blossoms need to be pollinated and America’s native honey bees, Apis mellipona, just weren’t active enough to pollinate very many blossoms.
European Honey bees, Apis mellifera, were first brought to America in 1622. They are much more productive than America’s native bees. An American honey bee produces less than one kilogram of honey per year, whereas a European honey bee produces about 50 kilograms per year.
Apple orchards in America flourished after the introduction of the European honey bee. Interesting sidenote: Once the European bees reached America many of them escaped and formed wild colonies, but they couldn’t spread west of the Rocky Mountains on their own, due to the altitude and cold. They didn’t make it west of the Rockies until pioneers carried them across with them.
Then your pie is going to need some sugar. Sugar cane is indigenous to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Europeans first encountered granulated sugar, which they called “sweet salt” during the crusades on their visits to the Holy Land. Some returning Crusaders brought some sugar cane reeds with them and cultivated them. Prior to that honey was the only available sweetener. Sugar cane was introduced to America in the 18th century, when large sugar plantations were established in the West Indies.
You’ll also need some flour, to thicken up your filling, and as the main ingredient in your crust. Wheat, from which your flour is derived, is believed to have originated in the region known as the Fertile Crescent, which includes Mesopotamia, and the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (today’s Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, and Palestine) and Egypt, along the upper Nile.
Wheat reached Greece by 6,500 BC, Germany and Spain by 5,000 BC, and England and Scandinavia by 3,000 BC, and was brought to America by its earliest pilgrims.
Next you’re going to need some lard and butter to finish your pie crust, and for that you’re going to need a pig for your lard, and a cow for your butter. Yes, America has its own species of native pigs, called peccaries, or javelinas, which potentially could have yielded lard, however, most lard used by Americans came from the domesticated pigs they brought with them from Europe (modern recipes for apple pie call for shortening rather than lard and shortening is derived from a variety of products, most of them vegetable-based).
And the butter, which pie makers add to their crusts and their pie filling, is derived from the churned milk from their cattle, which were first domesticated in Mesopotamia.
And, of course, you’ll need some spices for your apple pie.
Cinnamon, which is obtained from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, originated from Sri Lanka. Nutmeg comes from the nut of an evergreen tree indigenous to Indonesia, and cloves, which are the flower buds of another evergreen from the family Myrtaceae, also come from Indonesia.
Not only do the ingredients of apple pie not originate from America, apple pie itself first originated in Europe.
The author Lee Edwards Benning explains in his book “Cook’s Tales” that apple pie originated in Europe and various apple pie recipes migrated to America with the pilgrims.
The writer Caitlin Sklarz says in her essay “The History of Pie” that Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook included 43 different recipes for apple pie.
According to Sklarz the typical European version of apple pie had only a bottom crust and a thin filling of apples. They called their crust a “coffin” because it resembled a coffin in shape. It wasn’t meant to be eaten, but merely served as a container for the filling.
The American version of apple pie that we’re all familiar with a thick layer of apple filling and an additional top-crust was invented by the Dutch, who added sugar and spices to their crust to make them more enjoyable to eat, and it was also they who first started calling the crust “crust” writes Sklarz. The Dutch who migrated to America naturally brought this recipe with them.
Apple orchards didn’t truly flourish in America until after the European honey bee was introduced in America, but after that apple orchards – and apple pie – flourished as well, and every region of America had its own version of apple pie.
Author Frederick Klees, author of “The Pennsylvania Dutch” believes it was during the American Revolution that the Dutch version of the apple pie with its deep filling and latticed, sweet top-crust became the apple pie of choice for Americans. “It may be that during the [American] Revolution men from the other colonies came to know this dish (apple pie) in Pennsylvania and carried this knowledge back home to establish pie as the great American dish.”
What is quintessentially American about apple pie is our ability to borrow something we like, put our own stamp on it by adding to it our own improvements, twists and variations. If we don’t invent it, then we re-invent it even better than it was before, and there is nothing more American than re-invention. Every generation in America has done it.
Now that I know the origins of apple pie I can’t think of anything more symbolic of the Great American Melting Pot than apple pie.
And something else Americans are particularly good at is inviting their family, friends and strangers to sit at their table, and slicing up the pie and sharing it with all.
And there’s nothing more American than that.