The American History Of Apple Pie, Progress, And Plymouth Rock

Take anything away, but leave the pie. Americans can stand the prohibition of intoxicating drinks. But, I believe the prohibition of pie would precipitate a revolution.

David MacRae

We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.

David Mamet

Lancaster Pie And Coffee Apple Pie

Apple Pie And The American Revolution

Nineteenth-century physician F. W. Searle, argues that the American Revolution would never have happened had it not been for the influence of pie, a dish often served as breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack in the colonies. A learned doctor, Searle wrote about pie as though it were the stuff of Arthurian legend, crediting it with the colonies’ “indomitable perseverance, never failing strength, and don’t-know-when-your beat courage” and predicting that “when the history of New England shall be written in that spirit of careful investigation and research, and with that calm and dispassionate temper, which ought to animate every historian, then it will undoubtedly be found that the indigestible pie has exerted a mighty influence in the development and utilization of the resources of our country and that pie and progress have always gone hand in hand.”

Searle believed “that a certain amount of irritation within ‘the inwards’ of a man” made him tougher and more resilient. American pie tended to irritate a man’s inwards “just sufficiently to make him wide awake, resourceful, and aggressive,” and calling pie “indigestible” was a compliment.

Boston Tea Party

“The brave men who made up the Boston Tea Party,” he writes, “and who defied the whole English nation rather than pay an unjust tax, were pie-biters from Boston. The bands of untrained stragglers who defeated a disciplined army at Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill sprung from the Puritan stock, introducing and making the American pie famous. The history of New England shows conclusively that this Yankee pie is a mighty stimulator of energy and conducive to vigilance, aggressiveness, and longevity.”

This was all published as scientific fact in 1898’s Journal of Medicine and Science. Searle describes the history of pie as having just been largely forgotten. Indeed, the love of all pies plays an important role in the American history of apple pie. The apple pie is the ultimate symbol and product of American independence. Representing the innovation, experimentation, and excess of the American experience.

The Origin Of The Apple Pie Recipe

What makes it so American is not lineage. The first crude apple pie recipe was found in 1381 in England. The apple originated from Central Asia’s mountainous regions known today as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Scientists believe birds and bears first transported the original Tian Shan apple seeds out of Kazakhstan. Then, sometime during the Roman Empire, the first Europeans discovered apples growing in Syria. They were central in dispersing them worldwide, using the Silk Road as a means of transport from East to West. The Romans were the first known culture to practice the skill of grafting. This is the selective breeding of apple trees to get the size and taste of the apple they prefer.

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed

In the 1600s, apples made their way to North America from England. Crabapples were the first to travel and preceded European colonists to America. Crabapples are not edible in their raw form. For the Colonists, they were used to make beverages or as an ingredient in other recipes. The Massachusetts Bay Colony requested seeds and cuttings from England and brought over on subsequent voyages to Boston. Other Europeans brought apple stock to Virginia and the Southwest,

A Massachusetts man, John Chapman (September 26, 1774 – March 18, 1845), became famous for planting trees throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. You might know him by his nickname, “Johnny Appleseed.” As a young man, in the mid-1790s, he worked to plant apple orchards during the height of the Whiskey Rebellion. The cause was a so-called “whiskey tax,” the first from President George Washington on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government.

Pies Before American Apples

The British and our independence, thus liberating it from the tyranny of British cooking, which at the time consisted primarily of pies stuffed with birds and nightmarish sea creatures. Consider the British eel pie, lamprey pie, pigeon pie, and swan pie, traditionally served cold.

People Used To Eat Pie With Hands Or Two Knives

Forks were not common before industrialization. Most people ate with their hands or a set of two knives. Many early European pie recipes brought to America called for keeping the bones inside, as this gave diners something to hold on to. Meanwhile, to “close” the pie meant closing the “coffyn” which the British appropriately called their inedible crusts. This wasn’t an insult or a jab. Their crusts were intentionally inedible. Thick, hard, and meant to be tossed uneaten. The crusts were viewed merely as disposable vessels for baking, handling, and storing their innards without modern bakeware or aluminum foil. It was not until the modern tomato pizza, invented in the 1700s that people started eating crusts. This is why British pie crusts are thicker and harder today than American crusts.

The History Of The British Pie

When the English did use apples in their pies or elsewhere, they treated them largely as vegetables, adding them to various meat concoctions alongside onions or potatoes. Even English applesauce was savory rather than sweet. Called Apulmose, it was traditionally made with beef broth or, during Lent, with cod’s liver. Picture eating a disgusting apple sauce made during the Middle Ages in Europe.

Magpies The Namesake Of Pies

So pie, in pre-colonial England, was largely utilitarian and was far from being a delicacy or dessert. It was a convenient way of congealing various bits of bird and beast into something portable and relatively stable. Like a sandwich, you could take it with you. Its name comes from the magpie, a crow family member commonly colloquialized as pie in the Middle Ages. However, it is unclear whether this namesake was about baking magpies in coffyns or the birds’ reputation for stealing random objects to incorporate into their nests. Magpie nests and early pies would have closely resembled each other with rustic layers and golden-brown coloring.

The Very First American Pies

There are reasons the first few years of America as a colony of Great Britain were called the “Starving Times.”  The staggering number of early colonists who starved to death did so not because of a lack of food but because of a lack of skill in acquiring it. The Colonists were unwilling to heed the advice of the natives, whom they saw as uncivilized savages. They were reluctant to try new foods. Birds surrounded them they couldn’t catch, fish they couldn’t hook, deer they couldn’t shoot, and corn they were afraid to eat. Initially, they survived by eating whatever they could scavenge, which often meant acorns, ants, bats, cats, dogs, horses, and boiled shoe leather.

Crisis Turns Into Opportunity For The Apple

It was in 1608 that these issues became a crisis. Leading to countless deaths from starvation and malnutrition. Out of this terrible fate for the European Colonists came a new cuisine. A uniquely American cuisine that could disregard the cooking traditions of the past and make something new. Within a generation, people ate better in the New World than in the Old World Europe they had left behind. Young Colonists and those born in America acquired a taste for New World foods, learned the skills, and built the equipment to acquire food.

New ingredients were turned into recipes, including lobsters, fruits, birds, crabs, and muscles. Francis Higginson, the first Puritan minister of Salem, wrote in 1629 of lobsters being so great, fat, and luscious and the waters so full of them. Others describe lobsters six feet long, weighing up to twenty-five pounds, and washing up on beaches in piles two feet high. All this was while most of Europe was living on bread and porridge. The same abundance held true for crab, mussels, bass, salmon, flounder, and herring. Others describe great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of one another. John James Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Boston Tea Party

Tea Forced Onto Colonists By The British

So, there was plenty to eat in terms of quality and quantity. In fact, in 1765, several years before the Boston Tea Party, a writer in London pompously argued that colonists would never survive without British tea. Suggesting it was the only decent food staple the colonies had. Which prompted Benjamin Franklin, of all people, to pen an open letter in response:

Benjamin Franklin

Does he imagine we can get nothing else for breakfast?

Did he never hear that we have oatmeal in plenty, for water gruel or burgoo; as good wheat, rye, and barley as the world affords, to make frumenty; or toast and ale; that there is everywhere plenty of milk, butter, and cheese; that rice is one of our staple commodities; that for tea, we have sage and bawm” in our gardens, the young leaves of the sweet hickory or walnut, and above all, the buds of our pine, infinitely preferable to any tea from the Indies; while the islands yield us plenty of coffee and chocolate? Let the gentleman do us the honor of a visit to America, and I will engage in breakfast with him every day in the month with a fresh variety without offering him either tea or Indian corn.

Apples Bring Cuisine Of The Colonies Worldwide

Many of the fruits and vegetables the colonists found were native. Others, such as figs, lemons, limes, and oranges, had been planted earlier by the Spanish. Then, the colonists brought their own, including apples brought from England. The first apple seeds arrived in the colonies on the Mayflower in 1620, where they would prosper more in a generation than they had in the entirety of European apple history.

By the late 1700s, the colonies were growing more apples of higher quality than anywhere else. An undefined number were sent worldwide by shipping them overseas on a massive scale. America grew a diversity of better apples never experienced in Europe and Africa. Like the colonists, the New World had shaped and transformed them. The colonies gave birth to seventeen thousand new varieties, not including the countless experiments that weren’t appealing or worth cataloging. The apple became the best and most unique food export. Sharing the taste of the soil, climate, untamed wilds, and geographic diversity in every apple exported overseas.

This is the main takeaway from the history of Britain and American pies and apples. America was ripe for a change of cuisine during the middle 1700s. First, the Colonists had already passed through the difficult 1600s with the starving times. In the 1700s, Colonists rejected tea and other commodities coming from Europe. At the same time, Americans wanted to distinguish themselves by inventing new cooking methods. Finally, farmers like Johnny Appleseed started cultivating more varieties of apples than had ever been seen before.

Hard Apple Cider

Initially, hard apple cider was served not just as the national beverage of the colonies but also as a currency for barter. The average colonial family generally consumed a few hundred gallons of it annually. However, into the 1800s, the American history of apple pie shows it became a staple of the colonial diet. Particularly in New England. The short growing season and the long winters meant that many fruits were sugared and preserved. By 1775, one in ten New England families, mostly farmers, had a cider mill on the property.

The fibrous apple held up much better to this than other fruits. In contrast, softer fruits like raspberries and strawberries lent themselves more to soft jams and pastes. Apples could be dried and reconstituted months later for pie filling with a minimal loss of quality.

Wholesale Apple Rings, American history of apple pie.

Apple Pie For Every Meal?

“The great beauty of an apple pie breakfast, aside from its power to generate indigestion,” writes R. K. Munkittrick in 1891, “lies in the fact that it doesn’t leave behind it several dishes thickly incrusted with ham grease to be cracked with a hammer or melted off over a candle.” They were kept well, sealed off from the air, and preserved with sugar. These thick pies traveled well, being protected by crust. They could easily be baked ahead and grabbed in the morning, so they met the demand for convenient, on-the-go meals Americans would become known for. During a time when the British were becoming increasingly proper, emphasizing decorum, etiquette, and social hierarchy.

Originally, tea became popular in Great Britain because coffeehouses were restricted to men only. America’s apple pie showed the world a new form of liberty and freedom, unencumbered by pomp and circumstance. Women could drink coffee for breakfast, hard cider, or melted bear fat in a world without limits.

“The pie is an English tradition,” writes Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1869, “which, planted on American soil, ran rampant and burst into an untold variety of genera and species. Not merely the old traditional mince pie, but a thousand strictly American seedlings from that main stock, evinced the power of American housewives to adapt old institutions to new uses.”

The Invention Of Pie Crust

Among those adaptations was the transformation of the pie crust. Wheat was initially scarce in the colonies, particularly New England, forcing colonists to stretch their crust until it became flaky. Making American crusts not just more edible but also more appetizing.

History Of Apples Red Apples

Colonists elevated and transformed pie to the point that it became “the great American institution.” Writes Charles Dudley Warner in 1872. “The pie was so ubiquitous in the colonies that its absence would have been more noticeable than a scarcity of Bibles. The American history of apple pie was founded by men and women who had pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In addition, they usually had a slice or so before going to bed at night,” reads a 1922 editorial in The Nation. “The only time they did not eat pie was when they were asleep, at work, or in church.” Take notice of the date of this article. In 1923, The Prohibition Law was passed in America, making hard apple cider illegal. Leaving more apples than ever to bake pies.

Apple Pies Make Their Way Into The American Cultural Fabric

In 1865, British journalist George Augustus Sala wrote in his diary of America that “the real social curse of the Atlantic States is Pie,” “that an unholy appetite for Pie works untold woes,” and that “the Pie fiend reigns supreme.”

“The sallow faces, the shrunken forms, the sunken eyes, the morose looks, the tetchy temperament of the Northerners,” he writes, “are attributable not half so much to iced water, candies, tough beefsteaks, tight lacing, and tobacco-chewing, as to unbridled indulgence in Pie.”He went on this for four pages, later accusing American girls of taking pies to bed with them.

Meanwhile, Rudyard Kipling, the British author of The Jungle Book who moved to Vermont in the late 1800s, called New England “the Great Pie Belt” and questioned the “moral and physical condition of a people which eats pie for breakfast, pie for dinner, pie for supper.”


American Apple Pie Takes Center Stage

During an 1889 debate on the national flower, a Milwaukee journalist even suggested that the United States abandon its search for a symbolic flower and look instead to apple pie-it being more substantial and indicative of American life than a flimsy plant:

What’s the matter with the apple pie as a national emblem? The apple pie grows in every section of our beloved country, varying in thickness and toughness of crust, it is true, but always characteristically American. In the homes of New England, in the smack-houses of the South, on the lunch counters of the North, at the wayside stations of the towering Rockies— everywhere in this vast country, the flaky or leathery crusts include the spiced fruit of the apple tree. Every true American eats apple pie. It is substantial, it is satisfying, it is hard to digest. And therefore, it is no light and trifling symbol of America’s solid, satisfying, and tenacious life.

American Apple Pie Is A Symbol Worldwide Of The Best And Worst In America

That foreigners mocked America’s apple pie was another key selling point:

Another thing in favor of the apple pie as a national emblem is that it is hated, reviled, and feared by foreigners, just as our great Republic has been. Like our free institutions, the apple pie has held its own against the whole world. The French pate, the German coffee cake, the English tart, and the Scotch oat cake have all been offered as substitutes. Equally important, on every loyal table, the apple pie holds its place of honor.

The author then closes by suggesting:

We should go further than to make the apple pie the national flower. We should embody in the Constitution of the United States a requirement that no foreign immigrant should receive his final papers of naturalization until he eats an apple pie in the presence of the Court.

More Apple Pie Talk From Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin would have been on board with this, having imported American apples by the barrel while living in London and introduced the English to the Newtown Pippin. This variety would singlehandedly convince the queen to lift the tariff on American apples.

Apples, meanwhile, are inherently diverse. They can be white or brown, pink or yellow, red or green. Maybe mixed or speckled, streaked, or russeted. They can be fat, round, pear-shaped, coarse, or chalky.  Sometimes sweet, sour, or bitter. Add them to the pie, and they become the catalyst.

It is in the 1900s that you could trace the use of the ‘as American as Apple Pie’ saying. Pie is immoderate, overindulgent, unrefined, and potentially inflammatory, but so is America. New England winters, Fourth of July cookouts, declaring independence, dumping shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor for a taste of liberty.

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