When we reflect on our American heritage, images of baseball, the Statue of Liberty, bald eagles, and perhaps most often, apple pie, immediately come to mind. But apples aren’t indigenous to America, so why is our identity so inextricably tied to this flaky dessert?
Apples came to America via the Pilgrims. Apples date back thousands of years across Europe and Asia, where the tree likely originated. By the 1600s, England had more than 70 varieties of apples, and some of these seeds were brought over on the Mayflower. The first apple seeds were planted in the Massachussetts colony in 1625, and cultivation quickly became widespread, with over 14,000 varieties by the end of the 1800s. Though few of these varieties are still grown today, America remains one of the world’s largest apple producers.
Pies were also an import brought by the Pilgrims, but not what we would think of today as pie. Instead, pie crusts were used more as an airtight storage vessel to carry and preserve fillings such as fowl, venison, or beef. When fruit was involved, it intermixed as a savory flavoring with the meat rather than as a pie in its own right. Made from course flour and suet, pie crusts were hard, thick, tough, and virtually inedible, as the French had not yet introduced butter to the American diet. Contrary to popular belief, there were no modern-die pies (apple, pumpkin, or otherwise) at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
Historian Janet Clarkson wrote that “[f]ruit pies started to come into their own during the sixteenth century as sugar became cheaper and more delicate forms of pastry were available.” As America expanded west, the spread of apples was helped immeasurably by John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, who, by the late 1700s had planted apple trees all along the frontier. Pioneers who followed in his footsteps dried and preserved the apples for food, made cider, and transformed the apples into brandy and applejack, both valuable trading commodities.
By 1860, the phrase “as American as apple pie” was already in use, though cooks seemed well aware of the pie’s foreign roots. In her 1869 novel Oldtown Folks, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that “the pie is an English tradition, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.”
As the modern pie grew more popular, a 1902 newspaper article proclaimed that “No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.” This may have been part of a marketing push by apple producers, whose efforts also popularized the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Decades later, when journalists asked soldiers why they were fighting World War II, a common slogan was “for mom and apple pie,” which gave rise to the phrase “as American as motherhood and apple pie.” By the 1960s, the phrase had mostly dropped the not-unique-to-America idea of motherhood.
So, apple pie as the quintessential American product may be an apt metaphor after all – it was brought here from foreign shores, was influenced by other cultures and immigration patterns, and spread throughout the world by global affairs. Today, pie reflects the agricultural diversity of the country, from Maine’s official state dessert blueberry pie to Florida’s key lime. But it all began with apples, which, in the nation’s infancy, were grown on almost every farm.