Uncovering Pie in American History

Kate Greenaway, “A- Apple Pie,” 1886. National Museum of American History.

As American as apple pie.

It’s a cliché phrase, but it still conjures up images of baseball and the old timey American way. Even though there’s a decent amount of scholarship indicating that apple pie isn’t exactly a traditional American food (apples aren’t even native to North America), Americans have used this phrase since the early 20th century to imagine the best of traditional mainstream American culture.

In 1903 the New York Times reported “pie is the American synonym of prosperity and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons…with apple pie for all the year round.” Pie was as symbolic as it was delicious: “Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.”

Mary Mutz baking an apple pie on the ranch, Colfax County, New Mexico, 1943. Library of Congress.

A generation later pie made an appearance in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as the Beat writer made his way through the American heartland: “But I had to get going and stop moaning, so I picked up my bag, said so long to the old hotel keeper sitting by his spittoon, and went to eat. I ate apple pie and ice cream—it was getting better as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer.”

The origins of pie in America go back to its colonial days. Like other desserts we eat today, pies were a food with a utilitarian purpose- long-term preservation of perishable foodstuffs. Mostly intended to keep animal parts longer, particularly blood, pies were mixed dishes contained in a crust for solidity and protection from the decay of time.

Historian Abigail Carroll writes that in the 18th century pie crust, today an important part of the pie eating experience, was “a mere edifice, a tasteless container for the contents, initially referred to, not all that inappropriately, as a ‘coffin.’” Pie crusts were little more than a simple mixture of water and rye or unbolted wheat.

In 1759 a missionary in rural Delaware remarked “house-pie, in country places, is made of apples neither peeled nor freed from their cores, and its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it!” Pies were also designed to preserve their contents even through multiple meals- crusts were made so a hungry eater could open and close, using clarified butter or other fats to reseal the crust and protect the insides from air. Hardy and built for function, America’s first pies demonstrated the hardscrabble life early European settlers encountered in the New World.

Advertisement for “Lloyd J. Harriss Pies,” 1947. Library of Congress.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that American pies slowly started to resemble the tasty desserts we have today. Pies were caught up in what Carroll calls “a larger cultural trend, a shift away from frontier rusticity toward a European gentility.” European immigrants imbued American food customs with refined cooking techniques and relied heavily on the oven (a kitchen tool absent from many colonial frontier homes). Americans eagerly ate up cosmopolitan European foods. By the 19th century, American pies looked and tasted nothing like the hard working pies their forefathers made.

White Migrant Family Eating Lunch of Blackberry Pie on the Highway East of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, 1939. Library of Congress.

It didn’t take long for Americans to forget the ancestral, working-class roots of their pies either. In 1914 the Bamberg Herald (South Carolina) published this flavorful article titled “Is Pie Vanishing?”

This is the question asked by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It depends on what he calls pie. If he means one of those tough things, mostly crust, and with a modicum of fruit, it ought to have vanished long ago. Then some housekeepers understand the art of making tough pastry about as hard to digest as rubber dumplings. That is not pie. It is the delusion and snare. It is an insult to the lover of real pie.

When you set about making a pie use select fruit. Poor, immature fruit will not make a first-class pie. After the fruit is selected the pastry is the next consideration. This should be made so that it will be crisp and melting. Then the fruit should be properly apportioned. The baking demands special attention. It should be a delicate, rich brown color, and then you will have a genuine pie. Such pies will soon vanish in any well regulated family. Can you imagine anything better at the close of one of these days than such a pie and a pitcher of creamy sweet milk? A portion left over for breakfast is not hard to take. Good pie, well made from good fruit, will never vanish while men of good gastronomic taste remain, and while there are some children around who have a chronic hunger.

Today, hardscrabble pies are absent from American collective memory. Its like the first pie sprang straight from heaven, sweet and delicious, onto the American dessert table. Small wonder that “as American as apple pie” resonates with those of us who don’t know the real history of pie.

Looking back into American history, we now know that defining “American” is complex and defies any single definition. Same goes for pie.

But if you think about it, don’t the old and newer types of pie both belong in our imaginings of American culture? I think the many uses, appearances, and evolutions of pie in America represent us much better than one single apple pie. Do you?

Pie Eating Contest, 1921. Library of Congress.

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