Why is Apple Pie so American?

It is pie season in New England, where apple pie is primus inter pares (first among equals). I am a fortunate enough pie lover to have had a neighbor bring me a slice for breakfast. As I sipped my coffee and ate a slice of the best apple pie in the world, I wondered about America and apple pie for breakfast.

Is there a more culturally appropriate time to eat pie? I have heard that pie for breakfast is a time-honored tradition of farmers and outdoorsy types. A quote by either E.B. White or Robert Frost puts it this way:

To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.

To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.

To northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.

To easterners, a Yankee is an New Englander.

To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.

And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.

There it is! I’m a Yankee! So, definitely American, by all accounts. But what of the pie? How did apple pie become so American? Has it always been American? Aren’t other countries famous for pie?

We went to the Smithsonian for some answers. First of all, pie did not originate in the U.S., neither did apples. The American Pie Council (yes, there is such a thing) tells us, “The first pies were made by early Romans who may have learned about [them] through the Greeks. These pies were sometimes made in “reeds” which were used for the sole purpose of holding the filling and not for eating with the filling.” Sounds like a tamale. Yum. And apples originated in Central Asia and were brought to North America by European colonists. (http://www.piecouncil.org/events/nationalpieday/historyofpies)

Most early pies, those with crusts, were the meat pies favored by the English as early as the twelfth century. “The crust of the pie was referred to as “coffyn”. There was actually more crust than filling. Often these pies were made using fowl and the legs were left to hang over the side of the dish and used as handles. Fruit pies or tarts (pasties) were probably first made in the 1500s. English tradition credits making the first cherry pie to Queen Elizabeth I.” (ibid)

So, we’re getting closer, but still not as “American as apple pie.” TheCultureTrip.com suggests that apple pie was brought to the States by Swedish, Dutch, and English immigrants. “But interestingly enough, the dish was declared ‘uniquely American’ by settlers rather than noting its true cultural origins.”*

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in in 1869, “The pie is an English institution, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.”** And then there’s this famous pie quotes comes from a 1902 article in the New York Times: “Pie is…the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our industrial supremacy. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.” But it wasn’t until World War II that America and apple pie really came together. When asked by journalists why they were going to war, soldiers supposedly replied, “for Mom and apple pie.”

So, there it is. As American as apple pie. Is it a matter of culinary appropriation? I think not. As the Melting Pot of so many cultures, it is only natural that something as “American as apple pie” should come from abroad. Think of pizza and hamburgers – both uniquely American, and both successful immigrants.

Bon Appétit.


Further Pie Reading:
*The Culture Trip: https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/a-brief-history-of-apple-pie-in-america/

**NPR: Salt: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/03/482854462/as-chinese-iranian-and-indonesian-as-apple-pie