That 'American' apple pie actually goes back to Europe in the Middle Ages

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Marco Werman: I’m guessing that many of us will be having apple pie before this day is through. It’s one of those traditions that gave rise to the phrase “As American as apple pie.” But really, every culture that’s ever come in contact with an apple has at least thought about wrapping it in sweet dough and baking it. So, just how American is apple pie? I asked food historia Rachel Laudan. She’s the author of “Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History.”


Rachel Laudan: Pie came to America with the first English settlers. It was an absolutely essential dish in northern Europe from at least the Middle Ages on and they couldn’t have contemplated life in the new world without this basic item of their cuisine.


Werman: So, those pies in northern Europe, what were they putting in them?


Laudan: Meat, fish, eggs; pie, after all, is another word for package. Before you had baking tins, pie pans, the crust serves as something that you can bake in. So, wrapping something in a crust allowed you to make this wonderful, handy, single meal.


Werman: So, savory pies really. You’re not saying that there were many sweet things out there in northern Europe. That gets us back to apple pie becoming associated with this American ideal, “American as apple pie.” How did that start?


Laudan: There’s no good story about when the phrase came around, except it’s very late, it’s 20th century. We’ve got recipes in Europe and England for apple pies that go back to the Middle Ages, and by the beginning of the 19th century, Jane Austen, the novelist, can say “Good apple pies are a considerable part of domestic happiness.”


Werman: I didn’t know that. I’ve got to remember that.


Laudan: You should bear that in mind when you’re thinking about domestic happiness.


Werman: So, the French have this tarte tatin, which is an apple pie upside down cake. So, they already started something sweet with apples, right?


Laudan: Right. Apples are absolutely essential in northern Europe because they keep through the winter; they’re the only fruit that does so without sugar. But they also get turned into hard cider. Where you can’t make wine and where beer is a bit complicated sometimes to make, cider is the drink.


Werman: At one point in this country’s history, a lot of apples were being used for cider and then at some point there was a die-out of cider and a bringing in of apple pie. How did that transition happen? When did that happen?


Laudan: That happened in the late 19th century. There was a growing movement for beer. There were a lot of German immigrants and the big beer companies -- Budweiser, Schlitz, Pabst all were setting up beer brewing on an industrial scale. Then, of course, prohibition.


Werman: Was there ever any movement to get people to just eat apple as a hand fruit and not do anything with it? It’s still a great piece of fruit.


Laudan: The apple growers were in trouble in the late 19th century because their market was declining. So, they embarked on advertising campaigns and it’s said that the tagline “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was one of the advertising slogans to try to persuade people to eat fresh apples.


Werman: A whole campaign? That’s where that line came from? How did apple pie become associated with Thanksgiving?


Laudan: When Sarah Hale persuaded Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in the 1860s, instead of just a New England holiday, she was very insistent, when she wrote about it, that it was to be a meal for all the American people. It was not to be a national meal celebrated by diplomats or aristocrats or the rich. That would have been a French meal and it would have had a fancy dessert, like a mousse or a crème. But this was to be an American meal for all citizens, and therefore apple pie and the other pies are citizen’s ordinary, everyday dishes.


Werman: What’s the best apple pie you’ve ever had?


Laudan: My mother’s. Isn’t that always true?


Werman: My mother did a great baked Alaska, but I don’t remember her apple pie.


Laudan: Oh, well my mom did a great apple pie.


Werman: Happy Thanksgiving Rachel, and I hope you enjoy your apple pie.


Laudan: Thank you Marco.


Werman: Food historian Rachel Laudan. She’s the author of “Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History.”